For many long years, Israeli members of the Reform and Conservative movements — henceforth, the “liberals” (members of liberal Jewish movements in Israel)—have been fighting for their place in the Israeli arena by petitioning the courts. Their strength is greater in the courts than in the synagogues. One inch at a time, one High Court of Justice petition after another, they remove the obstacles in their path. When asked about their relative weakness in the public space, the small number of their members, respond with their stock answer: Discrimination.
It is hard to succeed when the state, in all its power, prevents your community from performing conversions, weddings, funerals. When it prevents your female members from covering themselves with prayer shawls at the Western Wall, when it won’t finance your rabbis, when it won’t appoint them to lucrative positions, and when it conspires against your beliefs and credo. Truly, it is difficult.
Discrimination is an explanation, but also an excuse. On Tuesday, the state approved — for the first time — salaries for non-orthodox rabbis to serve in their communities. On the one hand, this step brings liberal Judaism one step closer to equality. However, this step also has dual significance.
This one small step, after years of litigation, opens up a rather large window of opportunity for similar, future rulings. When something becomes permissible in a small regional council, it becomes harder to forbid in a large council. What is appropriate and right in an agricultural community, will eventually make its way to urban communities as well.
And suddenly there is a new profession in Israel; “a non-Orthodox rabbi of a community.” A few years ago, then-president Moshe Katzav refused to use the title of “rabbi” to address the president of the American reform movement. In his defense, Katzav claimed that as long as the state does not recognize this title (of Reform rabbi), he is not required to recognize it either. And now, this argument has just been thrown into the dust-bin. Soon, more claims similar to this one will also be discarded because there is no place in Israel for the accepted discrimination against liberal Jews who are not willing to adapt themselves to the religious rulings of several ultra-Orthodox rabbis. And evidently, the legal and social tolerance [of this discrimination], of the Jewish hegemony of “rabbis who are Orthodox,” is also coming to an end.
However, as aforesaid, this is only one side of the coin. One side [of the liberal-Judaism Israeli equation] is rights, the other side is obligations, or in this case, the burden of proof. The more that barriers to equality are removed, the more that equality becomes a reality; the more the liberal movements will be required to prove that they have the ability to communicate with Israeli society not only via the courts, but through direct rapprochement. They will have to prove that they have real powers of attraction, that they are able to recruit members and build institutions. They must prove that they are more than a place of refuge for Israelis who have no desire to deal, rightfully so, with the rabbinate; or that they are, justifiably, angry at the rabbinate; or that they have principled reservations, often justified, at the kind of Judaism represented by the rabbinate. They will have to prove that, after their struggle for equality, there is still much for them to fight for. Here is a worthy subject for discussion at the annual convention of the reform movement, to be held at the end of this week.