For many long years, the liberal Jewish movements in Israel – that is, Reform and Conservative – have used court petitions to fight their position in the Israeli pecking order. More than in the houses of prayer, they have invested their energy in the houses of law; inch by inch, High Court decision after High Court decision, they have cleared each hurdle in their path. And in the meantime they have had a set reply to those surprised by their relative low popularity among the public, at their small number of members: discrimination. It’s hard to flourish, however hard you work, when the state won’t allow your congregation to convert, marry, bury its dead; when it prevents your faithful women from donning a tallith at the Kotel, doesn’t fund your rabbis, opts not to appoint them to paid positions, tries to undermine them in any possible way. It is indeed difficult.
Discrimination is both an explanation and an excuse. With that in mind, yesterday’s decision by the state - allowing for the first time government salaries for non-Orthodox rabbis so that they can fulfill their duties to their congregations – has double significance. On one hand, it brings liberal Judaism one step closer, but not the final step, to equality. One small step, after years of negotiating with the state, has opened the floodgates to further positive rulings. What has now been permitted on a small scale will be hard to ban on a large scale; what is right and proper for a farming community will inevitably reach the urban communities.
And suddenly, Israel has a new profession: “the rabbi of a non-Orthodox congregation”. Several years ago, then Israeli president Moshe Katsav refused to bestow the honorific of “rabbi” on the president of the Reform Movement. In his defense, Katsav claimed that as long as the State of Israel did not recognize such a title, then nor was he obligated to do so. One way or another, that argument was dumped in the trash yesterday. And others will hopefully be dumped soon, because there is no place for institutionalized discrimination against Israeli Jews who aren’t prepared to conform to the rulings of a select group of Haredi rabbis. Indeed, it seems judicial and societal patience for the supremacy of Orthodox rabbis has been exhausted.
But that is just one side of the coin. On the other side there is the need for liberal Judaism to prove itself. Now that some of the obstacles have been removed, when Israel is moving closer to apparent equality, the liberal movements must show that they can connect to Israeli society not just through the courts of law, but rather through direct engagement; they need to prove that they have real power to attract the public, the ability to recruit members and build institutions. They have to show that they are more than just a haven for Israelis who - rightfully - have no desire to deal with the rabbinate, or who - rightfully - are angry at the rabbinate, or who have principled reservations - and they too are sometimes right - about the style of Judaism the rabbinate presents. They will need to prove that after the struggle for equality they have something there worth fighting for. Here’s a worthy subject for discussion at the annual conference of the Reform Movement, which begins at the end of this week.