Chief Rabbi David Lau puts his career on the line to stand up for halachah
Photos: Elchanan Kotler
Of the unbroken, thousand-year long chain of rabbinic history that current Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau represents, only the last two generations are immediately obvious in his modest office near the entrance to Jerusalem.
The portrait of his grandfather, Rav Yitzchak Yedidiah Frenkel — a former chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and major influence on the boy then known as Dudi — hangs over the desk, both in reality and in spirit.
And in the velvet lapels of his rabbinic frock coat, and the way that the current chief rabbi mixes substance and anecdote, it’s not hard to detect the trademark style of his father and predecessor-but-one, the venerated Rav Yisrael Meir Lau.
But even if the long-gone generations don’t get a seat around the table, the full weight of all those rabbinic ages reveals itself in a few sentences that frame the painful situation that he’s now in — one that few of Rav David Lau’s ancestors could have contemplated.
“If the Knesset would enact a law forcing a doctor to sign that a person who has high fever is totally healthy, do you know a doctor who would obey?” he asks rhetorically. “If the Knesset enacts a law that it is not necessary to build a building with cement, would an engineer agree because it’s the law?
“I am entrusted with upholding the standards of halachah, continuing the chain of rabbanim throughout the generations,” he says with quiet emphasis, shoulders squared. “Is it conceivable that someone should order me to sign something that I believe to be halachically wrong?”
Not a man given to hyperbole, the chief rabbi isn’t exaggerating. Courtesy of the conversion reform bill now being pushed by the Bennett government, which seeks to dilute current standards by allowing local rabbis to oversee conversions, that is the choice he could soon be forced to make.
“The minute giyur operates outside of the Chief Rabbinate,” says Rav Lau, explaining the severity of the threat to halachic conversion, “then when ten Jews stand in Itzkovitch or Zichron Moshe, you’ll have to ask each one, ‘Who converted you?’ It will split the Jewish people.”
For months, Israel’s chief rabbi, a man of measured speech, stayed silent even as the Bennett government — in a three-front alliance of Reform, secularists, and the liberal wing of the National-Religious world headed by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana — mounted an unprecedented assault on the standing of the Chief Rabbinate.
As other rabbinic and public figures attacked the controversial moves to liberalize kashrus provision in Israel — laws that went into effect last week — Rabbi Lau kept his counsel, preferring behind-the-scenes interventions to public attacks.
But two weeks ago, he broke his silence with a bombshell move.
“With great pain I want to inform you,” he wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Bennett, “that if the conversion bill proceeds, I will be forced to remove my oversight from the conversion system and will immediately stop certification of conversions.”
It was the nuclear option. Backlash from Finance Minister and arch secularist Avigdor Lieberman was both predictable and fierce. Representing hundreds of thousands of voters — both from the right and left — who resent what they call “religious coercion” in the form of Orthodox control over personal status and other aspects of public life, Lieberman accused the chief rabbi of extortion and called for his ouster.
As he abandons the path of quiet diplomacy, Chief Rabbi David Lau faces the unknown: While the government seems to have backed away from other flashpoint struggles in its bid to reorder religious life in Israel, notably Reform recognition at the Kosel, it appears determined to press ahead on the issue of conversion, a high priority for Lieberman’s Russian-speaking voters.
That’s where Rav Lau thinks that Diaspora opinion could be critical to the debate in Israel.
“The minute rabbanim abroad announce that they will not be accepting the certificates issued in Israel, that the decision will cause a rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, I think that it will clarify the issue for those who don’t understand it.”
“It’s a Churban”
It was a previous occupant of the office one above us — that belonging to the Rishon L’Tzion, the Sephardic chief rabbi — who gave Rav Lau perspective on the pursuit of halachic leniency and how to handle the type of crisis that has come to a head on his watch.
“The day after I was chosen as chief rabbi,” says Rav Lau, who at 55 has been in the position for eight years, “I went to visit Rav Ovadia Yosef. And gesturing to the seforim behind him, he said ‘Do you see these shelves? Turn over every stone, but all within these shelves.’ ”
That pithy formulation of the balance between leniency and integrity in the halachic process guides the twin-headed Chief Rabbinate — the second half of which is, of course, Rav Ovadia’s son, Rav Yitzchak Yosef.
But the current move to liberalize conversion, says Rav Lau, has made that balance untenable. He points to two major faults of the new system.
First is the move to “democratize” the giyur process, by handing authority to hundreds of local municipal rabbis, effectively creating a two-track conversion system.
