An intra-religious and political war of words broke out on Wednesday in reaction to the attorney-general’s decision to pay the wages of non-Orthodox rabbis elected to lead regional councils and kibbutzim.

Non-Orthodox and left-leaning politicians and religious leaders said that the announcement is just the beginning of their campaign, and that progressive Jewish groups would be lobbying for further steps towards full equality and recognition of their communities and leaders.

At the same time, MKs from both haredi and national-religious parties were quick to denounce the decision, with some promising to fight it through political and legislative channels.

Sentiment from the different sectors of the Orthodox religious establishment was strikingly similar, with Orthodox politicians questioning the authority of the state to decide who may be termed a rabbi, while also condemning the new reality as an attack on the Jewish values of the state.

Chairman of the national-religious Habayit Hayehudi party MK Daniel Herschkowitz said that he would be meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “to explain the severity of the matter.”

“It is not possible that decisions concerning the Jewish identity of the state should be given over to legal advisers and bureaucratic clerks,” Herschkowitz, the science and technology minister said. “Just like these people aren’t able to decide who can and cannot get an academic degree, so too they are not able to decide who is fitting to bear a rabbinic qualification either.”

MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) took aim at the legal system as well as non- Orthodox Jewry in general, wondering how there is money available for the “Reform and Conservative clowns, for whom Judaism is a laughingstock.”

“This legal system, having already tried to harm those who study Torah, is now trying to injure the Jewish infrastructure of the state as well,” Gafni added in comments made to haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman on Wednesday.

UTJ chairman Yisrael Eichler echoed this sentiment, accusing the “legal regime” of starting a cultural war with this decision and the High Court’s ruling earlier this year against the ability of full-time yeshiva students to indefinitely defer military service.

Speaking to haredi website Kikar Hashabbat, Eichler said that traditional Judaism would prevail over progressive Judaism through “the numbers of children studying Torah,” adding that “Reform Jews have decreed upon themselves assimilation and destruction.

“Their offspring marry gentiles, their sanctuaries are empty and their homes are deserted,” raged Eichler.

Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday night that the High Court and the attorney-general do not have the authority to designate as rabbis “people who falsify the Torah.”

“This is the beginning of the destruction of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel,” he said.

Ze’ev added that he is considering introducing legislation to the Knesset to legally define the term “rabbi” along Orthodox lines, labeling the activities of non-Orthodox groups “cultural and social.”

But representatives of the political left and non-Orthodox movements roundly condemned the criticism leveled at the state’s new recognition of Reform and Conservative rabbis, saying that the decision has been long overdue.

Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, chairman of the Knesset Lobby for Pluralism, called the decision “a step of great importance in the struggle for pluralism and freedom of religion.”

“Judaism in Israel has been kidnapped for many years by extremist groups who use it as a political instrument and as a source of endless patronage. The time has come to recognize all streams of Judaism and to free the religion from ultra- Orthodox politicos.”

Maya Leibovich, rabbi of the Kehilat Mevasseret Zion Reform congregation, continued in this vein, saying that the ideal situation would be “a complete separation of religion and state,” a position Horowitz also advocates.

“The state shouldn’t support any rabbis, regardless of which stream they’re from, and then everyone could choose their own rabbis, their own synagogues and schools, as happens in the US and the rest of the Diaspora,” Leibovich told the Post.

“But until this happens, it is not reasonable or democratic that only Orthodox rabbis are funded out of the state purse.”

In the meantime, Leibovich said that non-Orthodox Jewish streams would turn their focus to campaigning for their rabbis to be able to be selected as neighborhood rabbis, who are currently appointed through the Ministry of Religious Services.

The Israel Religious Action Center, the legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, submitted a petition to the High Court along these lines back in January. IRAC was one of the principle petitioners to the High Court for state funding for non-Orthodox rabbis, a petition which led to Tuesday’s decision.

In reference to comments made by Ze’ev, Herschkowitz and others that the decision would harm the Jewish identity of the state, Leibovich claimed that the exact opposite is true.

Progressive Jewish movements are saving thousands of Israelis from completely disconnecting from religion and Judaism altogether, she argued, and said that the greatest danger to the Jewish character of the state was religious coercion.

“Many people don’t want to go to synagogue or be involved in Jewish life because they have been distanced by the Orthodox establishment,” Leibovich continued. “But secular people do want a spiritual home and they see the possibility for that in progressive Judaism.”

She emphasized that liberal Jewish movements do not seek to “attract members of the Orthodox community” but insisted that “there must be room for all expressions of Judaism” in Israel.

“Both schools of thought are the words of the living God,” she said, quoting a passage from the Talmud relating to a halachic dispute between the House of Hillel and the House of Shamai.

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis based in New York, warmly praised the attorney-general’s decision, calling it a “dramatic step forward in the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel.”

“The historic inequities in the funding of local community rabbis in Israel has long hampered efforts to bring a greater variety of spiritual options to Israelis. Hopefully, this decision will open the door to new and exciting Jewish spiritual opportunities that will strengthen Israel, and bring Israelis to a new appreciation of Jewish tradition,” Skolnik said.

The national-religious lobbying group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah called on Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, through whom funds to non- Orthodox rabbis will be funneled, to expand the remit of the decision to Orthodox and secular communities as well.

The organization complained in a letter to the minister that in the current situation, Orthodox rabbis serving particular locales and jurisdictions are appointed according to their family and political connections to haredi political factions. The organization argued that all communities should be able to freely elect their own leaders, like non- Orthodox communities are now able to do following Tuesday’s decision.

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