It has been a rather eventful week in Israel, as is fitting for a country that produces major news stories at an incredibly rapid pace. In domestic news, the top story concerned Ehud Olmert, the imprisoned former prime minister, who became ill and was hospitalized. Olmert was originally supposed to be released this past week, after serving two-thirds of his sentence, but the state petitioned against his release, claiming that he had smuggled classified materials to the editors of Yediot Acharonot, who are working on a book he is writing. Among the public, there is a perception that Olmert is simply being targeted for persecution, a sentiment that was expressed by the Minister of Justice herself.
In other news, organizations of disabled individuals have been holding demonstrations and causing traffic disruptions on some of the country’s major roads. They insist that the stipends they receive from the government – which are the equivalent of about 700 dollars monthly – are not enough for them to live with dignity. The prime minister promised to raise their monthly stipends, but that promise has yet to be fulfilled.
The cancer-stricken children from the hemato-oncology ward in Hadassah are still sitting in their protest tent in Sacher Park in Yerushalayim, begging for an end to the struggle between the doctors and the hospital administration, which is being waged at their expense and is jeopardizing their lives. You may recall that I wrote about this story two months ago.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has promised Nadia Cohen, the wife of the Israeli spy who was hanged in Damascus, that the state is still working to retrieve her husband’s remains. If I had to come up with a single word that expresses my view of this promise, that word would be nonsense.
On the diplomatic front, the major news was the visit of President Trump’s envoys, who are attempting to promote a peace agreement.
And from a religious standpoint, the most important story is the ongoing struggle to preserve the status quo at the Kosel and to combat chillul Shabbos perpetrated by institutions of the state, including the railroad and bus system. The leaders of the chareidi parties – Aryeh Deri, Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman – met to discuss the issue of Shabbos, and on Thursday all three met with the prime minister. From our perspective, this is the most important issue facing us at the moment.
Meeting the Prime Minister
The meeting between the prime minister and the chareidi party leaders was also attended by the Minister of Transportation and the Minister of Labor and Welfare. The latter heads the ministry that is responsible for issuing official permits to work on Shabbos. At the end of their meeting, some initial progress was made: The infrastructure work on the railroad in the south, which was supposed to be performed on the following Shabbos, was canceled. Transportation Minister Yisroel Katz announced that he had decided to give instructions to his ministry to refrain from performing unnecessary work on Shabbos. Katz, who seems poised to eventually succeed Netanyahu as prime minister, has proven one of the most difficult officials for the chareidi parties to work with.
The meeting ended with an agreement to maintain the status quo regarding Shabbos observance, as the ministers agreed to work to prevent any further increase in public transportation or construction on Shabbos. After the meeting, the chareidi parties released a statement informing the public that they had demanded an end to the increasing chillul Shabbos in the public sector and that the construction work planned for the coming Shabbos had been halted. The Minister of Labor and Welfare announced that his ministry would hold weekly reviews to evaluate every request for a permit to work on Shabbos in order to prevent unnecessary work from taking place. The chareidi parties, meanwhile, have established a team consisting of four of their members, who will monitor the situation and the ministry’s activities. The members of this group are MKs Uri Maklev, Yoav Ben-Tzur, Michoel Malchieli, and Yisroel Eichler.
At the same time, the chareidi Knesset members intend to advance a law that will prohibit local governments from authorizing chillul Shabbos. This is part of the response to the Supreme Court ruling that permitted businesses to operate in Tel Aviv on the weekly day of rest. In recent months, the chareidi parties have insisted that the attorney general ask the court to review the case again. However, they claim that he has been dragging his feet on the subject, which forces them to promote a law that will bypass the court’s ruling. A joint statement issued by UTJ and Shas explained that the proposed bill, which has been on the Knesset’s table since 2014, would compel the coalition to vote for it, since it is meant to preserve the status quo.
Advancing Peace Talks
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has had plenty of other things to keep him occupied. The day before his meeting with the leaders of the chareidi parties, he met with Jared Kushner. In addition to the two of them, the meeting was attended by Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington; Yoav Horowitz, the chief of staff in the prime minister’s office; American Ambassador David Friedman; and Jason Greenblatt, the American envoy to the Middle East.
