| Magazine Feature |

Bridging the Divide  

With a war raging as his tenure ends, Chief Rabbi David Lau faces the most loaded issues of his career

Photo: Flash 90

Rav David Lau is in the final month of his ten-year term as Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel. He leaves his post with so many existential issues facing the country still unresolved: the war to uproot Hamas from Gaza, the continuing protests in Tel Aviv, the lack of a draft law for chareidi yeshivah students. But through it all, his charge has been clear: The role of the chief rabbi is to reach each and every Jew

The haunting scene took place just before our interview in the Chief Rabbi’s office. A young war widow, whose soldier husband died without leaving children, had arrived for the chalitzah ceremony.

Over the past six months, the once-rare rite has tragically become commonplace. Until October 7, chalitzah would normally be performed before the dayanim in the Great Rabbinical Court of Appeals. But Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Rav David Lau noticed that the widows felt awkward in that setting. So he began offering to host the ceremony in his office, lighting a memorial candle and explaining that chalitzah is a kind of farewell, an extension of the Jewish practice of sitting shivah.

When the widow who arrived before our interview was asked to lean against the wall, she leaned against a pillar on which the picture of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz”l has hung for the past decade.

“Rav Shlomo Zalman, whose boundless love of the Torah, Am Yisrael, and the soldiers putting their lives on the line were all closely linked, would have happily deferred and considered it a great zechus,” said Rav Lau, removing the picture from the pillar.

This is the final month of Rav Lau’s ten-year term as chief rabbi. His replacement will be elected soon. On the eve of the final Shavuos of his tenure, I sat down with him in his office for a special interview that said as much about the status of the chief rabbinate as it did about the state of country.

We’re sitting down moments after a chilling chalitzah ceremony. In past wars, we’ve seen many cases of agunos, and stories are told to this day about Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s efforts to free them. How is it that the issue hasn’t come up during this war?

Am Yisrael has gone through an unbelievably difficult period over the past six months. But at the same time, thanks to the holy and dedicated work being carried out by so many, and despite the fires, the mutilation, and the pure evil we’ve encountered, we haven’t had a single agunah since the start of the war.

Identifying all the bodies is an almost impossible task in a disaster of such a scale.

There were questions of identification, but we did everything possible to ensure that the bereaved women could at least have certainty, and in the civil aspect as well, I had the zechus to provide help and give the right instructions. We have had one or two questions, but these were questions of identification.

Including those who were abducted to Gaza and about whom we have very little information? Isn’t that a state of uncertainty from the standpoint of halachah?

Without going into the details, I can say that we’ve been able to obtain the information required to achieve certainty. It must be understood that given the scale of this terrible disaster, the IDF rabbinate has done an amazing job on both the military and civil fronts to ensure that there isn’t a single agunah. It’s almost incomprehensible, given our experience in previous wars.

We opened our conversation on chalitzah right after the mournful ceremony that took place in your office. In the current environment, with the relationship between religion and state so fraught, the ceremony of chalitzah itself also has the potential to stir up strong emotions. How would secular people even know about it, or connect to it?

This is my place as a rabbi, to know how to approach people and explain that this is another part of saying goodbye. Sadly, this isn’t the first time I’ve performed a chalitzah ceremony in my office, even though the Great Court is just two floors above me. We do it here out of sensitivity, attentiveness, and concern for the feelings of both the brother and the wife. The procedure is painful. It’s a rav’s duty to carry it out with maximum sensitivity, but I can say that one feels every time that the deceased is here with us and is saying thank you for this parting.

“Rav Shlomo Zalman would have considered removing his picture a great zechus”

Today Is Different

Rav David Lau fulfills two dictums of Chazal: “bara kar’a d’avuha [a son is his father’s foot]” and “bara kala d’avuha [a son is his father’s voice].” Rav David’s voice resembles that of his father, former chief rabbi Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, the famous Holocaust survivor who now heads Yad Vashem. Given that his father is a symbol of the Jewish People’s rebirth after Churban Europa, Rav David is qualified to assess the claim that we endured a second Holocaust on October 7.

In a month when Israel marked Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day, there’s a feeling that this year, the State of Israel, which was founded on the slogan “Never again,” experienced a Holocaust, even if only for one day.

I have to stop you there. The Holocaust, it isn’t. The Holocaust was a unique and particular event, in which a nation undertook the murder, destruction, and extermination of the entire Jewish People, without a single exception.

