Recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis is a partial - but hopeful - victory
In stable democracies, struggles to overcome fundamental inequalities are, by definition, won by incremental victories.
The decision by the Attorney General to recognize Masorti and Reform rabbis as community leaders and fund their salaries under certain limited circumstances could be an inflection point in the path towards a new relationship for Judaism and the Jewish state.
It is a partial victory, still replete with inconsistencies that temper its impact – the rabbis can serve outlying communities but not in cities, they are paid from a different budget, they may not exercise leadership in matters characterized by decision-making in halakah. Nonetheless, this victory gives ample reason for hope. In stable democracies, struggles to overcome fundamental inequalities are, by definition, won by incremental victories.
The chasm has been narrowed between those whose religious views gave them total entitlement to conduct their religious lives as they chose, funded by the Israeli taxpayer to the tune of $450 million every year, and those who did not enjoy what Israel’s Basic Law so eloquently calls “freedom of religion and conscience.” Israel has brought freedom and sovereignty to the Jewish people in ways heretofore unknown, but in matters of faith and tradition, the Jew in Israel still awaits emancipation.
Equal funding is a central issue.
As noted above, the Orthodox establishment receives at least $450 million per year in taxpayer funds in comparison to approximately $60,000 for the Masorti and Reform movements. There aren’t other organized Jewish religious movements or expressions in Israel seeking funding, because the imposition of a government-funded religious monopoly squashes the appetite to invent such things before they start.
We must not lose sight of the larger goal. Rabbi Miri Gold is the Jewish religious leader chosen by her community to inspire and strengthen them. What our hearts long for is an Israel where every Jew can find a community and select teachers who bring Torah and Jewish tradition in a way that inspires them. We imagine a time when the outstanding qualities of Israel’s young – their courage, their dedication, their creativity, are both strengthened by a Judaism they desire and in which they are the inventors of religious vitality and innovation. We would like to imagine that historians in hundreds of years will look back on a golden age where Judaism in the Jewish state can flourish in ways previously unimagined.
The need to seek redress and equality, mostly through the courts, masks the true terms of the discussion which are about how Israel can avail herself of the power and beauty of Judaism. We are the inheritors of a religious tradition characterized by dialogue among multiple voices – the Talmud page itself is designed to share and to facilitate a conversation. We hope for the day when Israel will truly embody the Talmud’s principle of אלו ואלו דברי אלוהים חיים הן – that “these and these” are the words of the living God – a clear statement dating back to our most basic rabbinic teachings, that Judaism recognizes multiple paths. Only equal funding for all streams of Judaism will achieve this goal.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis.