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Israel Agrees to Recognize
BY MICHELE CHABIN ©2012 Religion News Service
hen activist Anat Hoffman learned that the Israeli government had agreed to pay a state-funded salary to several non-Orthodox rabbis--something their Orthodox counterparts have been receiving for decades--she recited the Shehechiyanu, an ancient blessing of thanks that Jews intone on special occasions.
"This was the first time the government called a non-Orthodox person--or a woman--'a rabbi'" said Hoffman, who heads the Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the activist arm of Israel's Reform Jewish movement.
The government's landmark decision on May 29 comes seven years after Hoffman's agency petitioned Israel's highest court to recognize Miri Gold, a Detroit-born Israeli Reform rabbi, as a bona fide spiritual leader.
Until now, Israel's Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements, which together have about 250 rabbis and around 100 congregations, have received no official recognition of their leaders or institutions. In 2011, the government allotted the Orthodox movement $450 million; the Conservative and Reform movements received $60,000.
This financial inequality, coupled with the government's refusal to recognize non-Orthodox conversions and weddings performed in Israel, has sparked fireworks between successive Israeli leaders and American Jews.
That's why Reform, Masorti and many modern-Orthodox Jews consider the precedent a victory. And it's why Israel's strictly Orthodox religious establishment, which has government-empowered authority over all matters related to Judaism, is livid.
Under the agreement, the government acceded to Orthodox demands not to pay Gold and 15 other rabbis in outlying communities from the Ministry of Religious Services budget. In addition, the decision stipulates that the rabbis' religious rulings would pertain only to their Reform and Masorti communities.
Even so, traditional Jews clearly feel threatened by what they consider non-Orthodox watered-down Judaism. Ya'acov Margi, the Orthodox Minister of Religious Services, threatened to resign over the issue.
Nissim Ze'ev, an ultra-Orthodox parliamentarian, called the decision "harmful to the soul of the Jewish people" and said he may introduce legislation to define what a rabbi is using strictly Orthodox criteria.