There are currently four regional departments in the Conversion Administration — north, south, center, and Jerusalem. What’s proposed is the creation of a new municipal rabbis department to allow local rabbis — including rabbis of moshavim — to run conversions.
Advocates of the reforms maintain that these powers are the prerogative of rabbanim throughout Jewish history. They point out that until 1993, when the current conversion system was established, local rabbis were able to oversee conversions.
“It’s a churban for Klal Yisrael,” argues Rav Lau. “Because while the Rabbanut system has high halachic standards, the new authority is specifically intended to be more lenient.
“I’ll give some examples of complaints that proponents of more lenient standards have against the conversion framework. We require that when someone comes to convert, their spouse also has to be a factor in the decision whether to allow the conversion to proceed. The reason is that where the partner does not keep Torah and mitzvos, it’s unlikely to be a sincere conversion.
“I also require at least a year for the process of conversion, because I want to see seriousness. There is a teshuvah from Rav Meir Simchah of Dvinsk, the Ohr Somayach, that with regard to a man there is a leniency if he wants to convert. If he is ready to undergo milah, showing he is willing to suffer, then that shows he is serious. I want to see in this year that there is seriousness.”
The new system, he says, is intended to sweep away these standards, as part of a drive to ramp up the pace of conversions. It will inevitably encourage “conversion tourism” in search of the lowest halachic entry point.
Besides crossing into halachically-problematic territory, the second threat is untoward pressure on the integrity of the conversion process when it’s handled at the local level.
“Although there was a time when city rabbanim did conversions,” continues Rav Lau, referring to a window between the early 1970s and 1993, when that was the norm, “there were major issues resulting from local pressure to further the conversion process.”
In fact, it was a series of scandals involving bribery of local rabbis and bureaucrats in the conversion process in the 1990s, that convinced then-Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron that giyur should be handled by independent batei din at arms-length from local communities.
“I’m certainly not saying that a rav who wants to oversee conversions is suspect in any way,” Rav Lau is quick to clarify, “but the pressure that has occurred in the past to approve conversions is far less likely when the process is handled by a dayan, who comes and does his job and isn’t part of the community.”
For a sense of what lies in store if laissez-faire principles were to be applied to Israeli giyur, says Rav David Lau, look at the Wild West that can exist beyond its borders, where conversion tourism is an established phenomenon.
“When I entered this position, I discovered that there are rabbis from Israel who travel around the world and do conversions,” Rav Lau relates. “One day, three rabbis came to Brussels and converted 20 converts. I asked those rabbis a simple question: In conversion, you need to know me’ayin basa — what is this potential convert’s seriousness, and to what extent does he grasp that there is Hashem in the world? Two, le’an atah holech, what are the chances of him keeping the Torah? So I asked those rabbanim, ‘when you’ve just popped over to run conversions, how can you know those things?’
“In Moscow, there were some people whom the local beis din didn’t accept as converts, so they boarded a plane to a city in Europe and were back the next day with certificates signed by three rabbis. How is such a thing possible? Where do these dayanim know the me’ayin basa ule’an atah holech of the convert? I didn’t approve the conversions, and the process stopped.”
At the beginning of his term, Rav Lau announced that he would accept conversions only from the local rabbinate in each place. In Europe, he created expanded jurisdictions for some batei din such as that of Rav Reuven Ohana in Marseille, whose jurisdiction extends to western Switzerland, and Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu of London, who traveled to Scandinavia to sit down with the rabbanim there to guide them.
Given the level of state sanction that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate enjoys — wielding power to refuse entry to a get refuser in America, for example — the Rabbanut at its best operates as the linchpin of a global halachic architecture.
It can be compared to the role that the American Treasury plays in international finance: The threat of secondary sanctions on companies only tangentially involved in breaking the sanctions regime on Iran has been enough to deter most investment in the Islamic Republic.
That role as global halachic policeman is now under threat, says the chief rabbi.
“Rabbanim in batei din all over the world have reached out to me, pleading to preserve conversion as it is,” he relates. “Community rabbis abroad don’t have a monthly salary from the government. They come under pressure from community leaders to be more lenient. They tell us, ‘Today, we tell everyone exerting pressure on a particular conversion case that if our conversion is not accepted by the Chief Rabbinate, then what is it worth? This helps us withstand the pressure.’
“These rabbis tell me that if standards in Israel are breached, then in their countries those standards will be destroyed.”