Hamas also undertook our extermination. Their desire to destroy us is identical to the idea of Nazism’s Final Solution. It’s only the capabilities of these modern-day Nazis that are different.

But it is different today, and I’ll tell you why. After the disaster, I went to visit families of evacuees who managed to escape. I spoke to them, and they described the terror and agony of being locked up in their safe rooms for hours.

I told them: “Look, when my father and other Jews in the Holocaust emerged from hiding, who was waiting for them? The Germans, or their Polish collaborators. You were able to emerge from hiding because your brothers and sisters stood outside and called out ‘Shema Yisrael,’ so you’d know they were Jews. So there’s no comparison.”

But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that there are hostages who have been in captivity for over six months, and no one is calling “Shema Yisrael” to them. There are families who have harsh complaints against the Israeli government for abandoning its citizens and continuing to ignore them. Does the Rav identify with that feeling?

First of all, I meet and see the families constantly. We say the names of the hostages in every davening. At every chuppah I hold, I ask the guests for a minute’s silence to daven for our brothers and sisters in captivity.

But let’s be honest for a moment. In my opinion, there’s not a single citizen in this country who doesn’t want the hostages returned home. Unfortunately, we’re in a bitter struggle against a cruel enemy who has no problem tormenting us and playing on our deepest emotions.

And in the face of such an enemy, it has to be asked: How were we abandoned? Where was the IDF in those moments?

That’s a question that has tormented all of us for more than six months, both the families of those who perished or of those who were kidnapped, and also those who spent hours in their safe rooms in mortal danger.

To them I say, “There’s no doubt that everything will be investigated and examined in an orderly manner, but can you call it a Holocaust? Your brothers and sisters showed up to try to rescue you, and the country is still dealing with challenges that no other country in the world faces. But we have a place to be, so let’s keep some sense of proportion.”

This was a horrific disaster and it needs to be thoroughly investigated. Many lives were lost, we’re facing an enemy that doesn’t conceal its intentions and is fueled by a desire for annihilation. But the Holocaust, this wasn’t.

Weighing the Risks

Having avoided political issues for the past decade, over the past few months the chief rabbi has found himself up to his neck in them, being asked to declare whether the obligation of pidyon shevuyim overrides the danger involved in mass release of terrorists. The Mishnah’s pronouncement, “Ein podin es hashevuyim yoter al kedei demeihen, mipnei tikkun olam [one must not pay an exorbitant price for the release of hostages in order not to incentivize hostage-taking]” has never been a more loaded issue than now.

For some reason, the debate over whether to prioritize victory in the war or bringing the hostages home is now split along the right-left divide. From the halachic perspective of a chief rabbi of Israel, does the value of pidyon shevuyim take precedence over everything else?

The value of pidyon shevuyim is very, very high, but you always have to sit down and make a calculation. And this is where the professionals have to weigh in: Does the risk outweigh the chances of success? What’s the bigger danger to human life, and which option will save more lives?

It seems that the question today has become as political as professional. So halachically at least, it’s interesting to hear what the Rav thinks as the head of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

I reiterate that this is a question for the professionals. As far as politics is concerned, let’s leave that aside. I don’t enter into those matters, and this shouldn’t be a political question at all. This has to be a realistic, facts-based discussion.

But let’s remember that we’re talking as if Sinwar were standing at the entrance to the Erez or Kerem Shalom Crossing, saying, “Please, take all the hostages from me already.” Let’s not forget for a moment who we’re talking about. As for the halachic question, we need to weigh and fully comprehend the risk to life that will ensue from every course of action.

And the central question from the point of view of halachah is the degree of certainty that the hostages would actually be saved.

Saving lives is the main consideration. The risk to the lives of the hostages is certain, but you have to consider what the chances are of actually getting them back, and what future risks would result from the price you pay for a deal. And this is a question for the professionals.

I want to emphasize that I’m talking not only about those whose lives are at risk, but also about those who need to be brought to Jewish burial. An important part of any arrangement must be that we also take care of the unfortunate ones whose families want to bring their remains to proper kevuras Yisrael. I know that all the elements of the civil and military rabbinate are doing everything possible to try to bring them to burial, and every second we’re not helping the families is a crying injustice. But any action we take must not be based on right-left politics but on an honest evaluation of the chances of success versus the risks.

