Israeli PM rebukes chief rabbis for failing to call Pittsburgh's Tree of Life a synagogue

'Jews were killed in a synagogue', Benjamin Netanyahu says


Israel’s chief rabbis drew a rare rebuke from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after they would not describe the site of the Pittsburgh shooting as a synagogue.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and his Sephardi colleague Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef put out statements condemning the murders and expressing their solidarity with American Jews, but both refused to call the Tree of Life a synagogue.

In an interview with the Makor Rishon website, Rabbi Lau repeatedly refused to be drawn on the matter, describing it only as “a place which was considered by the murderer to have a conspicuous Jewish identity. A place with Torah scrolls, Jews with talithot and siddurim. There are people there who came to seek the closeness of God.” Despite the interviewer’s persistent questioning, he would not use the word “synagogue”.

In a similar vein, Israel’s Charedi newspapers referred to it as “a Jewish centre”.

The Israeli rabbis’ stance — which is because of the synagogue’s affiliation with Conservative Judaism, whose kindred organisation in Britain is the Masorti movement — angered many Jews around the world.

Their position highlighted a much deeper tension between the two largest Jewish communities in the world: in Israel, where progressive Jews are a small minority; and the United States, where they are a majority of Jews who are affiliated with a synagogue identify themselves as Reform or Conservative.

The publicity surrounding Rabbi Lau’s interview led to the Prime Minister’s intervention — a rare move, because Mr Netanyahu is usually careful not to say anything that could anger his Strictly Orthodox political allies.

In a short statement that did not mention the Chief Rabbi, Mr Netanyahu said: “Jews were killed in a synagogue. They were killed because they are Jews. The location was chosen because it is a synagogue. We must never forget that. We are one.”

Charedi ideology does not recognise the validity of any non-Orthodox stream of Judaism. A Strictly Orthodox rabbi or publication would never refer to a progressive Jewish “rabbi” or their places of prayer as synagogues, since doing so would contradict their belief that rabbis and synagogues that do not perform religious ritual according to the Orthodox interpretation of Halachah — rabbinical law — are heretical.

Last year, under pressure from the Strictly Orthodox parties, Mr Netanyahu’s government abandoned a plan to create a separate prayer area by the Western Wall where progressive streams of Judaism were to have official standing.

That decision was criticised by mainstream American Jewish leaders, who refused to meet the Prime Minister on their subsequent visits to Israel.

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