Asking Rabbi Dr. Benjamin “Benny” Lau about the state of the Jewish people and of Israel as a whole, he appears to take a page from Mark Twain: The reports of fracture and disintegration, he insists, have been greatly exaggerated.
Lau, whom his colleagues and students call “Rav Benny,” has a particularly good vantage point from which to view this complicated country. An author and activist who heads up the modern Orthodox Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem and serves as chair of the Human Rights and Judaism in Action project of the Israel Democracy Institute, Lau’s days are a blend of community outreach, social justice work and Talmudic discussion. He is both deeply traditional and intensely radical; a Torah scholar with a commitment to piety and a modern ex-combat soldier with a passion for women’s rights and social equality.
As the Jewish calendar arrives at yet another Tisha B’Av, Israel – with its feuding Knesset, its tallit-clad women driven from the Kotel and its Haredim attacking soldiers in their midst – looks to some as more polarized than ever. Lau, however, says that this most somber of days should fill us not with visions of ruination, but with the urge to build.
“The truth is that I’m very optimistic. And the reason is that I [spend a lot of time] going around the country, the society, and spend a very short time reading the articles and headlines. It’s a very different experience, these two areas,” he says.
Lau meets this reporter at the headquarters of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank of sorts where, in a light-soaked stone building in central Jerusalem, a group of rabbis and experts are striving to prove that a thriving Israel needs both Judaism and democratic thought, intertwined at the deepest levels.
“These extreme leaders are very few,” Lau says, before explaining that he believes the vast majority of Israelis are eager to focus on their similarities, not their divisions. “The majority understands that to make peace inside Israel, you need to do something – you need to move a bit from your stance, no matter how strong. And I see people doing that.”
It’s not that Israeli society doesn’t have problems, Lau says. But those issues, of which he believes social inequality and fervent racism are the most troubling, are getting exaggerated airtime.
Lau appears frequently in the media, including on a regular Friday morning stint on Channel 1. He is the author of numerous books on Jewish thought and modern values, and his days are generally a blend of pastoral counseling, classroom teaching and long drives across the country to visit various projects.
Married and a father of five, he snatches about five hours of sleep a night, often working late into the night and then rising before six for a 40-minute run with his youngest son.
Some of Israel’s most tender societal wounds — including the hurdles placed by the rabbinate before engaged couples; the women told to sit at the back of buses; and the ultra-Orthodox leaders who would rather wage their own war against military enlistment than join the IDF and fight on behalf of Israel — come from a distorted interpretation of Judaism, he says.
“When you learn democracy and Jewish values, Jewish law, Jewish tradition, you see that it’s the same language,” he says. “The number of accidents that have happened in the last 65 years in Israel because of the dilemma between democracy and Jewish values is zero … It’s not a question between democracy and Jewish values, it’s a question about politicians and democracy.”
This Tisha B’Av, Lau says, he is focused on the mistakes of the First and Second Temple eras, and mindful of his role in ensuring Israel a straighter path this third time around.
“We live in Israel today because God is trying to bring us back to our homeland and rebuild the freedom and independent Jewish life of the Jewish people,” he says. “And I strongly believe that according to history, this it the third time we’ve had this chance. The first time, during the days of the First Temple, we missed the chance because we didn’t listen to the needs of the Jewish People. We made many covenants with the nations around, and we didn’t do anything inside for ourselves.”
The second time around, Lau says, we also tripped ourselves up.
“In the Second Temple days, it was all about the wall between the light and the dark, the idea that I live in my own sector and talk about the dangers of others,” he says. “That was the key reason why the Second Temple days were so terrible, and why destruction came at the end.”
The key to thriving today in Israel, he says, is to remember that just being part of a modern Jewish state is a great gift, and to focus on the positives while not forgetting those shadowy lessons of our tragic history.
“If I’m looking carefully at my society today, it’s clear that both reasons [for the Temples’ destructions] are very dangerous. The fact that what’s happened with Shas and the religious Zionists, it is a good example of what happens when people forget to talk to each other,” he says. “And we need to be very careful – the relationships between secular and religious and Orthodox and Reform, between all sectors, we need to learn carefully from the history and understand that this was the reason why the days of the Second Temple happened … It’s with this message that I am going directly into Tisha B’Av.”
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