Rehearsals for a Reform Bat Mitzvah, May 8, 2003.
Rehearsals for a Reform Bat Mitzvah, May 8, 2003. Photo by Lior Mizrahi / BauBau
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If the story of the decline and decline of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel is ever written, May 29, 2012 will be recorded as a particularly dismal date. It will be remembered as the day when two non-Orthodox streams of Judaism abandoned all pretense of representing an up-to-date, cleaner, more relevant and altogether more attractive alternative Jewish practice, and succumbed to the temptation to become just another desiccated brand of money-grubbing clericalism.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein's announcement this week that the government will pay into the salaries of fifteen "rabbis of non-Orthodox communities" is of course a just and overdue decision. There is no reason that rabbis who lead communities should not receive state funding simply because their specific type of 19th-century Judaism is not associated with a party of the ruling coalition. If the government sees fit to pay at least part of the salaries of rabbinical figures who provide spiritual guidance for civilians as they go through their daily travails, officiate at their ceremonial milestones of life, rejoice with them, console them and occasionally solve nutty religious, ethical and even legal conundrums for them, they should do so for all rabbis, no matter their Jewish persuasion or gender. (Weinstein has ended not only discrimination against non-Orthodox rabbis but as a result also non-recognition of female rabbis ).

The real question, though, is whether a handful of not very hefty paychecks are really worth so much to the two movements that they want to be tainted by the politicians' largesse? Of course, the obvious answer would be that it's not about the money, it's the principle. This is taxpayers' money and the government must treat all religious streams equally.

But there is another principle that those who believe in liberal and democratic values should be fighting for, and that is separation of synagogue and state. And that battle is especially crucial in Israel where both Judaism and Jewish statehood have become so corrupted by the non-kosher, meat-milk combination of politics and the rabbinate.

Scandal and corruption, nepotism, favoritism, bribery and quackery are prevalent today in every department of the publicly-funded religious establishment. From the Chief Rabbinate and Supreme Beit Din (Religious Court ), all the way down to the most obscure rural religious council and local rabbinical court, Kashrut has become a multimillion-dollar industry, where money, not Jewish religious law rules. The appointment process of chief rabbis and religious judges is hopelessly politicized and skewed in favor of sons and nephews, while even the ordination process of new rabbis has become the subject of police investigation as a scheme to issue fraudulent rabbinical certificates was uncovered.

Welcome ladies and gentlemen, reform and conservative rabbis, dig in and get dirty. You probably think you will be the first sect in history to emerge spotless from the maelstrom of religion, politics and money. Now, let's be brutally honest for one moment about the real reasons that the non-Orthodox movements have failed for decades to connect with the wider Israeli public.

Decades of institutionalized discrimination, while being scandalous and shameful, are not what prevented the Reform and Conservatives from clicking with many more Israelis. No, the real barrier has not been the lack of recognition by the authorities, but a failure by both these movements to shed their elitist, Ashkenazi, Anglo, leftist and above all foreign image.

The majority of Jewish Israelis do not lead lifestyles that in any way conform with Orthodox guidelines. Their general outlook has a lot more in common with the liberal streams and, in principle, they support them in their struggle against Orthodox religious hegemony. Most Israelis have a lot of sympathy for the Supreme Court campaigns of the non-Orthodox streams, but that support just hasn't been translated into membership. Educated, secular or traditional Israelis still do not flock to join and on the rare occasions they visit a synagogue or have need of a rabbi, they seek out an Orthodox one.

This is not due to a lack of public funds or government recognition. Thanks to membership dues and fundraising, the average Reform or Conservative synagogue still has more resources than a typical Sephardi place of worship, despite its affiliation to Shas and all of that party's Knesset members and ministers.

Missed opportunity

Ironically, this could have been a period of huge success for the liberal Jewish movements. Over the last few years, at the same time as parts of the religious landscape have become more dogmatic, demagogic and depraved, there has been a flowering of religious renaissance elsewhere, almost everywhere.

Nearly every strand of religion in Israel has seen an alternative, parallel thread challenging it: From the Haredi world, where the anarchy of Breslav scandalizes the Hassidic communities while the Lithuanians face an intellectual young generation seeking a wider academic education than offered by the yeshivas; to the West Bank, where the young settlers have defied the old leadership to become not only more politically radical, but also developing New Age-style directions and in some cases looking for common spiritual cause with Muslim neighbors.

Meanwhile, in the cities, the urban national religious are challenging halakha (Jewish religious law ) with egalitarian practices, the "traditional" are fusing spiritualism with hedonism and the secular are experimenting with the Jewish bookshelf. Everyone is trying out new and alternative grassroots religious experiences, far away from the old establishment - and the Reform and Conservatives, who should have been at the center of all this religious and spiritual ferment, are nowhere to be seen. They are busy trying to get government funding and official recognition. What a worthy yet empty cause.

Apparently, Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi has said he would rather resign than comply with the decision and authorize payments to non-Orthodox rabbis. Rather than force him to take that step, the attorney general has found a back channel through which the fifteen Reform and Conservative rabbis will be paid by the Culture and Sports Ministry. And it won't be salaries, as the local councils will not employ them; instead, they will receive "financial assistance."

Is this the recognition they fought for? A sordid arrangement tailored to somehow satisfy the demands of both the Supreme Court and the Haredi politicians? The leadership of the Conservative and Reform movements should realize that Margi is doing them a favor by reminding them what a fleapit they are getting into.

Now is the moment to stand back from the brink, moments before they jump in the swill, never to come up clean again. They can still say that while it is their just and democratic right to enjoy public funding on an equal footing with the Orthodox, they have decided not to sully and degrade themselves by taking the government's Shekel. Instead they plan to fight for the hearts and minds of Israelis, for a cleaner political establishment and ethical humanistic Judaism. This is their last chance.