President-elect Reuven Rivlin hinted at a possible rapprochement with the Reform movement during a speech to representatives of the American Jewish community at the Knesset on Tuesday.
Rivlin’s comments, in which he obliquely commented on the rift between himself and the largest American Jewish denomination, were well received by representatives of the non-Orthodox streams.
Addressing representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at the Knesset, the president-elect appeared to seek to move beyond his previous public statements on Reform, in which he characterized the movement as “a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.”
Reform is “idol worship and not Judaism,” Rivlin told Yediot Aharonot in 1989.
Even though Rivlin’s statements were delivered 25 years ago, it was still a significant issue for Diaspora Jewry following his victory in June’s presidential election, prompting a number of prominent organizations, including the Conference of Presidents, to issue statements commingling congratulations and reservations.
Thirty-five percent of American Jews identify with the Reform denomination, with another 18% associating themselves with the Conservative stream, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
Rivlin’s statements regarding the legitimacy of a large portion of American Jewry were noted with concern by some in the Diaspora worried over his ability to treat effectively with his co religionists abroad.
While Rivlin did not directly address the controversy surrounding his statements on Tuesday, he did acknowledge that representatives of “all movements” were present during the meeting and indicated that Israeli polity could learn about unity from the American Jewish community.
He also said several times that Jews in Israel and abroad are “one family... In spite of [our] differences,” calling that relationship “very important.”
Asked about how his view of the role of president as opposed to those promulgated by his predecessors, Rivlin said that he viewed the presidency as an office that is more of a symbol than an address for decision- making and that his goal was to bridge gaps between various sectors in Israeli society.
Israel’s problems include a “war between church and state” as well as a “cultural war” that is “very dangerous for our mutual life together,” he said.
Leaders of the non-Orthodox streams expressed cautious optimism in the wake of Rivlin’s speech.
While he wished that Rivlin had been more forthcoming in his remarks, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick told The Jerusalem Post that he viewed the use of the “word ‘movements’ several times in his talk... As being positive.”
Such comments, Wernick said, indicate that Rivlin is “thinking about some of the issues that the Jewish world faces and the role of the president in creating a context for that kind of dialogue.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly – an international association of Conservative clerics – echoed her colleague’s sentiments, saying that she believed the president-elect had delivered a message “that he wants to work with people.”
“He said we are not going to discuss [his stated views] today, so what seems to be the case is that he understands that the issue exists [and] he is prepared to kind of open up a new set of relationships. But I don’t think he is prepared in the run up to his inauguration to actually confront it head on in a dialogue,” she said.
Rivlin “was really dancing around” the issues but his remarks certainly marked a “mild shift” in his approach to Reform Judaism, said Rabbi Yehudit Werchow, the director of Israel Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism.
While his words were not overly bold, Werchow contended, they were refreshing and encouraging, she added. “I hope that if this marks the way he understands Israel as a president then I am very hopeful that he will continue in that direction.”
“I think he made that very clear that he sees his role as a unifier, as representing the unity both inside Israel and within the Jewish people,” Malcolm Hoenlein, Conference of Presidents executive vice president, said.