Israel’s attorney general on Tuesday announced that the state will now at least partially recognize the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative rabbis and pay their salaries, just as Orthodox rabbis’ salaries are paid now. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said the rabbis will be listed as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities,” however, which is meant to suggest that their ordinations are not recognized by the state.
The decision comes as a response to a 2005 case involving a Reform rabbi, Miri Gold. Backed by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, Gold petitioned the court demanding that a local municipal authority provide financing for non-Orthodox religious services, as it does for the Orthodox.
The case was referred to arbitration and several weeks ago came close to a decision, but then began to unravel. The state – while it agreed to recognize the non-Orthodox rabbis as “community leaders” – refused to refer to them as rabbis.
A panel of Supreme Court judges led by Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who is Orthodox, urged Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to intervene. Weinstein came up with the compromise language.
The announcement, seen by some as a “half a loaf is better than none” move towards full acceptance, was hailed both in Israel and here. The newly elected president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, said that he hoped the decision “will strengthen Israel and bring Israelis to a new appreciation of Jewish tradition.”
Clearly, local rabbis recognize the significance of the Israeli ruling.
Randall Mark, rabbi of Wayne’s Conservative synagogue Congregation Shomrei Torah and current president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis (NJBR), said he “applauds the attorney general’s office for its decision and will await its implementation.”
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “If it plays out the way we anticipate, then it’s recognition that is long overdue. But considering the number of High Court decisions on matters such as conversion, often the things they rule have not come into being the way we in the liberal community would have anticipated.”
How the attorney general’s decision will play out, he said, only time will tell. Already, one Orthodox cabinet member, Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi of the Sephardi Shas Party, said that he would resign his post if called upon to implement the decision.
Mark pointed out that the non-Orthodox in Israel have often worked through the court system to achieve their goals, since “they’ve generally found the government to be non-supportive.” It was the court system that caused the attorney general to issue his own decision on Tuesday.
Mark said the decision is important because it provides “recognition,” even if not totally so.
“Up to now, Israeli society has complicitly accepted that the only legitimate form of Judaism is Orthodox Judaism,” he said. “While Reform and Masorti are tolerated, they’ve never experienced broad support even among the non-Orthodox. It’s a huge step in terms of communal recognition.”
The NJBR head said he does not think the Israeli decision will hasten efforts to bring together local Jews of various streams. He noted, however, that this week the executive boards of the NJBR and the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) held a joint meeting “to look at places where we can work together for the community.”
Neal Borovitz, rabbi of Temple Avodat Shalom and chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), said he is both “grateful and excited.”
“I’m very grateful in particular to one individual who has made this his life’s passion and his work,” he said, citing Rabbi Uri Regev, an Israeli with a law degree from Tel Aviv University and ordination from Hebrew Union College. “For 30 years, he has fought this battle in the court system of Israel on all different levels.”
Borovitz said he is also grateful for the joint efforts of the international Reform and Conservative movements.
“It’s a statement by Israeli society that the State of Israel belongs to all of us,” said Borovitz, “that every one of us has equal rights and responsibilities.”
He said he prays that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – with an expanded cabinet that does not rely on a majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews – will implement the attorney general’s decision.
“Time will tell,” he said, “but I believe it’s a very important civil and human rights battle. Everyone should have equal access to worship and freedom of religious expression. It’s a fundamental principle in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and is extended to every non-Jewish community. What we’re doing is implementing [that] principle.”
Borovitz said he hopes the decision will encourage more Israelis to align with non-Orthodox movements, suggesting that it offers Israelis “a very important opportunity.”
He pointed out that thousands of Israelis now travel to Cyprus for their “legal” weddings and then come home for ceremonies performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis.
“That shouldn’t have to happen,” he said. He is hopeful that this will now change and that the weddings can be performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.
The rabbi noted that a great deal of progress has been made in the last few years to find areas of greater cooperation and mutual respect across religious streams in our own community. He said he is hopeful that this will continue.
