With Rivlin as President, Orthodox Monopoly in Israel Will Prevail

Those hoping that Israel’s presidential frontrunner has gotten over his opinion that Reform Judaism is 'idol worship and not Judaism' shouldn't hold their breath.

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Reuven Rivlin. Jerusalem apartment worth some 3 million shekels.
Reuven Rivlin. Jerusalem apartment worth some 3 million shekels.Credit: Tess Scheflan

Those hoping that Israel’s likely next president has gotten over his opinion that Reform Judaism is “idol worship and not Judaism” would do well not to hold their breath.

The race for the presidency doesn’t seem to have significantly adjusted the views of frontrunner, senior Likud MK Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin.

A few days ago, the former leader of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, recalled how Rivlin, in an earlier bid for president in 2007, refused to commit to addressing Reform rabbis by the title of “rabbi” should he win the race. His opponent - Shimon Peres, who of course, ended up as president - said that he would do so.

Yoffie asked the question in an Op-Ed piece in Haaretz this week, in the wake of what he saw as a history of Rivlin’s personal dislike of egalitarian Jewish practice.

He recalled: “In the 1980s, when I led the Reform movement’s Zionist arm, we brought a Knesset delegation that included Rivlin to the United States. On Erev Shabbat, the delegation prayed at a Reform synagogue in Westfield, New Jersey, then as now a thriving center of Jewish life. That evening, hundreds of Jews came to greet the Israeli lawmakers. Rivlin, however, had never experienced men and women praying together and had never seen a woman hazan. While others in the delegation were impressed by the enthusiastic davening, he was appalled.”

Rivlin wasted no time putting his disgust for what he had seen on the record. His words were harsh:

“As a Jew who does not observe 613 commandments and perhaps not even 13 commandments, I was deeply shocked without any limit. I discovered what kind of worshiping group was in front of me, such that any connection between it and Judaism didn’t even approach reality. I felt as if I were in a church. I was completely stunned. This is idol worship and not Judaism. Until now I thought Reform was a stream of Judaism, but after visiting two of their synagogues I am convinced that this is a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism. Total assimilation. Their prayer is like a completely Protestant ceremony.”

Does he still feel the same way? In Yoffie’s piece, he asked Rivlin point-blank the same question he posed in 2007: “If he is elected president of the State of Israel, will he address Reform rabbis by the title “rabbi”?”

I approached Rivlin’s spokesperson and asked for his reaction. At first, she hedged, texting me that “Ruby respects every person and every person of faith and people who were ordained by his community to serve as leaders and rabbis.”

I pressed her more specifically to address Yoffie’s question: When he is president, will he call Reform Rabbis “Rabbi?"

The answer was again evasive - but the bottom line seemed pretty clear. “Ruby’s approach to people of religion won’t change, even if, G-d willing, he becomes president.”

I told her that I was going to take that as a “no” and she said “the answer is what it is.”

Finally, she pointed out helpfully, “Rivlin is secular.”

Her need to bring that to my attention was unnecessary, but telling. Many secular Israelis, particularly those of Rivlin’s generation, see the Orthodox Judaism they don’t practice as the true legitimate form of the religion, or as it is put in colloquial terms “the synagogue they don’t attend is Orthodox.”

That sentiment and attitude has sustained the Orthodox monopoly in Israel just as significantly as any strong-arming by the ultra-Orthodox or the rabbinate. And if Rivlin wins the race, it is the attitude that will prevail in the president’s mansion.

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