The World Is Silent

For years, Israel’s chief rabbis have worked to establish contacts with leaders of other religions, with the aim of forging a united front against anti-Semitism, transcending faiths, continents, and peoples. Over the past six months, in the face of the worst wave of anti-Semitism since the Holocaust, it seems that these longstanding efforts and connections have also gone up in smoke.

Where are all the leaders you cultivated relationships with, now that we need them?

That’s a question I’ve been asking them for over six months. I’m in contact with many religious leaders, including Muslim clerics, and I’ve made very clear appeals to them to make their voices heard. I asked them this very question. Where are you? Make your voice heard! Everyone’s concerned about humanitarian aid to the residents of Gaza — where’s the humanitarian concern for the hostages? Where are all the religions leaders who seem to have lost their voices? This question needs to reverberate everywhere.

It’s not just about the Arab world. We hear the shouts in the Western world as well. There’s a sense that Jewish victims haven’t been made into the aggressor in such a fashion since the blood libels. We haven’t seen anti-Semitism raise its head like this since the 1930s.

With great pain, I agree with every word. In one meeting I held in the European Parliament, I met with the president of the EU and with EU foreign ministers and I told them: “I want all Jews to come home, I want them all to live in Israel, but as long as they stay with you, you must ensure their safety and freedom to practice their religion. There’s no way you allow a Jew to be afraid to wear a kippah in Europe. It’s your responsibility and your obligation to ensure their safety and freedom to live.”

But just like 80 years ago, the world is silent. What do you expect from Jews all over the world who read your words?

I tell them that we must not be silent and we must continue to cry out. I said to the EU president and foreign ministers: How can you stand by when innocent people are pulled out of their homes? Can anyone forget that dozens of innocent civilians were kidnapped from their homes in their pajamas, young men and women, adults and children? I expect the whole world to cry out. The world is silent, but we Jews all over the world must cry out from every corner, every quarter, without fear.

Don’t Let Them Down

“A chief rabbi must be everyone’s rav,” says Rav Lau on the verge of completing his decadelong tenure. “The moment an issue becomes politicized, I have no choice but to take a step back, because my worldview is that a rabbi belongs to everyone, and the role of a rabbi, especially a chief rabbi, is to reach each and every Jew.”

As someone who watches his words and is careful not to wade into controversial topics, how does the Rav live with the growing feeling that we’ve learned nothing from the terrible massacre of Simchas Torah, with the polarizing and divisive discourse returning to the forefront?

I don’t want to tell you that you’re right, because I’ve been working all my life with a different goal in mind. But sadly, I do fear that we’re making every possible mistake, and this pains me a lot. We have to remember that the last time everyone lived together in peace was in Noach’s time, on the teivah. But that can’t serve as our ideal, because back then there was no choice — there was a flood outside, and working together was the only way to survive. I pray for the days when we can live together because we understand that it’s the right thing to do.

How can rabbinical leadership make an impact? Too often there’s a sense of detachment and perhaps even a lack of understanding of public opinion, both in this country and around the world.

I try to make an impact all the time. I did it before October 7 and I do it now. As Chazal taught us, “Just as their faces are not the same, so their opinions are not the same.” HaKadosh Baruch Hu created the world in such a way that each person has his own face and own opinion. We can talk and try to persuade each other, but only through speech, and with mutual respect. The problem starts when you can’t talk to each other.

When his brothers sold Yosef into slavery, we see that the situation started with “v’lo yachlu dabro l’shalom [and they could not speak to him peaceably].” I want a world of togetherness, of caring, of concern for one another, but not a world where everyone has the same opinions. I don’t hate you because your face is different from mine, and I don’t have to hate you because your views are different from mine.

Is it possible that there’s nothing more to expect from the current leadership, and we’ll have to wait for a new generation of leaders, possibly from among the ranks of the soldiers returning united from the front line?

I don’t want to discount the entire current leadership. But as someone who tries to reach as many circles as possible, I too often seem to encounter the same faces as before. But I don’t despair, and I believe our people is a lot healthier than it looks externally. We’re much more connected.

I walked among IDF soldiers both inside and outside Gaza. I saw the soldiers, all united. When they come home on leave, they can’t understand what we’re doing. So let’s not let them down — let’s be like them. The Torah says, “binaareinu u’vizkeineinu neilech [with our youth and with our elders we shall go],” and we interpret this to mean that the youth go in the footsteps of their elders. But right now, I would put the young first: Let’s look at the young and learn from them.

If they can fight together, we can learn from them how to live together.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1014)

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