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When there are no more excuses for Israel’s Reform

by Shmuel Rosner

May 30, 2012 | 11:09 am

Reform Jews praying together in Jerusalem. (Photo: Reuters)

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.‎

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