Alon Tal
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David Lau won’t be everyone’s rabbi

David Lau, a strong candidate for chief rabbi of Israel, has a history of intolerance towards non-Orthodox streams of Judaism

The upcoming election for Israel’s chief rabbis is rapidly approaching, revealing several power struggles within the Orthodox world – most notably between the Zionist nationalist camp and the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) non-Zionists. Recently Rabbi David Stav, Shoham’s sensible municipal rabbi, from the former camp has taken an early lead in attaining political support from the Jewish Home party. Stav promises a range of reforms, from improved accessibility in the rabbinate in matters of conversion and marriage to transparency in issuing Kashrut certificates. Yet, David Lau, son of the former chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, is emerging as a competitor – with speculation that the Likud party will back him.

It shouldn’t.

Lau is the chief rabbi of Modiin and has a record of intolerance that should be highlighted. Even as he claims to be part of the moderate, national-religious camp, David Lau was educated in the ultra-Orthodox world, dresses like a Haredi and generally appears to concur with the growing hostility in Orthodoxy towards any form of non-Orthodox Judaism.

For example, as the city’s chief Rabbi, he was invited to speak to students at a local high school about Jewish tradition. He readily agreed – but when informed that the talk was part of a panel that would include a Reform and a Conservative Rabbi he castigated the school for such Hutzpah and slammed the phone down in consternation. Heaven forbid he should be seen on the same stage with such subversives. Yet, in promotion of his candidacy he boasts that he will be a “chief Rabbi for all.” One wonders why in his many years as a municipal rabbi he never once agreed to set foot in the city’s thriving Reform Temple or speak to its highly esteemed Rabbi. One local Modiin Conservative synagogue is relegated to praying in a bomb shelter while another uses a kindergarten. They are off of Lau’s radar screen. As a local I can confirm that he definitely is not a Rabbi for all of Modiin’s citizens.

It is a very positive sign that Israeli society has become increasingly alarmed at the growing Orthodox extremism that marginalizes women, with a compulsive obsession for modesty and gender separation. Yet, it is not yet sufficiently aware or critical of Israeli Orthodoxy’s long history of enmity towards Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism and its rabbis.

Occasionally the press will pick up a particularly egregious example. This was the case when then President of Israel (and now convicted rapist) Moshe Katsav refused to call Rabbi Eric Yaffe, the venerated head of the American Reform community, “Rabbi” during his visit to the president’s house. (In retrospect, the slight probably only added to Rabbi Yaffe’s stature.)

But the battle over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall is in fact but a symptom of a much larger pathology where ultra-Orthodox leaders demonize the different streams in Judaism. The most extreme vandalize Reform synagogues, openly claim that the Holocaust was a punishment against Reform Judaism as it was born in Germany and spit and hurl refuse on women who have the audacity to don talit and tefilin – much as Rashi’s daughter did every day. The mainstream Orthodox simply impose a very mean spirited boycott. Any kind of contact, might, God forbid, be interpreted as conferring legitimacy.

Sadly, Israeli polarization has been exported and raises its ugly head beyond the Mediterranean across the Jewish world. During a recent sabbatical in California, I was stunned to discover an increasing number of so-called liberal “modern Orthodox” rabbis who refuse to participate in any public events with their non-Orthodox Rabbinic colleagues lest they antagonize their congregants and jeopardize their jobs.

The notion of Klal Yisrael – respect and love for all Jews – is a central tenet of Judaism. The chief rabbis of Israel should be a symbol of the ethical integrity of the third Jewish commonwealth. They need to set the tone for interactions between different components in the rich theological and cultural mosaic that Judaism has become. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be proud of Israel’s chief rabbis, who like President Peres, embody all that is inspiring, brilliant and admirable in our ancient tradition?

Ultimately, there are two kinds of Jews: those that take their history and identity seriously and those who don’t. It would be well for Orthodox leaders, and the Chief Rabbi in particular, to realize that Jews who take their non-Orthdox Judaism very seriously are not the enemy. By perpetuating divisions and fanaticism, the voices of Orthodox polarization do a disservice to a fundamental aspect of this tradition that embraces all Jews, even if they do not share the same convictions. This, after all, is part of Israel’s core principles as expressed in its Declaration of Independence and the Law of Return.

Elections for Chief Rabbi take place only once every ten years. It is critical that the new Chief Rabbi depart from the present trends of prejudice and fanaticism that have come to characterize large segments of the Orthodox world. For those who agree, feel free to electronically sign a petition to that end. And for the politicians, the message should be clear: David Lau has shown that he is part of the problem. Voices of moderation need to elect a Chief Rabbi who brings the Jewish people together and celebrates the diversity and forbearance which has been the cornerstone of Judaism from time immemorial.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.