Reform Jews - Lior Mizrahi/Baubau - May 30, 2012
Reform Jewish women doing a practice run for a bat mitzvah. Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Baubau
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The agreement between the state and Israel's non-Orthodox Jewish movements, under which the government will pay salaries to non-Orthodox rabbis just as it does to Orthodox rabbis, gave great satisfaction to these movements' leaders, and rightly so. For the first time, they have succeeded in breaching the wall of rejectionism erected by Israel's Orthodox monopoly. But the movements' leaders also know very well that this compromise is merely a first, hesitant step in the right direction.

The government was facing a double threat: On one hand, the High Court of Justice might well have obligated it to grant completely equal status to non-Orthodox rabbis, while on the other, the religious parties were threatening to quit the coalition. Thus the compromise concocted by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, with assistance from Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, was a kind of bypass operation. But it remains far from providing full equality and recognition.

After all, the state didn't agree to transfer money to Reform and Conservative rabbis via the religious councils; instead, it will fund them separately. Moreover, it defined these rabbis as "community leaders," so as not to give them a status equal to municipal or neighborhood rabbis. And it made clear that they will have no influence over decisions on matters of religion and halakha (Jewish law ). All these restrictions are meant to entrench the exclusive status of Orthodoxy and of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Nevertheless, the High Court has not yet had its final say on the matter. And the tiny crack that was wedged opened this week portends a new atmosphere that could offer new opportunities for the provision of religious and community services in Israel.

This is an opportune moment to remind the court, and the attorney general, that way back in the 1970s, the Zadok Committee recommended severing the link between religious services, on one hand, and the rabbinate and the religious parties, on the other. Instead, it proposed defining them as egalitarian civic services to be provided by the local authorities. It's still not too late to implement those recommendations.

Orthodoxy, which rules Israelis' lives with a heavy hand, constitutes a negligible minority of the global Jewish community. We now have an opportunity to reconsider the extent to which the state employs rabbis. It would be better to have their own communities finance their salaries, instead of having the entire tab picked up by the state and the local authorities.