What’s the Rush?
If “Family Lau” had a thesaurus entry, the word “consensus” would appear early in the list of synonyms.
That should be obvious to anyone looking at Rav David Lau’s office walls, a bit further along from the ancestral portraits immediately over his desk.
On one wall, next to a bookcase and small conference table, hangs a picture of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (“He used to ask me to drop in when I was in the neighborhood to take messages for my father.”) Opposite, over a black couch, are portraits of the Rabbanut’s founders, Rav Kook and Rav Herzog.
In short, Rav David Lau, like his father before him, is a consummate bridge builder. He is a Chevron Yeshivah graduate, who spent years as municipal chief rabbi of Modi’in, a majority-secular city; he is someone who interacts with gedolei Yisrael, and grew up in a home at ease with the state’s upper echelons.
Legally barred as a public servant from criticizing the government, he’s also not given to attack different sides of the religious spectrum.
And that’s what makes the chief rabbi’s sounding of the alarm so unprecedented; while he refuses to be drawn on the political side of things, or speculate how Matan Kahana, a kippah-wearing minister, is spearheading the reforms, he calls out the naivety behind the moves.
“There shouldn’t be any illusions that this is what will save Am Yisrael,” he says, a tacit response to Kahana’s call on national TV a few months ago for lenient conversion standards “to prevent intermarriage here in Israel.”
“To someone who deludes himself into thinking that he will cut part of Judaism, and through doing that, people will accept Judaism, I say that people seek out the truth.
“I say this with pain. I remember that once, when I was a boy growing up in Tel Aviv, a person came to my father, asked to close the door, and broke down in tears. His daughter was involved with a non-Jewish man, and oy vey, he was crying that she was about to marry him. That was once.
“Today, regretfully, the media praise a singer or actor who is involved with a non-Jew. These are things we didn’t have in the past. Today, what is this delusion that all these people are in a hurry to convert? They are happy to be citizens, but that’s it.”
It’s that type of wishful thinking about people’s motivations to convert, says Rav Lau, that permeates so much of the problematic giyur activism.
“When three of the rabbis who are said to be on the proposed conversion panels traveled to Uganda a few years ago, one of them told me that they converted two tribes of more than 200 families. He described the primitive conditions that they lived in, with no water or electricity. ‘But they sang and prayed with us so nicely!’ he said.
“So I said to myself — why shouldn’t they sing?” continues the chief rabbi. “If they get to come to Israel and get absorption benefits, why shouldn’t they? Do you really know that they want to be Jews? Maybe they do, and maybe there is some ancient tradition, but it’s that enthusiasm to convert them that’s the problem.”
None of the above, of course, will stay the hue and cry raised by the anti-Rabbinate lobby, who senses the opportunity of a generation in the current government, which has finally handed power to a coalition of the status quo’s detractors.
But the chief rabbi has a simple solution to those who think radical solutions are needed to stanch the wound of intermarriage in Israel: Close the gates.
“When I came into the position eight years ago, I made a comment that made headlines in the Ha’aretz newspaper, in which I called for a change in the Law of Return because according to the Interior Ministry alone, the majority of olim weren’t Jewish, even according to a non-halachic definition. If you feel so strongly that there is a problem, then maybe first of all, close the door to the problem.”
The preponderance of non-Jewish aliyah over the last few years is an open-secret, but one that surprisingly finds almost zero political traction even on the right. That, says Rav Lau, gives the lie to all the talk of the desperate need to stem assimilation inside the country. “Why bring them? What’s the mitzvah of looking for others to bring here?”
As for the large numbers of non-Jews already in the country, such as those from the former Soviet Union who have no wish to convert, the chief rabbi says that citizenship has nothing to do with conversion.
“They have full legal rights — what does a religious marriage have to do with it? That is only between a Jewish man and a Jewish woman. Can you call a religious marriage something that is not according to daas Moshe v’Yisrael?”
Not an Extra Minute
When Mishpacha first sat down with Rav David Lau in 2013, he was a black-bearded 47-year-old at the beginning of his ten-year term. In keeping with his youth and the relative stability of those years, the interview featured his young children running in and out, and he talked about scheduling shiurim so that sports fans can tune in to both basketball and Torah.
But if the beard is now shot through with grey and the jaunty tone is gone, one element has remained a constant: the narrative underpinning the religious reforms that claim the country’s rabbanim don’t care about the human cost of their supposed stringency, and should give way to the new guard who will.
