Rabbi Lau’s Religion Problem

Haim Watzman

When Rabbi Benny Lau began his Shabbat HaGadol talk at south Jerusalem’s Ramban synagogue last Saturday afternoon, he said his lesson originated in anger and frustration. The climax came when he said, “If I were a young person today, I would abandon religion.”

Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath that precedes Pesach, is traditionally a time for community rabbis to teach their congregations the fine points of the laws of Pesach and to offer some pointers for the coming Seder ceremony. Rabbi Lau barely spoke about Pesach; instead he offered—in traditional Jewish fashion, via a discussion of Talmudic passages—a call for greater openness and tolerance within the religious community. His particular target was the abrogation of personal responsibility religious Jews. Blind obedience to rabbinical authority used to be a defining trait of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, one of the things that divided it from the modern Orthodox community. But over the last couple decades more and more Jews brought up and educated in Zionist religious institutions have increasingly sought to avoid thinking for themselves, on halachic, political, and social matters. The result has been a desecration of God’s name, as rabbis claiming to speak for Israel’s religious Jews have revoked conversions, demanded the relocation of a hospital emergency room, and committed a series of other political and religious acts that are an embarrassment to their heritage and a real danger to Israeli society as a whole.

This sort of religious community can only repel thinking young people who are unwilling to abandon their freedom to think for themselves, he declared.

Hebrew speakers can read a written version of his power talk here and English speakers can catch some of the gist of it by looking here . But the real question is whether Rabbi Lau and his colleagues in the religiously moderate Tzohar organization will take concerted action not just to decry but to actively oppose the unthinking Judaism they decry.

That would require new organizational and political frameworks—the abandonment of the official state rabbinate, which has been taken over by the ultra-Orthodox and fundamentalists, and of the political parties that now claim to represent the Zionist religious community. Furthermore, it will require this community to reconsider the Land of Israel-based theology that, by making them part of a system of injustice to others, has blinded so many of its members to injustices within their own community.

The situation is dire and, as Rabbi Lau said in his talk, the moderate community has not yet produced a figure with the stature and the courage to stand up and lead a movement loyal to halacha and tradition but independent of and opposed to Jewish fundamentalism. It’s what my own synagogue, Kehilat Yedidya, sought to do when we founded it 30 years ago. At the time we were considered so outlier that even rabbis who supported us did not want their names made public. Rabbi Lau seems to have come round to share the concerns we voiced back then, and perhaps to think that, as we thought then, the solutions need to be radical ones. We founded a community; Rabbi Lau, who comes from the mainstream, can found a movement—if he’s willing to take the lead. Was his Shabbat HaGadol talk a call to arms, or just another cry in the wilderness?

9 thoughts on “Rabbi Lau’s Religion Problem”

  1. I’m the son of a religious couple. My father worked in the administration of the church. He was a good man, but never quoted the Bible or sat me down to tell me God’s will or of how any one person or people were better or worse than others.

    I came out of the experience an atheist. I could see (and do see) the goodness in the man and in people independent of any religious impulse on their part. I could never differentiate members from non-members of the church that I knew if I were asked about the proportion of good to bad.

    Nor have I been able to understand those who say that without religion there would be no morality. I know what pain is, and I know that you as a fellow human, do to. That’s a good foundation for morality.

    When I see wrong clothed in religion (my favorite is the “Christian militia”) and remind myself of the power of parents to bind the mind of their young before there is any chance of worldly observation and choice, I despair.

    Now we have the Pope, he of the fabulous wardrobe and instant producer of a cast of thousands, refusing to be “intimidated” by those questioning the horrors of the clergy under his watch. This man presumes to bless people.

    So I salute Rabbi Lau. Any man or woman is known for his/her deeds. It has been said that we are all naked before the Lord. Maybe so, but I’d say that before their fellow men the clothing of the devout has become transparent to any who do not share the faith (and quite a number who do). That is real progress. Now if we can just shed our fears, perhaps we can put aside both the mitre, the tallis, the prayer wheel, as well as the sword.

  2. First of all, the Ultra-Orthodox didn’t just “take over” the Rabbinate, it was handed to them by the political Left (MERETZ , Labor Party and the late Shinui Party). This was done because the Haredim and the political Left had a joint interest in destroying the political and religious power of the National Religious camp. The Left had two goals in mind…..first, since the National Religious camp is closely identified with the Judea/Samaria/Gaza settlement movement (i.e. the political Right in Israel), they thought by weaking their Rabbinical establishment, they could weaken the settlement movement. Barak’s throwing the Har Bracha Yeshiva out of the Hesder program because of some comments by its Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Eliezer Melamed, is the latest assault from this direction.
    The second goal is that much of the political Left is anti-religious and it is preferable to them to have official, state Judaism identified with the most hard-line elements in order to make it less palatable to the general secular public. A Rabbinate close to the National Religious camp, whose Rabbanim have served in the IDF and many of whom have secular education has much more in common with the larger secular public, without connection to larger political issues, and makes its Judaism much more attractive. This is a danger to the anti-religious camp.

