Text size

Rabbi Eric Yoffie does not have a robe or clerical headgear. He does not curse his rivals, he does not excommunicate, he does not issue rulings of din rodef (the duty to kill someone who imperils another's life) with respect to Israeli leaders and he does not publish stringent rulings in rabbinical law. Nevertheless, and even though not many people in Israel have heard his name, Yoffie, the veteran and undisputed leader of the Reform movement in the United States, is one of the most important rabbis of the Jewish people. He is also one of Israel's most important and influential friends in the United States.

But Israel's President Moshe Katsav is not willing to address Yoffie with the title of rabbi. Instead, he finds various ways to address him - mister, sir and sometimes, so they say in the Reform movement, even a clap on the shoulder. This week, Yoffie will be in Israel for the Zionist Congress, but unlike in the past, he will relinquish the pleasure of meeting with the president. It appears that it would not be exaggerated to talk of a crisis in the Reform movement's relations with the President's Residence.

Yoffie is not alone. When a delegation from Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement's university, was to meet with the president, the Reform representatives stipulated that the president must address the college's president, David Ellenson, by the title "rabbi." Rabbi Ellenson is considered one of the foremost thinkers in the Jewish world today. The president agreed to use only the title "professor." The delegation's visit was canceled.

In an interview with Channel 1 television on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, President Katsav said that he would call Reform rabbis by the title "rabbi" only after the state, by means of the Knesset, does so. Why did His Excellency the president make a point of mentioning the Knesset? Perhaps because the state, in compliance with a decision by the High Court of Justice, recognizes conversions that are carried out by Reform rabbis abroad and also gives funding to Hebrew Union College, the institution that trains Reform rabbis in Israel. In other words, it is not the state that does not recognize Reform rabbis. It is His Excellency who does not recognize them.

On occasions when Katsav has spoken about his refusal to call a Reform rabbi "rabbi," the president has expressed distress: To the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, Anat Hoffman, he explained: "I cannot call him that," referring to the executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Uri Regev. In the interview with Channel 1, Katsav explained that he grew up in a home where a rabbi was only someone who had been ordained in an Orthodox way.

This is a president who has called the secular public "infants who have been taken captive," because they have not had the privilege of becoming acquainted with Orthodoxy. Now it turns out that in Israel, there is a "president who has been taken captive," because in his childhood, he did not have the privilege of becoming acquainted with Reform Judaism.

But Katsav's distress is irrelevant - because he is the president of the entire public. When he behaves in such a crude and uncouth way toward Rabbi Yoffie, he does so in the name of the public. When he is contemptuous of Rabbi Yoffie, he insults not only more than 1 million Reform Jews in the United States, but also the Israeli public. One of the president's few roles is to nurture the connection between Israel and the Diaspora. Anyone who cannot call a Reform rabbi "rabbi" should not serve as president.

The president is respectfully requested to take this opportunity to bring himself up to date on several additional facts. Next year, a secular yeshiva will be established in Israel. It will be headed by former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg. Burg will be a yeshiva head in every respect, even if this is not what the president was accustomed to when he was little. The head of the Reform movement's Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel is Rabbi Ada Zavidov, a woman. Zavidov, Yoffie and Ellenson are no less rabbis than Katsav is president.

The refusal of the president to refer to them as rabbis endangers all his achievements in the area of strengthening ties between Israel and the Diaspora. This week, the 35th Zionist Congress is being held in Israel. This is an excellent opportunity for the president to come to his senses, to realize that his role obliges him to norms of behavior that supersede the Orthodox education he received and to find a public opportunity to honor Rabbi Yoffie with his title. This will help repair not only Katsav's relations with American Jewry, but also the presidency's trampled honor