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A new prince was born this week, and two new chief rabbis elected.
One of them my cousin.
The common denominator for all three? Dynasty.
Born into the right-tight club, these very different individuals are serving some ancient human code of pedigree and privilege in which some people are worth more than others and assume symbolic roles that do or don’t matter any more, but mean something, still, to many.
In London, the Windsors secured another heir, who will smile and wave, cut ribbons and make sure the tourist industry continues fueling the long gone empire.
In Jerusalem 150 people (12 of whom women) and mostly (only orthodox) rabbis voted on the next round of two chief rabbis. And though in theory its about merit and election – this time it was also about bloodlines – and a lot about bloody politics and ugly deals that have done little to celebrate the sacred role of religion or rabbis in the public arena.
The new Asheknazi chief, Rabbi David Lau, better known to me as Dudi, is the son of my uncle, the former chief rabbi Israel Lau. Rabbi Isaac Yosef is the new Sefardic leader -son of Ovadia Yosef, the leader of Shas and former chief rabbi as well.
This has been the most down and dirty race for rabbinic rule in recent history if not ever, exposing this post for what it has become – a political slot, catering to few, with spiritual leadership that cares for the entire people long forgotten, living only in hollow words and gestures that few if any still believe.
It’s about power – and about dynastic claims. And money. The call to split up religion and state just got louder.
I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with dynastic rule – one generation handing the baton to another with the survival of the fittest gene working overtime.
There is something to say for the genes. And my cousin is an eloquent speaker and a fine man, just like his father.
As a fringe member of the Lau clan, with rabbis in our blood going back more than 30 generations, I am open to the idea that somehow qualities are transmitted and leadership is continued, skipped around and maintained, regardless of nepotism.
But not at all costs – and not just because you happen to be born into this or that entitled tribe and satisfy the whims of politicians.
A rabbi, not to mention the Chief Rabbi of a country or a nation- needs to be someone who truly stands for, respects, and represents the greater majority if not all of the people served. And that isn’t happening right now, with all due respect to my cousin and his worthy colleagues. They sure don’t represent me or most of the Jews on the planet.
I may be pleasantly surprised, and I think he’s smart and gets what ahead – even though the political machine is a complex beast with rough agendas. I plan to reach out to him and hope for a heartfelt dialogue. I mean, we played basketball together as kids and slept in the same room..
And meanwhile: It’s time to seriously rethink and challenge this formula of rabbinic rule in Israel, and look careful at this dynastic model. And we have alternative role models to work with.
Historically, at least in theory, Jews were led by two parallel types of spiritual leadership – one based on blood line and one based on qualifications.
Moses, the first rabbi, hands over the reigns to Joshua – leader elect, and so on for generations of rabbis and leaders chosen based on merit and skills. Aaron, the first High Priest hands it over to his son, and so on, Cohen and sons.
In this week’s Torah text, Ekev, this first transfer of power is recalled:
“..Aaron died, and there he was buried; and Eleazar his son officiated in the priest’s office in his stead.
The priestly tradition died, and while Cohens still get some respect they are not the ones to lead us. In the Hasidic world, heirs matter. But when it comes to rabbis, we should stick to the Moses model, and carefully avoid dynastic deals. That’s not what it is about.
We need real rabbis who will touch our souls, inspire us and teach us how to take good care of our tradition for the next 3,000 years – with all required tweaks and changes. Not just those who will keep on holding to what we know works already. Rabbis need to take risks.
Earlier this week I was reminded of one such great religious leader, who came from the line of great rabbis but forged his own unique rabbinic voice in ways that broke with where he came from, broke many hearts but mended countless others.
I was invited to attend a preview of ‘Soul Doctor’ the musical about Reb Shlomo Carlebach – the singing rabbi, now on Broadway.
My dear friend and soul-sister Neshama invited me and sat next to me as the story of her father’s life unfolded on the stage. I cried from the first moment and all through (the super long!) first act.
Why? Because the music is magical, the story hypnotic and the memories flooded me: some of my earliest ones include listening to Reb Shlomo play, and some of the more formative ones of my spiritual evolution have him featured as well. He opened my heart to spirit and to singing in ways that are with me still today.
Reb Shlomo was a complex figure with a mixed bag of legacy and some regrets.
But nobody can take away what he had given us – access to the highest high and the deepest deep. He took risks, rose to the challenge of transmitting the sacred story and paid a high price for his relentless truth.
I hope the play is successful and many more people get to see this vibrant version of what a rabbi is, and should be about.
To my esteemed cousin, a heartfelt blessing for success and courage and the good will to be God’s messenger for peace in the land and in the hearts of all people. You got a big job ahead. (Happy to help..)
to Diana’s grandson – may your life be dedicated, like hers, to bringing more love and dignity and style to the world.
And to the rest of us simple folks – here’s to a sabbath of peace. Or as Reb Shlomo used to sing: good shabbes, good shabess..
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org