President Moshe Katsav's refusal to address non-Orthodox spiritual leaders as rabbis profoundly hurts and distresses Reform and Conservative Jews, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, on Tuesday.
"We expect Israeli leaders to treat all legitimate streams of Judaism with respect," said Yoffie, presently in Israel. "I'm sure it was not intentional, but the president's stand is very hurtful and distressing for Reform and Conservative Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel."
"It's too bad that someone who aspires to be a symbol of Jewish unity is unwilling to recognize two of the Diaspora's largest streams of Judaism," added Yoffie during an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
The Union for Reform Judaism, a North American movement, represents the single largest stream of Judaism in North America, with about 1.5 million members.
In protest against Katsav's refusal to recognize non-Orthodox rabbis, Yoffie said he would not meet with Katsav at the presidential residence during his visit in Israel.
Yoffie said that Katsav's stand on who is a rabbi did not become clear immediately. "Over the past few years I have visited the president several times," he said. "He was always very gracious and forthcoming and often went out of his way to meet with me - even more than former presidents."
"But gradually, I noticed that at every meeting he refrained from addressing me as rabbi. It was an awareness that developed over time."
In response, the president's spokesman issued a statement to the effect that the president recognizes and respects the Reform Movement and its spiritual leaders along with all other streams of Judaism.
"Katsav opened Beit Hanassi to the Reform Movement in a way that none of his predecessors had done in full recognition of the importance of the movement and its significance within the Jewish People, as well as its support for Israel," said the statement.
"The Reform Movement," it continued, "is welcome to participate in all discussions on the future of the Jewish People that are initiated by the president. Furthermore, all Beit Hanassi protocols and other written documents related to Conservative and Reform rabbis list the rabbis in accordance with their titles."
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will convene this week to continue to hear the case of Rabbi Miri Gold, a female Reform rabbi from Kibbutz Gezer.
Gold and the Israeli Reform Movement petitioned the court to force the state to recognize Gold as a rabbi and provide her with a salary. The Prime Minister's Office, which is responsible for funding Jewish religious services, has repeatedly rejected a request by the Gezer Regional Council to appoint Gold as rabbi of the kibbutz and the surrounding area.
Current directives require the local Orthodox chief rabbi or the Rabbinate to approve all new rabbinic appointments.
The Reform Movement argues that the Orthodox monopoly violates non-Orthodox rabbis' right to equal opportunities. It also violates the citizen's right to the freedom to choose alternative streams of Judaism.
Katsav's spokesman cited the state's unwillingness to recognize non-Orthodox rabbis like Gold as an explanation for Katsav's decision to do the same. "The president is not in charge of titles or ordination," the spokesman said. "This is an issue vested in the authorities of the State of Israel, whose rulings obligate the whole of the administration including the institution of the presidency."