Haviv Rettig Gur

No time to celebrate

The celebrated decision by Attorney-General Yehudah Weinstein to allow state funding for Reform and Conservative rabbis may be a blow to Israel’s liberal Jewish movements from which they will be hard-pressed to recover.

The decision does little to grant non-Orthodox streams any meaningful rights, such as the power to marry or convert. At the same time, it robs the liberal streams of any lingering excuses for failing to appeal to meaningful numbers of Israelis.

I’ll let Shas explain.

You may have noticed that Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi has been making a big show of opposing the Weinstein decision – accusing High Court justices of a “conflict of interest,” bravely declaring he would resign if forced to pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis, and the like.

It’s all a sham. Luckily for Margi’s career, Israel hasn’t actually recognized Reform and Conservative rabbis as rabbis, but rather as cultural figures. So they will not be paid through Margi’s ministry, but through the Likud-controlled Ministry of Culture and Sport.

This gap between Margi’s rhetoric and reality was highlighted in an exposé by Israel’s Channel 10 that did not go unnoticed in the haredi press. The channel uncovered a secret letter from Margi’s office in which he agreed to the transfer of budgets to the Culture Ministry for the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis.

Why would Margi bluster so, yet quietly play along?

Here’s a theory: Because while he can’t say it to his base, he’s actually quite happy with the decision.

For one thing, Shas has actually surrendered very little. While Reform movement appeals managed to change the technical title of the new positions from “community leader” to “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community,” the legal framework remains unchanged. The new “rabbis” have no state-sanctioned rabbinic powers such as marriage, divorce or burial, and will not be eligible to serve in state religious institutions or rabbinic courts.

Second, in granting the liberal streams a small measure of their rights, which was magnified into a major political victory by the streams’ own celebratory rhetoric, Shas has set them up to fail.

As former longtime Shas spokesman and communications professor Ro’i Lachmanovich explained in a remarkable oped in the popular daily Yisrael Hayom two weeks ago:

I welcome the decision as an opportunity for the Orthodox world to demonstrate the meaning of a community that thrives on the ground, as opposed to communities that exist through PR agencies, High Court appeals and extra-parliamentary NGOs.

Some in the haredi parties have begun to contemplate what is for them a radical new strategy: trust the open marketplace. The liberal movements are so unpopular in Israel that they are not really dangerous, they say. If you rob them of their grievances and victimhood, these “clowns” – as UTJ MK Moshe Gafni has recently started to call Reform and Conservative rabbis – will hoist themselves by their own English-speaking petard.

“We used to think an open market would harm observant Judaism,” an ex-haredi friend told me recently. “But even hilonim [seculars] know the difference between a real rabbi and a fake one.”

Lachmanovich went so far as to call on Margi to publicly embrace the Weinstein decision and welcome the open contest over authentic Jewishness.

Failing to make the sale

Why are the non-Orthodox streams so unpopular?

It’s not that Israelis don’t agree with them. According to a major Israel Democracy Institute study published earlier this year, most Israeli Jews are God-fearing but religiously liberal.

While a huge majority – 80 percent – believe in God and three-quarters keep a kosher home, fully 92 percent agree that “a person can be a good Jew even if he or she does not observe the religious tradition.” Over 60% support opening theaters, cafes and sporting events on the Sabbath and 48% favor instituting civil marriage.

In fact, no fewer than 61% of Israeli Jews say Reform and Conservative Judaism should have equal status with the Orthodox in the Jewish state. The same figure – 61% – say public life in Israel should be conducted in accordance with the Jewish religious tradition, suggesting there are millions of Jewish Israelis in the overlapping percentages who emphatically believe that Reform and Conservative Judaism are legitimate expressions of that tradition.

This seems fertile ground for the liberal religious movements. Yet they have failed to make the sale.

As Shmuel Rosner has shown by delving into the original data of that IDI study, only 1% of Israeli Jews attend non-Orthodox services or ceremonies “regularly” and only 3% “frequently.” The liberal streams have failed to bring meaningful numbers of Israelis from the secular desert into a spiritual community.

Instead, at a time when the state rabbinate’s decline is apparent to all – when it is ignored by haredim and derided by the same national-religious camp that once believed the institution heralded the coming of messianic times – only the Reform and Conservative still yearn to join and be counted.

Some argue this comes from financial desperation, as the streams collect little from Israeli donors and congregants, and even less from overseas movements, whose rhetorical commitment to Israel’s religious diversity has failed to translate into meaningful funding or support.

In the final analysis, instead of making a convincing case to Israelis about what rabbis and synagogues should and could be, the liberal streams have spent the past few decades suing the state to allow them to join the ranks of those very religious institutions that have so abjectly failed Israel and Israelis.

The Weinstein decision marks the beginning of the end of this strategy. As the political excuses wane, the liberal movements’ deeper failures will become apparent.

Given the choice, will they choose us?

The Weinstein decision allows rural communities – comprising roughly 15 out of 4,000 state-funded rabbinic slots nationwide – to choose a non-Orthodox rabbi. The question is, will they?

The battle for Rabbi Miri Gold in Gezer is all well and good. She deserves as much recognition as the next rabbi. But has the Reform movement considered what might happen if the victory at Gezer fails to produce even a single additional state-funded non-Orthodox rabbi? The Anglo-heavy Arava region might also select a Reform rabbi, but it is hard to think of many more locations where that is the case.

Let us pray Shas is miscalculating. But let us learn hard lessons if it is not. At the end of the day, can there be anything more damaging to the non-Orthodox movements than incontrovertible proof, ironically obtained by the very victories the Reform and Conservative are now celebrating, that they are unwanted?

Haviv Rettig Gur is a Conservative Jew and the son of a Reform rabbi.

About the Author
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.