The canard dates back decades, says Rav David Lau.
“I saw a protocol from a session of the Knesset Constitution Committee in 1976, when Rav Ovadia came to the Knesset, and the Rabbanut was attacked for not being kind — so we’re used to hearing this all the time. And Rav Ovadia said, ‘I don’t accept what you’re saying. Any problem that you have with the beis din, you come directly to me, to my beis din or that of Rav Frenkel in Tel Aviv.’ ”
In fact, a young Dudi Lau saw that rabbinic sensitivity in action himself, in an extraordinary way.
“When my grandfather, Rav Yedidiah Frenkel, was appointed chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1973, he asked that all the unresolved halachic case files be given to him. It turned out that some of those cases that were decades old. So he established a special beis din, including Rav Yehoshua Menachem Ehrenberg, a leading posek, and Rav Shmuel Baruch Werner, to handle these cases.
“The oldest case was that of an agunah whose husband disappeared during World War II. It emerged that the husband had a communist brother who refused to do chalitzah, so the woman was in this situation for 33 years. The beis din convened, and my grandfather wrote a teshuvah that she didn’t need chalitzah, because the brother was a mumar — someone who rejects Torah — so she was exempt.”
Despite the authority of the Tel Aviv beis din — all three dayanim were towering figures in their own right — Rav Frenkel wanted the ultimate halachic approval for the decision, so he wrote to Rav Moshe Feinstein.
“Two weeks went by, and Rav Moshe didn’t answer,” Rav Lau continues. “I came to my grandfather’s house on Friday afternoon, and I saw him pacing back and forth and looking at his watch. In those days, 40 years ago, calling abroad was a big deal. He was waiting for two o’clock so he could call Rav Moshe through operator assistance.
“The time came, and my grandfather did something very out of character: He rebuked Rav Moshe. ‘We’ve been waiting two weeks for an answer!’ he said. ‘How can this be? This woman has waited 33 years, isn’t that enough?’
“Rav Moshe apologized that he hadn’t been feeling well, so his family had only given him the letters they felt were urgent. My grandfather waited on the line until Rav Moshe found the letter.
“Fifteen minutes before Shabbos there was a knock at the door. It was a messenger with a telegram containing a short message in English letters: ‘Muteres,’ meaning the halachic decision had been correct. On the next line it said, ‘nimuk bahemshech,’ meaning that a longer explanation would be forthcoming.
“My grandfather smiled and said to me, ‘I knew there was no way Rav Moshe would delay this.’ For me it was a tremendous lesson from both Saba and Rav Moshe about the role of a rav. This woman had already suffered for so long — they didn’t want to prolong it by one minute.
“I have here on my desk five files of questions of mamzerus that were referred to me,” says Rav Lau, who is himself a senior dayan. “These are very hard questions that I lose sleep over. About two months ago there was the case of a 28-year-old girl who found out when she came to get married that there was a question about her status.
“For a whole month three dayanim sat on this, and each of them wrote different opinions providing a heter, from three different angles. The moment it became clear to all three that there was a leniency, I asked the secretary of the beis din to call her and let her know that she is permitted. The halachic reasoning, which was over 50 pages long, came later. That was my lesson from Rav Moshe Feinstein and Zeide Frenkel.”
Preach to the Converted
As someone who served at all levels of the Chief Rabbinate and occupied a pulpit in a young, secular city, Rav Lau is both a stalwart defender of the system and aware of its faults. But he’s convinced that fundamentally, the Rabbanut is working effectively as a global network that oversees the integrity of conversions far beyond Israel.
He believes that the reforms are aimed at a system that is in a far better place than the narrative of a corrupt, ineffective institution suggests.
There’s much work to do, Rav Lau says of the internal systems in Israel, but the solution is to secure more resources, not tear down the whole structure.
“I have said on numerous occasions that I want the city rabbis very much to be part of the conversion process, as accompanying figures, but not as dayanim. That’s not where the need is. We need families to accompany the converts before, and more importantly after the conversion. We need the communities to be there for them.
“I said to Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, you really want to encourage conversion? I’ll make a suggestion: When foster families take children to their homes, they get a stipend from the welfare ministry to help them in caring for this additional child. So when I want to send giyur candidates to families of young avreichim for Shabbos, let’s give them a stipend as well. Let’s give these families the ability to adopt these people when they’re still at the stage of candidacy, and then we know that, after close, meaningful guidance and mentorship, it will be real conversion.”
