By Donald H. Harrison
Photos: Alon David
SAN DIEGO – In a discussion laced with stories from Torah, Talmud, Jewish history and his own rabbinic family’s experiences, Rabbi David Lau, Israel’s Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi, described his plans on Tuesday, Jan. 13, for outreach to Israel’s poor and for resolving the problem of establishing Jewish identification for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Answering questions both from Rabbi Moshe Leider of host congregation Chabad of University City, and from members of a standing room only audience, Lau said he is in the process of bringing together 1,0000 young rabbis (typically, ages 40 and under) from around the world to fan out to every corner of Israel to engage families in Jewish life. These rabbis, he said, should “be there when people need to be warm in their houses, when people need help with circumcision, when people need help with bar mitzvah… with weddings, conversions.” In situations when a wife who is converting to Judaism wants to go to the mikvah, he said, “the wife of the rabbi will go with her, so she doesn’t come alone.”
More than one million Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union have settled in israel and for many their religious status is unclear, Lau said in answer to another question. He estimated that 20 percent of these immigrants are Christians, and want to remain so, adding that they should have full rights as Israeli citizens. He also estimated that fully 70 percent of the immigrants will be proven to be Jewish through examination of vital records.
What is needed, and which should not be too expensive, he added, will be for the chief rabbinate to obtain archival records from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and in South America, to map the Jewish cemeteries of these places, and to establish the family histories of these immigrants. For the remaining 10 percent, he said, conversions may become necessary.
Lau also spoke about other religious groups in Israel, giving particular emphasis to the Druze people, who join the Israel Defense Force and help defend the country. He said he feels more government services must be provided for Druze villages, where he said he is ashamed to see water running in the streets.
Rabbi Leider, in his folksy way, said that one of the things that drives him “crazy,” when he visits Israel is the disunity he finds among Jews. He asked what could be done about it. Lau, who is a reserve major in the IDF, says he personally engages in outreach, speaking at secular schools as well as at religious schools. “”When we sit and see each other and see the eyes of each other, we can understand each other better,” he said. “We can have a lot of disagreements but if we see each other we can understand we are brothers and sisters, and because of that we can succeed.”
As part of his answer, Lau invoked several stories from Torah. If it is a brotherly relationship with others that is being sought, he said, which brothers shall we choose as an example? Certainly not Cain and Abel. Nor Isaac and Ishmael. Nor Jacob and Essau. Nor Joseph and his 11 brothers. One has to read all the way to the end of Genesis before encountering Ephraim and Manasseh.
“Manasseh was the elder, he saw Ephraim had the best blessing from Jacob, but Ephraim didn’t envy his brother,” said the chief rabbi. “Because of that every Friday night I bless my children, may they be like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
The next set of brothers in Torah whose relationship was worthy of emulation, taught the rabbi, were Aaron and Moses. Moses was younger than Aaron, and during much of the time of Egyptian oppression he had been out of Egypt, yet he was the one who was chosen by God to lead the Israelites. The rabbi said “it would have been easy for Aharon (Aaron) to be jealous of Moshe (Moses), but Aharon loved Moshe and he looked after him.” In Israel today, and throughout the Jewish world, one needs the examples of Ephraim and Manasseh, and of Moshe and Aharon, he said.
Rabbi Leider then noted that there are “a lot of angry Jewish women in the world, and in Israel. How can we involve more Jewish women in Jewish life?” The chief rabbi responded with a parable. If Moses were to come back today and would need tefillin, he said, “I can give him mine because it is exactly the same thing he had after Mt. Sinai.” The fact that Jewish “rules” are enduring is part of Judaism’s power, he said. He said he didn’t know what the world will look like in 3015, or which countries would be ascendant, “but I know one thing, I am sure that like 2015, in 3015 you will find Jewish families lighting the candles of Shabbat.”
But though the rules cannot be changed, he said, interpretations of what those rules are can change over time. He said that the first Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, Rav. Abraham Isaac Kook, said that women should not vote in elections. Today, he added, women’s suffrage is taken for granted. He said that further change is more likely to come with time, rather than as a result of pressure.
A questioner from the audience sought Rabbi Lau’s opinion about President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestine Authority being in the front ranks of leaders, along with Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, marching in Paris to protest the recent spree of murders in Paris by Islamists. He responded that he would like to see Abbas also remove the invective and hate from the textbooks of Palestinian school children, saying that the textbooks for Jewish children include no parallel words of hate.
The chief rabbi said that he meets four times a year with leaders of the Muslim and Christian communities, and on one thing they all have agreed is that no one has the right to say that killing is in the name of God.
Some of the evening at the Chabad Center in University City dwelled on Rabbi Lau’s remarkable family. His father Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau was the chief rabbi of Israel from 1993 to 2003, and his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchok Yedidya Frankel, served earlier as the rabbi of South Tel Aviv.
He said that his father decided to go into the rabbinate after hearing stories about the respect and love the people of South Tel Aviv had for Rabbi Frankel.
At that time, he noted, South Tel Aviv had some very poor neighborhoods, in which houses were built with easily flammable wood, rather than stone. When fires would break out, as they occasionally did, people from the nearby neighborhood would line up at the door of Rabbi Frankel’s stone house to ask that he please store their most prized possessions for safety—whether these be charms, or silver, or family photos. “They felt that this is a clever and warm man and that we can bring things to his house” and “my father told me that was the moment for him to decide to be a rabbi, and to try to be a rabbi like him. He succeeded, and now I hope to succeed this way.”
On two occasions, Rabbi Leider seemed delighted to be corrected by Rabbi Lau. Leider said he understood that Lau in 2013 became the youngest person at 47 to be elected chief rabbi. “No,” Lau said, the youngest was Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, the second Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi (whose son Chaim became a general, an ambassador, and later President of Israel). “But,” said Lau, “it’s a compliment, thanks!”
Another correction came when Rabbi Leider said he heard that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, told Lau’s father that he would become the chief rabbi of Israel.
“I’m sorry, I need to correct you,” said Rabbi Lau. “I have to add two words.”
Rabbi Schneerson actually had predicted that the senior Lau and “his children” would serve as chief rabbis, Rabbi Lau said.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. Your comment may be placed in the box provided below or sent directly to the author at [email protected]