“Reform Jew” describes a member of Judaism’s largest and most liberal denomination.
In Israel, however, a law suit wants it officially recognized as a defamatory insult. In the libel suit brought by an Orthodox Jewish woman against a rabbi she said defamed her, the adjective “Reform” is listed among the slights.
The dispute pits Adina Bar Shalom — a daughter of the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef – against Rabbi David Benizri, a prominent supporter of the Shas Orthodox movement. It began just after a woman was elected mayor of the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh, which has a significant haredi Orthodox population.
Bar Shalom spoke in favor of women’s rights during the campaign, sparking the rabbi’s fury, according to an article published December 16 in the news site Srugim.
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Naming the late Yosef, Benizri wrote in a letter to followers: “I pity his Reform daughter, the accursed wicked woman, who came here and spoke in the name of the Rabbinate and for the so-called Women’s Council of Beit Shemesh. Bitter will be her day of judgment, bitter will be her day of reproach.”
Among many of Israel’s Orthodox, “Reform” is considered a strong insult. Benizri, brother of a former Shas lawmaker, quickly realized he had crossed a line applying the term to Bar Shalom, whose father was a seminal leader of Shas.
He apologized in an op-ed published in the Keren Or local news site.
“I had a complicated few days, including insomnia,” he wrote in a rare apology for a rabbi of his stature. “I never should have said what I did and I feel bad about it. So I want to convey here an apology and I hope she accepts it.”
But Bar Shalom said she has no intention of burying the hatchet, telling Ynet she is preparing a libel suit for $80,000 against Benizri. “I am not Reform and his intention was to defame me and my family. I will not let it go,” she said. “People like him harm the haredi public terribly and he should learn his lashing out has its price.”
In surveys conducted in recent years, people who describe themselves as Reform Jews comprised 3 percent to 11 percent of Israeli Jewish respondents.
American Jewry offers a mirror image of those results. In a 2013 Pew Research study, Reform Judaism remained the largest American Jewish movement, at 35 percent. Conservative Jews were 18 percent, Orthodox 10 percent and smaller groups made up 6 percent among them.
Haredi Orthodox leaders often display more hostility towards Israel’s small Reform community than the plurality of Israeli Jews who are secular, with incidents of vandalism aimed at Reform synagogues. Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar last year compared Reform Jews to Holocaust deniers.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned his remarks.