    The second point that must be made is that the political wing of the National Religious camp has whithered away, so the “obscurantism” being decried here is not due to any political power being weilded by its adherents. It is represented by two small parties (HaBayit HaYehudi which is just the old MAFDAL-National Religious Party which has only 3 seats) and part of the National Union (2 of their 4 seats-Uri Ariel and Yaakov Katz) and this party is in the opposition. Thus, developments in the National Religious Camp which Rav Benny Lau is complaining about are due to internal “spiritual” developments within the camp and not due to external political machinations. Apparently there is a demand for a more Rabbinically based National Religious movement, which is no doubt based on how its education system responds to modern challenges and its success in imparting its values to the next generation. In other words, it is not just “politics” that is affecting the National Religious camp.

    If Rav Lau really said that “he would abandon religious observance if he were young” (as opposed to saying that he can understand if other young people did so), I would find this to be truly bizarre. Considering that his father and uncle (former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau) managed to maintian their faith in spite of havinv been through the hell of Buchenwald and then the struggle to establish and build the state of Israel, it seem that discomfort at various negative manifestations among SOME religious Jews or even their leaders is a pretty infantile reason to give up G-d’s Torah. There are two words in Hebrew- one is “dati” (actually the root is Persian) which means “religiously observant”, and the other is “tzaddik” which means a truly pious, righteous person. They don’t necessarily overlap. There have always been religiously observant people who don’t live up to the standards of the Torah. So to chuck it all because some people don’t behave properly is a particularly myopic view of things.

  3. Clif-
    You don’t see the need for religion to define morality because you think pain is bad and this is a good way to define morality. I assume you mean that people should not inflict pain on each other. But what if someone enjoys inflicting pain, just as you may enjoy chocolate ice cream?
    Rav Lau’s father saw people who thought it was a good idea to inflict pain, so there certainly is such a thing. Why shouldn’t he do it…because you think he should’t? What if his Fuehrer told him to do it….should he listen to him or listen to you?

  4. Well, as Rev. Dr. Robert Meneilly of the Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS wrote in his courageous New York Times editorial opposing the mixing of church and state: “No religion — not even Chrisitanity — is worth practicing if it needs to be legislated”. That says it all for me.

  5. YBD, there will always be (and currently are) cases of mass insanity. There is no cure-all for that. But, I think you would agree with me that there is such a thing as pain (physical, emotional) and we can all have a personal experience of it.

    One can point to individuals who may enjoy the pain of cutting themselves with a knife, let alone the many more who can do it to others without remorse, but we agree that such things are perverse. For all the might of Nazism, even its popularity that went well beyond Germany, it was a rash that even many who actively participated could see had no future. Far from being an effective moral restraint, established religion did not have a great deal of difficulty with it as it did not with Franco, for whom it provided a foundation.

    To say that some interpret pain as pleasure or a good thing to inflict on others is not to say that there isn’t an underlying commonality to the experience of pain. Its avoidance is one of our most basic drives.

    You know it when you feel it, there is no difficulty in seeing it in others and we are all subject to it from exactly the same sources, be it humiliation, the loss of a child, or simply a broken leg.

    In fact, I’d say it would be a worthy moral goal to work up the scale of pain, praising as a higher morality the refusal to inflict the more subtle forms. This is seen in action in how far we’ve come from the “good old days” when it was common to hear about the kike, the dago and the nigger.

    Surely pain provides a better starting point for human beings in their decisions on how to inter-relate than an edifice of dogma based on the presumed intentions of a supernatural being, whose very name (or not) cannot be agreed upon.

  6. What is “Jewish fundamentalism”? This isn’t a gotcha question. I honestly have no idea what is meant by that label.

  7. Thank you Haim for an incitful analysis of the predicament facing liberal orthodoxy. Rabbi Lau cannot count on the support of his own constituency because they overlap in complex ways with the settler movement and the ‘chardal’ or ultra national religious groups. Fundamentalism is having its swing of the pendulum in religion in general today. Liberal orthodoxy made important contributions to Israel and Judaism. They will remain a part of the mosaic of Judaism but if the kinds of values that Rabbi Lau espouses are to gain a wider hold I suspect it will only come from outside the current streams of Judaism. Shas and Gush Emunim appeared in the last generation or two with radical political programs as a concrete expression of their religious ideas. There is a large sector of Israeli society that supports liberal principles, but it is for the most part alienated from Judaism’s traditions. For the past year I’ve been a member of Rabbi Lau’s shul and I find him to be an intriguing but conflicted leader.

  8. I am tired of you discussing religion when yours is based upon the theft of Palestinian land. If you are truly religious, you will leave stolen Palestine and return to Euclid, Ohio and Aunt Bernice. None of us want to be anti-semitics but we will notice when you steal Palestine

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