Netanyahu began the meeting by asserting that it would be “an opportunity to advance our common goals of security, prosperity, and peace.” He went on to greet the new arrival: “Welcome, Jared. I know the efforts that you and the president are making, and I look forward to working with you in order to achieve those goals.” Mentioning Trump’s visit to Israel, the prime minister added that “his visit here was historic and fantastic. He left a deep impression on the people of Israel. It is good to see you again. Please send him my regards.”
Kushner, who appeared highly emotional, responded to Netanyahu, “The president sends you his warmest regards.”
The purpose of the meeting was to advance peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians claim that they are ready to talk, but the Americans are working on developing a framework for the negotiations. We can only hope that they will succeed.
Incidentally, we were all touched when Ambassador Friedman paid a condolence call to the Malka family during the shivah for their daughter, who was killed by an Arab at Shaar Shechem. Greenblatt also impressed us when he traveled directly from the airport to the Kosel to daven.
Small People with Big Opinions
The two chareidi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, held a joint meeting last week. The legislators met in the conference room of the Shas party, and their facial expressions reflected the momentous nature of the occasion, as well as the tremendous sense of responsibility they felt. Aryeh Deri, Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni sat together at the head of the table. The beginning of the meeting was open to the media, and the room was overflowing with journalists. Among them, I saw a large number of very young men, who represent all sorts of media outlets that are very small yet can be quite irksome.
I can’t say that I have anything against those media outlets. No one has the ability to halt the changes sweeping through the world, which encompass the world of the media as well. That is why the pervasive shallowness of the modern world has taken root in these media outlets. They have no spiritual guide or Torah authority to tell them what they may write and what is forbidden. These are people who have never demonstrated any particular talents of their own, yet they constantly spout criticism of others. They seem to believe that they know better than anyone else and that they are wiser than everyone else. It is clear to them that if the politicians would only listen to their advice, the world would be a much better place. And then the Kosel would still be the Kosel, and Shabbos would still be Shabbos.
Our representatives in the Knesset are saddled with tremendous responsibility. We do not need to pity them for this; it was their own decision to follow this path in life. At the same time, there is no reason for them to be targeted for criticism by people who are essentially children. I myself was present at the meeting, and I saw the solemnity and awe with which these members of the Knesset approached their responsibilities. They are well aware of the challenges they are facing, and they are taking steps to deal with the issues. At the same time, I watched the journalists observing them, and I noted the conceited expressions on their faces. Based on their demeanors, one might have thought that were observers from the UN and that they aren’t our brethren at all. It is as if they are not aware that we are all in the same proverbial boat – a boat in which some fools are busy drilling holes.
Enemies in Our Midst
Sadly, some of the troubles with which we are contending have been caused by people who are members of the religious community. One of those people is Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who recently retired from his position on the court. As I mentioned last week, I would have been mortified if I had been “praised” with the sort of comments that were made at his retirement party. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, for instance, announced that “he never saw a contradiction between being a judge and being religious.” And the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Miriam Naor, added, “Rubinstein proved that being religious doesn’t automatically mean that one is conservative.” As Shimon Peres said at his ninetieth birthday party, “I am not as good as you are all saying, but I am also not as bad as you are thinking.”
Another kippah-wearing politician who has crossed this line is Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. In his previous position as secretary of the cabinet, Mandelblit formulated the compromise on the Kosel Hamaarovi. Now, as the attorney general, he opposes the demand of the chareidim to retract the government’s commitment to the agreement. We are pressuring Netanyahu to inform the Supreme Court that the agreement is null and void, but Mandelblit opposes the move. And the problem is that he, as the attorney general, is responsible for composing the government’s response to the Supreme Court.
Last Tuesday, Mandelblit married off a son. All the highest-ranking politicians in the country were there, along with the two chief rabbis, Rav Dovid Lau and Rav Yitzchok Yosef. This is despite the fact that the rabbis are also involved in an all-out conflict with Mandelblit. Evidently, they are not allowing the dispute to cloud their personal relationships. And I will let you in on a secret: The Mandelblit family exerted tremendous pressure on Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, the rov of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and one of the preeminent rabbonim in Eretz Yisroel today, to attend the wedding. It is Rav Nebenzahl whose p’sak halacha will determine the fate of the Kosel agreement, and he sent a messenger to ask me to determine if his attendance at the wedding would imply support for Mandelblit against the chief rabbis with respect to the Kosel agreement. That is how cautious he has been about the issue.
