Michael Boyden

Cracks in the Orthodox Hegemony

I didn’t believe that I would see the day when Israel’s Ministry of Religions would announce its intention to pay the salaries of Reform and Conservative rabbis.

In response to a Supreme Court petition on behalf of the Reform Movement, the Attorney General stated last week that “the intention is to draw up criteria to determine appropriate yardsticks for supporting congregational rabbis without reference to the question as to which Jewish stream the relevant congregation belongs.”

It would have been inconceivable for such a declaration to have been made by a government that included Shas and United Torah Judaism in its coalition. Now that they are out, things are beginning to change.

Of course, it is one thing for the Attorney General to make such a statement and quite another thing to implement it.

A year has passed since Israel’s Attorney General informed the Supreme Court that the government had agreed to fund Reform rabbis serving communities such as Kibbutz Gezer. However, Rabbi Miri Gold, in whose name the petition was filed, has yet to receive her first pay cheque.

While the picture is not rosy, things are changing. Some 25 years ago, the only purpose built Reform synagogues in Israel were on the Hebrew Union College campus in Jerusalem and at the Leo Baeck School in Haifa. Today there are congregations springing up all over the country and many of them have their own buildings, which have been erected on public land.

Following successful petitions to Israel’s Supreme Court, conversions to Judaism conducted under the auspices of the Reform Movement are now not only recognized under the Law of Return for the purposes of making aliyah, but also enable non-Jewish Israelis to convert and be registered as Jews in the Interior Ministry’s population register.

When the Ne’eman Commission was established 16 years ago to address the conversion crisis, I had the privilege of being the first Reform rabbi to sit on a government appointed committee. It has now become commonplace for Israel’s political leaders to approach the Reform Movement on matters where they feel we have a contribution to make.

The protests by the Women of the Wall are part of the same struggle for religious rights and can no longer be ignored in a country where religious pluralism has taken root. What the practical solution to their demands will be has yet to be determined, but few question the need for a democracy such as Israel to find a way to accommodate them.

Little of what has happened could have occurred without the vocal and material support of Jews from overseas, who understand the importance of ensuring that Israel as a Jewish State grant religious equality to all. All Jews have the right to feel that their expression of Judaism is respected in Israel and that they have a religious home here.

It is in the context of a growing recognition that Judaism is multi-faceted that the agreement in principle to fund Reform and Conservative rabbis takes place. I don’t imagine for a moment that things will change overnight. I shall doubtlessly continue to serve Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon on a voluntary basis. Nevertheless, it is only a matter of time until religious pluralism will be acknowledged in Israel as it is throughout the Jewish world.

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.