“I’m sure there will be different reactions [to this decision] across religious streams,” he said, “but I hope this will show that our religious differences are all l’shem shamayaim,” for the sake of heaven.
Steven Sirbu, rabbi of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, a Reform synagogue, called the attorney general’s decision “a great one promoting pluralism in Israel and acknowledging the reality that there’s more than one way to believe in Judaism and practice Judaism.” He is hopeful, he said, that the Israeli government will respect the authority of the court and its own atorney general, and implement the ruling.
The rabbi said that while he does not know if the ruling will encourage Israelis to align with non-Orthodox movements, “good publicity can’t hurt.” Ultimately, however, “It is the responsibility of the non-Orthodox movements to get their message out about a meaningful Judaism that people can relate to.”
Sirbu said the Israeli decision is “big news for American Jews. Our dream is for Israel to be a thriving democracy. Respecting religious pluralism is yet another step toward that goal.”
David Fine, rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, said that the greatest challenge facing non-Orthodox Jews in Israel has been the “financial challenge. The Orthodox are funded by the state. No fundraising on the ground in Israel or in the diaspora can compare with state funding.”
He pointed out that the budget for the entire Masorti movement in Israel has been comparable to the budget of just one large Conservative congregation in the United States.
“I know of some cases where Conservative rabbis who had the dream of making aliyah and building a rabbinate in Israel were unable to make a living and support their families,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary step to open up state funding for non-Orthodox Jews.
Fine noted limitations contained in the ruling, which applies to farming communities and regional councils, but not to cities, and acknowledged the concern of parties such as Shas, who fear that the ruling will open the door to expanded funding and even greater recognition of legitimacy.
“I hope they’re right,” he said. “This kind of allocation of state shekels hasn’t happened before,” he said.
Fine said it is also exciting that the announcement came not from the court but from Israel’s attorney general. He noted that while over the past few decades the court has made decisions in favor of equal treatment, “the government has asked for extensions and found ways to postpone and delay. This was announced by the government. That’s an entirely different animal.”
“That’s a positive side of the new unity government,” he said, referring to the recent agreement between Kadima and Likud. “When there’s consolidation, there’s an opportunity for the government to take positions it may have wanted to take before but didn’t have the political ability to do so.”
The Ridgewood rabbi said the decision “allows the development of more options for Israelis than were there before. I think Israelis are sophisticated modern Jews, just like us, and they will consider the various options they have,” he said. “They will look at different synagogues and decide where they’re more comfortable.”
Shmuel Goldin, rabbi of Congregation. Ahavath Torah in Englewood and current president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said he thinks the ruling “reflects an inevitable development in a country that has a secular government. If a particular community chooses someone to be their rabbi, whether traditional or not, the government will eventually fund that rabbi as an acknowledged religious leader. I understand that and accept that this is probably inevitable.”
Goldin said that at the same time, “I think we have to be careful about exporting divisions and religious denominations [from the] diaspora willy-nilly to Israel, and saying that everything that applies here, applies there. It’s a different society; it has different needs.”
“It’s not clear to anybody that Orthodox/Conservative/Reform divisions are same [here] as they were 40 years ago, or that they will be the same in 20 years,” he said. “It’s counterintuitive to say that these have to be the denominations in Israel,” he added, suggesting that we must be “careful about imposing [on Israeli society] what have been uniquely diaspora developments and assuming they will take root and be effective there.”
Goldin said that when the government of Israel is called upon to have “religious standards that unify us,” he would hate to see us export our divisions to that country.
“What will happen is that things that divide us here will start dividing us there,” he said, citing issues such as conversion, Who is a Jew, and matters concerning divorce and marital status. “We’ll end up having a situation where the unity that does exist will be threatened. That can be dangerous.”
Still, he noted, “Having said that, I recognize the problems of the unified standard as it exists. There are issues that need to be addressed by the rabbanut, but they should be addressed internally.