Rabbi Benjamin (Benny) Lau does not look the part of a revolutionary.
At 47, his youthful appearance, warm smile and engaging personality have helped him become a popular Orthodox rabbinic figure in Jerusalem, where he has revitalized the Ramban community synagogue in Katamon and heads the beit midrash program at Beit Morasha, a communal and educational leadership institute for observant men and women.
He also lectures at Bar-Ilan University (where he received a Ph.D.) and teaches at both a boys’ and girls’ yeshiva high school in Jerusalem.
The rabbi is soft-spoken, but his message of late — in sermons, lectures, newspaper columns and interviews — is blunt and compelling, offering up sharp criticism of the Chief Rabbinate and its role in the deteriorating relationship between religion and state in Israel.
Rabbi Lau, himself the nephew of former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, is leading a campaign among like-minded, more tolerant Orthodox rabbis to wrest control of the Chief Rabbinate from the influence of a group of elderly ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist haredi religious leaders whose dictates often are followed by the two state-appointed chief rabbis.
Rabbi Lau says he and his colleagues, primarily from the rabbinic group, Tzohar (Hebrew for window), seek to restore a sense of compassion toward all Israeli Jews, no matter their level of observance.
“We can’t accept it,” Rabbi Lau says of the haredi style, which demands the strictest levels of adherence to Jewish law. “We are the Zionists and we should be the ones with the power. It’s not normal for the state to be the captive of the haredim,” who don’t acknowledge the authority of the state.
He says he would prefer that more senior rabbis in his camp take the lead in this campaign, “but I look around and see that the responsibility is on our shoulders, and it cannot wait. We are very close to the end of the relationship” between religion and the state, he says, as Israelis become increasingly disenfranchised with the Judaism they see practiced and adjudicated by the Chief Rabbinate.