A Perpetual Opponent of Rabbonim and Halacha
Elazar Stern, a member of the Knesset who wears a yarmulka, is always antagonistic not only to the chareidi community, but to the dati leumi sector as well. He has removed himself from us so far that he has become a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. This past week, Stern announced to the media that he would have the Knesset discuss the controversy surrounding the appointment of a Sephardic rov for the city of Rechovot. That is the type of issue in which his interests lie.
In the end, Stern did not succeed in raising the subject at all. He merely tried to bring it up – and there is a major difference. He submitted an urgent motion for the agenda titled “The Intent to Appoint an Additional Rov for the City of Rechovot,” but it was not approved as an urgent motion, and it was automatically discarded. Nevertheless, Stern managed to gain his usual daily dose of publicity – as usual, at our expense. That is his strategy: to go on the offensive against chareidim so that his name will be in the headlines. If you take a look at the subjects that he deals with, you will find that he is almost always involved in issues such as conversion, rabbonim, dayanim, kashrus, and gittin, and almost always with an approach that is hostile to tradition.
Not long ago, Stern crossed swords with Dovid Azulai, the Minister of Religious Affairs, over his own proposal to allow every rov to grant his own kashrus certification. Stern’s speech in the Knesset was laced with his unique brand of vitriol. “Tell me,” he said, “why is the Badatz Beit Yosef able to come to Sderot or Eilat in a BMW or Mercedes?” Addressing Azulai, he declared, “You know as well as I do, because you are the Minister of Religious Affairs, that the term ‘kashrus’ is identified most strongly with corruption.” Then he added, “In the home of Minister of Religious Affairs Dovid Azulai, his family eats corn. I didn’t actually check this out, but I presume it is the case. And his family eats green leafy vegetables, which he does not permit in the hotels of Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim. Why?” This drew a shout from Eli Ben-Dahan, who protested that he himself had promoted a reform in the field of kashrus supervision, but it was torpedoed by the Finance Ministry under Yair Lapid. One week earlier, Stern had submitted a proposal for every rov to be authorized to perform conversions.
Stern is not particularly hardworking, but he manages to attract publicity because most of his initiatives are against the chareidim. On those subjects, he is obsessive. His recent parliamentary queries dealt with a municipal rov who is not authorized to register marriages (Stern wanted to know if his salary had been reduced) and with a conversion that had been performed by a rov in America (he asked if the prime minister was working to establish criteria for recognition of rabbonim in the Diaspora).
A Beloved Rov Retires
Today, everyone is talking about Tel Aviv. It has become the focus of national interest, not only among chareidim but among chilonim as well. And no, this is not because of the issue of chillul Shabbos, which represents a heinous attempt of the Tel Aviv municipality to uproot Jewish observance from the public sphere. This news story relates to something else entirely: the retirement of Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. Rav Lau has become an iconic representative of the generation that survived the Holocaust. He is one of the most famous Jewish people in the world, a man who is universally admired in Jewish communities everywhere, and especially in Israel. Years ago, he was known as “Lulek,” the child from Buchenwald whose picture had been seen throughout the world. In later years, he became the chief rabbi of Israel. His life story is truly incredible.
Today, Rav Lau is in the news because he is retiring from his position as the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. This retirement, which may well make him even more influential, has been forced on him by law. According to the laws of the State of Israel, a rov who reaches the age of 80 is required to retire, and Rav Lau is now celebrating his 80th birthday. No rov in his position has been pleased to step down from his position, but the law is the law.
Rav Lau has been the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv twice: before he became the chief rabbi of Israel and after he left that position. He has always been deeply beloved in Tel Aviv, as he is everywhere else.
In honor of his retirement, Rav Lau was interviewed by Yediot Acharonot, the most widely circulated newspaper in Israel. I won’t present the full interview here, but I will make a comment: Rav Lau has proven to be one of the most eloquent people, if not the very most eloquent, in the country. He is a fantastic public speaker, and the same talent is evident on the rare occasions when he grants interviews.
Here are a couple of significant anecdotes from the article.
