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President Moshe Katsav is being both vilified and cheered for reportedly doing something controversial: refusing to call Reform rabbis by their religious title. The truth is less dramatic, and more in tune with Katsav's reputation for - unlike his immediate predecessor - assiduously avoiding offense.
As his office responded to the initial reports (and as the president himself confirmed in an interview with The Jerusalem Post yesterday), "President Katsav has opened the doors of Beit Hanassi to the Reform Movement in a manner that no president has before him. He respects the Reform Movement as an important, far-ranging, and powerful movement in the life of the Jewish people. Reform rabbis bear their title in all the correspondence and protocols of Beit Hanassi."
Though Katsav personally considers himself an Orthodox Jew, he does not wear a kippa at secular functions, and has fully included Reform rabbis and leaders in his own efforts to spark action to safeguard the future of the Jewish people. He is, then, a strange choice for a villain in the ongoing fight between the Jewish movements, particularly between American Reform and Israeli Orthodoxy.
Still, Katsav is continuing to stand by a distinction in the way he refers to Reform and Conservative rabbis: he will call them rabbis in English, but in Hebrew will only use this title with qualification, such as "rav reformi," rather than simply "rav."
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the US Reform Movement, confirmed both aspects of Katsav's approach: "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."
In a television interview last fall, Katsav explained, "As soon as Israel, the Knesset, decides to recognize a Reform rabbi as a rabbi, then the president of the state will also have to. But as long as Israel does not recognize him, I won't be the first to do so."
This statement makes matters plain enough: Katsav is trying to walk a line between the Reform Movement and the Orthodox rabbinate and not to offend either side. Rather than courting controversy, he seems to be seeking to avoid it. But linguistic tricks will not obscure Katsav's decision to at least partially side with the Orthodox denial of the legitimacy of Reform Judaism.
Katsav says he has no choice but to take this stance. This is not true: he can choose to gently lead the nation in a different direction rather than accepting the status quo.
The same, however, can be said of Reform leaders themselves.
Yoffie told the Post last week that he would not meet with Katsav, saying, "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."
Rather than boycotting Katsav, as the Orthodox rabbinate would boycott him, the Reform Movement might want to ask itself why so many Israelis, even among the non-observant, tend to be either dismissive or unfamiliar with the largest Jewish movement in the Diaspora. Even if more should be expected of him, Katsav is not unreflective of mainstream Israeli attitudes.
Though the Reform Movement faces an uphill battle in breaking the Orthodox monopoly over the intersection between Judaism and the state, nothing is preventing it from doing what it really needs to do to change its reputation and fortunes: help build congregations in Israel.
Israelis still remember that in 2001 the US Reform Movement - contrary to the position of its Israeli branch, other movements and the birthright Israel program - cancelled all of its youth trips to Israel. Though the movement is trying to train more Israeli-born rabbis, there is still little sense that it's putting serious efforts into bolstering its presence among the Israeli public.
Yoffie is right that Katsav, as the holder of the office that should be most attuned to fostering Jewish unity, should not be neutral toward the shunning by official Israeli religious authorities of the movements that represent the majority of Diaspora Jewry. But rather than returning his snub in kind, Yoffie should be raising the priority of building an Israeli constituency for non-Orthodox religious movements.