Moshe Katsav, Reform rabbis, and the end of religious monopoly in Israel

In 2006, then-President of Israel Moshe Katsav would not address me with the title Rabbi.
I had arrived in Jerusalem in June, shortly after a radio interview of the President during which he would not refer to Reform rabbis by their rabbinic title. When asked by a reporter, I expressed dismay at the President’s actions. To my surprise, the interview led to a flood of stories, and these stories led in turn to some very harsh statements by the President about me and Reform Judaism in general. (In one memorable incident, he attacked me while I sat in the room at a Jewish Agency meeting.) The press got the idea—mistakenly—that I was “boycotting” the President; in fact, I had not been invited to the President’s House, and if I had been, I would have attended. But it was right in reporting that Mr. Katsav adamantly refused to use the term “rabbi” for a Reform rabbi, asserting that since the State of Israel had not recognized Reform rabbis, he as President could not do so either.
It should be noted that Presidents and Prime Ministers had referred to Reform and Conservative rabbis by their rabbinic titles prior to Mr. Katsav’s term, and they have done so since; what was at work here was more a matter of personal prejudice than of legal obligation. Nonetheless, until last month, the State of Israel did not officially recognize Reform or Conservative rabbis as rabbis. But now they do; the Government has decided to permit regional councils to pay the salaries of Reform and Conservative rabbis with state funds. And the significance of the State’s decision should not be underestimated. What it means, simply, is that the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over Israel’s religious life is no more—even if it will take a generation for the full implications of the decision to be translated into reality.
There is no such thing as a partial monopoly.  Once the principle is established that non-Orthodox rabbis can be engaged by the Jewish state to provide religious services in certain realms and geographic areas, there is no longer any compelling logical or legal reason why these categories should not be expanded. The politics will change as well. After all, the Chief Rabbinate is already an unpopular institution, viewed by some with suspicion and by many others with indifference. And the Israeli public, which is more sympathetic and open to Jewish tradition than it was a generation ago, will quickly become accustomed to public financing of alternative approaches to Jewish living.
Yet two cautions are in order. The first is that much hard work will be required to convince political leaders to do the right thing; Israel’s politicians, like politicians everywhere, are not a courageous lot, even when Israeli society is undergoing fundamental change. I found it interesting that the Attorney General’s decision was publicly hailed by the head of the Labor Party, but the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the head of the Kadima Party all chose to remain silent. Surely the leaders of Israel’s government could have issued brief statements, welcoming a decision of such momentous consequence for Israel and world Jewry.
Second, we Reform Jews will now need to engage many more Israeli Jews in the religious life of our movement and our institutions. The same is true for the Conservative/Masorti movement. What we have done up until now is impressive, but we collectively remain a very modest force in Israeli life.   Government funding will help, surely, but our ultimate test will be whether or not we use these funds to become a significant grassroots religious presence in Israel. We need to remember that the latest developments are a victory for Israel, but for us, they are also a challenge and a test.