The interviewer began her article with the following account: “During the course of our conversation, Rav Yisroel Meir Lau received a telephone call that moved him to great emotion. The caller was Vladik Kushnirov, whose parents were killed in 1996 in a terror attack on the number 18 bus in Yerushalayim. The attack killed 26 people, including Anatoly and Jana Kushnirov, an immigrant couple from Russia.”
The writer goes on to relate that at the end of his phone call, Rav Lau explained, “I was the chief rabbi of Israel when the attack took place. I insisted on receiving the names of all the fatalities in every terror attack and the addresses of their families, and I made sure to visit every home. But when I received the list from the number 18 bus bombing, the Kushnirov family’s address was omitted. I was told that no one was sitting shivah in the family’s home, since the only remaining family members were an eight-year-old boy named Vladik and a one-year-old baby named Tomer. I insisted that I wanted to see them. I had a special sensitivity to the suffering of an eight-year-old boy, since that was exactly my age when I was liberated from Buchenwald. I received their address in Katamon [a neighborhood in Yerushalayim that is home to many immigrants], and when I arrived, the baby was sleeping in his crib. Young Vladik sat on the floor and stared at me, the figure in the black hat who had suddenly entered his home. His mother’s sister, a woman named Larissa, was there, and she said to him in Russian, ‘Vladik, do you recognize this man who has come to visit us? He is the chief rabbi of Israel. You know, when he was your age, he didn’t have a father or a mother, just as you have no parents now, but he came to Israel and he became the rov of the entire country.’ The boy looked at me and I looked at him, and then she went on, ‘Do you see, Vladik? If you put your mind to it, you can have a future as a great person. You are not alone!’”
The episode in question occurred over 20 years ago, yet Rav Lau remembered every detail, including the name of the mother’s sister. But that is Rav Yisroel Meir Lau. And he is also a man who knows how to tell a story. He continued, “That is the type of moment that you don’t forget. Several years later, I made a bar mitzvah for 1,000 orphans at the Kosel, and one of them came up to receive his tefillin from me, clapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘I am Vladik Kushnirov.’ At that moment, a chill ran through me. And now, years later, I have received a phone call from him.”
The interviewer asked why Kushnirov had called, and Rav Lau replied, “He wanted to inform me that he is getting married, and he asked if I could officiate at his wedding. He said that he hoped I would be available, and I replied, ‘For you, I am always available.’ When we meet under his chupah before Rosh Hashanah, I will be able to say, ‘Let the previous year with its curses end and let the new year with its blessings begin.’ And it will have tremendous meaning.”
At the end of this fascinating interview, Rav Lau was asked how he felt about departing from Tel Aviv. He responded by asking the interviewer not to speak about it as a “departure.”
“Forgive me for bringing you back to the time when I was eight years old,” he said, “but I must tell you about a moment that shaped my entire life. At the time, we didn’t know that the war was in its final year, and we were very despondent. I was with the Russian immigrants in Block 8, near the gate of the camp. My brother Naftali, who had saved my life when my mother quickly threw me to him at the last second before she boarded the train, had brought me into the camp in a sack, and he was with the Jewish prisoners in Block 59, so we never saw each other. One day, I was inside the barracks when I heard my brother calling me from the other side of the fence. When I first saw him, I didn’t immediately recognize him. He was practically a skeleton, and he was very ill with typhus. He said to me, ‘Lulek, I’m happy to see you. You are a big boy already, and I can talk to you openly. You know that we don’t have a father anymore, and our mother is probably no longer alive as well. I am being taken away now and I have come to say goodbye to you. If you survive, you have no home to go back to. Just remember one thing: There is a place in the world called Eretz Yisroel and that is our home. If people want to take you anywhere else, you must tell them that you will go only to Eretz Yisroel. It is a place where they do not kill Jews, and we have an uncle there named Rav Fogelman. Just say your name, Lulek Yisroel Lau, and he will find you.’ Then Naftali went away, and to this day, 72 years later, I haven’t been able to forget the terrible feeling of his departure.”
Naftali Lau managed to jump out of the train and to crawl back to Buchenwald, risking his life to keep the promise he had made to his parents to look after his brother. Both brothers later came to Israel, where Naftali became a prominent political figure, while “Lulek” entered the world of rabbonus. But that terrible moment of parting, so many years ago, made it difficult to this day for Rav Lau even to hear the word. “That sense of parting,” he said, “still remains hanging in the air.”