I have a question for Knesset member Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin: If he is elected president of the State of Israel, will he address Reform rabbis by the title “rabbi”?
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I ask this question now, because I have asked it before, to no avail. In 2007, I was the leader of the North American Reform Judaism movement. Rivlin had announced his intention to run against Shimon Peres for president. I visited his office and asked for his assurance that he would use my rabbinic title following his election. He hedged. I asked twice more, and he still hedged. The best he would do is say that as president of Israel, his door would be open to all segments of the Jewish people.
Not good enough. I left disappointed and dismayed.
The reason for the question was a widely publicized controversy the previous year involving then-President Moshe Katsav. In a television interview, Katsav had remarked that he would not use the title “rabbi” when speaking to Reform rabbis. His words were an outrageous affront to 2 million Reform Jews. As politicians and religious leaders of all streams pointed out, Israeli leaders had never hesitated to refer to Reform rabbis as “rabbis.” To do so, does not mean agreement with their theology or religious practice; it simply means respect for their religious perspective and recognizing that they are seen as rabbis by a majority of the Jewish people.
But rather than pulling back, the president heaped insults on North America’s largest religious movement. He would only use the term “rabbi,” he said, if the Knesset were to pass a law declaring Reform rabbis to be rabbis. Shortly thereafter, I came to Israel, and while my normal custom was to request a meeting with the president, in this case I did not. My decision led to a memorable tirade at a meeting of the Jewish Agency, at which the president, in my presence, unleashed another round of attacks on Reform Judaism and its leaders.
After Katzav’s resignation, I thought it made sense to ask the candidates for the presidency if they would honor the long established practice, pre-Katsav, of addressing Reform rabbis as “rabbi.” Peres said yes; Rivlin, anxious not to offend his ultra-Orthodox supporters, said nothing.
I knew Rivlin reasonably well and liked him. He is friendly, funny, direct and unpretentious. He had once invited me for Shabbat lunch at his home, and I had spent a delightful afternoon with him and his wife. Although he holds hard-line views on the territories, he cares deeply about the Knesset and the legislative process; a frequent defender of human rights and freedom of expression, he has twice served with distinction as the Knesset’s speaker.
But he did not have any sympathy for liberal Judaism. 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 davvening, he was appalled. Immediately after Shabbat, he phoned a reporter for Yediot Aharonot and informed him that Reform Judaism was like Christianity — a story that was featured prominently the following day.
Reform Jews were furious. After one visit to an unquestionably vibrant synagogue, Rivlin had rushed to the press to announce that American Reform Judaism was not really Judaism at all. In subsequent years, I worked on Ruby, hoping to open his mind a bit. But I made very little progress, as my meeting in 2007 demonstrated.
The stakes, however, are higher now. Ruby Rivlin is running for president again and may be the frontrunner. If elected, his task will be to unite the citizens of Israel while also uniting and inspiring the Jews of the world. But the latter part of that task cannot be done by a man known for his disdain of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. If Rivlin has changed his long-held positions, now would be the time to make that clear. Are Reform rabbis, for him, rabbis? Can he accord their Judaism the respect that it deserves, regardless of the differences that he may have with them? And is he prepared to say so publicly?
The Knesset, absent a world-class statesman such as Peres, should probably turn to a non-politician for the presidency. Yossi Abramowitz is my personal favorite; a solar energy entrepreneur, humanitarian and Ethiopian Jewry activist, he is both an observant, kippah-wearing Jew and a champion of religious freedom. He would create a new model of what the presidency can be.
Still, I am aware that the politicians in the Knesset are likely to choose one of their own. If so, let them select a president who will embrace and welcome Jews of every outlook and every stream. If Rivlin wishes to be that man, let him make clear that he is up to the job.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey.