NEW YORK An American rabbi walks into the office of the Israeli president and the president says, "Hello, rabbi."
It may sound like the set-up to a good, old-fashioned Jewish joke, but if it is, it’s got an unusual punch line. That’s because when a similar, banal-seeming exchange took place last week in Israel, it seemed like a political breakthrough.
In a meeting at his office on June ‘8, Israeli President Moshe Katsav referred to Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as "rav," the Hebrew honorific for a rabbi.
A few weeks earlier, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, had refused to meet the president after Katsav refused to call him rabbi, saying he was bound by state regulations that recognized only the ordination of Orthodox rabbis.
The spat touched on longstanding frustration among non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and the diaspora. Because the Orthodox chief rabbinate largely controls religious life, non-Orthodox Jews and their rabbis often feel treated as second-class citizens.
The brouhaha comes on the heels of several other developments over the last couple of months including some that involve tensions between Orthodox institutions in America and in Israel that have some in the Jewish community publicly fretting over a widening schism between Israelis and American Jews.
"The fact is there is a growing rift and it’s incumbent upon all of us to understand why and work to find ways to bridge that growing gap," said David Borowich, founder and chairman of Dor Chadash, a group that aims to act as a bridge between Israeli and American Jews.
Otherwise, he added, "It will only get worse."
In May, the Israeli rabbinate said it would no longer automatically recognize conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis from North America. The move angered many in the community who felt the rabbinate was questioning their legitimacy. It further worried some liberal Jews who said that if Orthodox rabbis were being so treated, it could not bode well for them.
That same month, Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua told an audience of American Jews that Jewish life is experienced more completely in Israel than anywhere else. The comments set off a firestorm of angry recriminations from diaspora Jews who felt that, once again, they were being assigned second fiddle.
Furthermore, it has become clear that a year after agreeing to do so, Israel’s Ministry of Education still is not recognizing academic degrees earned by graduates of New York’s Yeshiva University, an Orthodox institution. In remarks to the Knesset’s Education Committee on June ‘5, the university’s president, Richard Joel, called the policy "inconceivable" and "unacceptable."
Taken together, this series of events has highlighted for many the sense that Israelis and American Jews do not understand each other very well. This may be particularly true on matters relating to the non-Orthodox movements, which, while numerically dominant in the United States, are relatively small in Israel and not well known among many Israelis.
"Israel is growing as a society unto itself, with its own cultural milieu, and the diaspora is growing in its way," Joel told JTA, stressing that the Y.U. situation was more bureaucratic than political. "To believe that somehow Israel is, culturally, the 51st state is, I think, unreasonable."
The gap, he added, is likely born of several factors, including the profoundly divergent political situations each group faces.
"Not having the constant pressure of the enemy at the borders has created a different reality for us than it has for Israelis," he said.
"We just expect that we have the right to weigh in on issues," Joel continued. "They say, ‘We’re glad you’re interested, but you don’t live here.’ We say, ‘But this is our homeland.’ They say, ‘Then how come you’re not living in your homeland?’"
"There’s mutual frustration," he said. "Americans have this tendency to tell Israel how they want things run and Israelis have the tendency to do whatever they want. We both push each others’ hot buttons. Both sides are at fault."
Still, Borowich said, the schism is not surprising. He likens the two groups to distant cousins one who left Europe or North Africa and headed to the ancestral Jewish homeland, and another who made his way to the United States. Then both had kids. And their kids had kids.
"How many people are close to their third cousins?" he asked.
Epstein, for his part, said the Katsav situation does not represent evidence of a major rift.
Nevertheless, "It could become a schism and that’s why I went to have this meeting to try to prevent it," he said. "It’s very easy to let a schism occur. It will take all sides working together" to prevent it.
During the course of his meeting with Katsav, Epstein said, the two men engaged in a cordial, honest exchange.
"I’m not asking you to let me be your posek," religious arbiter, "or your teacher, but I’m asking you from the bottom of my heart to regard me as my community does, as a rabbi and a rav," Epstein said he told the president.
During the last 15 minutes of their talk, Epstein said, Katsav made the switch and began referring to him as "rav."
In the aftermath of the Epstein meeting, a spokesman for Katsav said this was, in fact, representative of the president’s policy.
"President Katsav calls all rabbis of all streams by their title, rabbi," Akiva Tor told JTA. He declined to say more, and it remains unclear whether it represents a policy change or whether Katsav makes a distinction between Reform and Conservative rabbis.
Katsav had initially offered to use the appellate "Reform rabbi" in addressing Yoffie.
For his part, Yoffie is looking for a more clear-cut response to his concerns.
Katsav’s resolution with Epstein "means that he backed away from a position that he had stated so emphatically," Yoffie said. Nevertheless, "his failure to very specifically indicate that Reform rabbis will also be called by their religious title is distressing and while this is progress, it’s insufficient progress."
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, says the dispute between Yoffie and Katsav was constructive in that it drew attention to "the essential and crucial theological gulf between the Jewish religious tradition and contemporary Jewish theologies that compromise it."
In the end, he concludes, "Sometimes words have discrete, and even disparate, meanings. A rose, to be sure, is a rose. But a rabbi is not necessarily a rabbi, and surely not necessarily a rav," he writes. "Whatever one chooses to call them, teachers of the Torah’s divinity and halacha’s unchanging nature are in a different theological universe from those who teach rejection of those ideas."
Meanwhile, Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, said that Israeli representatives abroad address rabbis from all the various denominations as rabbi.
"There are no instructions for any of us to make any differentiation," he told JTA staff in a meeting last Wednesday.
Mekel said he does not see evidence of an Israeli-diaspora rift. Indeed, he said, he believes the "partnership is becoming more evident."
"It has become clearer what is the role of American Jewry and the role of Israel," he said.
"Your role is to support the State of Israel, because it is the Jewish state," he added. "At the same time, our role is to assist you and your No. 1 problem, which is Jewish continuity."