Now, just two years before his term in office ends, Chief Rabbi David Lau faces a struggle he’d never dreamed would be his.
“I heard from my grandfather Rav Frenkel from Rav Gershon Edelstein in the name of the Chazon Ish, how hard gedolei Yisrael fought that we should not need to keep private sifrei yuchsin, genealogy records for Jewish status, here in Israel, but rather that there should be a central marriage registry in the Rabbinate. It never entered my mind that I would actually have to consider it.”
Considered the doomsday scenario in halachic terms, the mere threat of private sifrei yuchsin likely won’t faze a Reform-secularist-religious liberal coalition bent on a seismic shift in Israel’s religious status quo.
Nor will the fact that the chief rabbi, who must sign off on every conversion, even via a private chareidi beis din, would only halt suspect giyurim, as he clarified to Mishpacha, and not the system as a whole, as previously reported.
But two things may give the kippah-wearers among the coalition pause.
Just hours after our interview last week, a picture emerged from the room we’d sat in earlier that day. It showed Rav Chaim Druckman, rosh yeshivah of the Bnei Akiva network and hitherto acknowledged authority for both Bennett and Kahana, signing a letter of support for the chief rabbi’s position.
The move was a coup, testament both to Rav David Lau’s ability to build a broad consensus, and the marginal nature of the rabbinic backing that Matan Kahana has trumpeted.
The second factor is the voice of Orthodox communities worldwide, who enjoy many lines of communication with the religious end of the coalition.
“We have reached a situation where the most widely recognized conversion, divorce, and marriage certificates in the world are those of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which is an honor for the state,” Rav Lau says. “The minute rabbanim abroad announce that they will not accept certificates issued in Israel, they will be listened to.”
For that to happen, says Chief Rabbi David Lau, Jews everywhere need to realize that this time, it’s for real.
That’s why the grandson of the rav who couldn’t say no to a woman who’d waited for three decades, and the son of a chief rabbi who was the ultimate consensus figure, is testing the limits of rabbinic authority in Israel.
“Don’t envy a rav who has to say no,” he says. “But we have a mesorah, and we have no mandate to deviate from it.
Return of the Law
Much like Jerusalem’s Old City, whose current elevation rests on many strata of Roman, Crusader, and Ottoman remains, the Israeli conversion system is an accretion of laws and practices built up over time.
So, for example, the law that gives Rav Lau power over conversion in today’s Israel is a 1927 British Mandate ordinance that says that the “Rosh Eidah” of the convert’s new faith must certify a convert’s status.
Digging through the layers of the current law reveals a 70-year-long evolution in the relationship between chief rabbis and politicians in Israel.
According to Netanel Fisher of the Israel Democracy Institute, for the first two decades of the young state’s life, David Ben-Gurion — bitterly opposed to what he called “rabbinic rule” — ensured that conversion played no official role in defining Jewishness.
So although the 1950 Law of Return defined a Jew as “someone born to a Jewish mother, or a convert,” in practice it was only in the guidelines of the Interior Ministry — run by Moshe Shapira, a Religious Zionist — that halachic conversion was listed as the standard for defining personal status.
Change to this secularist vision only began, says Fisher, with Ben-Gurion’s retirement from public life in 1970 to raise goats in Sde Boker, his Negev home.
That year, the Law of Return was altered to make halachic conversion the sole basis for becoming Jewish.
But with the Reform movement mounting an increasingly strong effort to gain official recognition in Israel, a series of battles played out in the courts in the 1960s and early ‘70s that foreshadowed today’s clashes.
One was the case of Helena Seidman, a non-Jewish kibbutz volunteer, whose Reform conversion was rejected by the Interior Ministry. The Supreme Court intervened in her favor, triggering a political crisis with religious parties threatening to bolt Golda Meir’s coalition.
At that stage, municipal batei din across the country were authorized to engage in giyur. But the rabbinic resistance to his increasingly controversial leniency in the Seidman case and other high-profile cases of the time, led Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren to establish a new system of batei din, where local rabbis unconnected to the established municipal beis din were allowed to conduct conversions.
But after a series of scandals involving bribes for conversion, and with the election of Rav Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron as Sephardic chief rabbi in 1993, the current giyur system began to take place. Local rabbis were banned from conducting conversions.
And then, the close to a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who’ve arrived over the last three decades — up to a third of whom aren’t halachically Jewish — has given rise to today’s Jewish question.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 894)
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