In victory for Reform Judaism, non-Orthodox rabbis to be funded by state

Ministry of Religious Services will allow Reform and Conservative rabbis, including women, to hold official positions

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Rabbi Miri Gold in front of the 'Aron Kodesh' at Kibbutz Gezer's Kehilat Birkat Shalom (photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
Rabbi Miri Gold in front of the 'Aron Kodesh' at Kibbutz Gezer's Kehilat Birkat Shalom (photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

The Ministry of Religious Services will, for the first time, allow rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements to serve as community rabbis, the State Attorney’s Office announced Thursday. The new regulations come after a 7-year legal struggle and in line with a 2012 ruling by the Supreme Court.

Until now, government-appointed community rabbis, who are responsible for providing religious services for their neighborhoods, were exclusively Orthodox male rabbis. The changes will allow spiritual leaders from non-Orthodox movements to serve as community rabbis, with state-funded salaries, provided they pass the ministry’s test.

A 2005 petition to the Supreme Court from the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) initiated the process that led to the new rules. The petition, originating in Kibbutz Gezer, asked that the Gezer Regional Council be allowed to pay the salary of Rabbi Miri Gold, the kibbutz’s Reform rabbi, as it does for Orthodox rabbis.

Negotiations between the state and the Reform movement in Israel were held up over what non-Orthodox rabbis would be called. Since Israel does not recognize non-Orthodox rabbinates, it offered to call the rabbis “community leaders.” Haaretz reported that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein ultimately consented to the title of “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community.”

Important differences will remain between Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis. Salaries for the Reform and Conservative rabbis will come from the Ministry of Culture and Sports, rather than the Ministry of Religious Services. Also, the rabbis will not be government employees, but will instead receive stipends from the state. The new regulations cover only rural communities, not cities.

Still, this is the first time that the term “rabbi” will be used by the government to refer to a female religious leader.

When Gold was approached by IRAC to become a petitioner (or, as she puts it, “poster girl, guinea pig, the one to have the darts thrown at”), Gold had thought that her efforts were better allocated towards peace. “We thought peace is most important, that religious pluralism can wait. But then we realized, no, it cannot wait anymore.”

IRAC, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, was founded in 1987 with the goal of advancing pluralism in Israeli society. One of the many other cases IRAC is currently working on involves Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, rabbi of Jerusalem’s Reform congregation Kol Haneshama, who is also petitioning for recognition and remuneration from the state, but as an urban congregational rabbi.

Gold hopes her court case will help Americans feel more franchised to Israeli Judaism. “I want American Jews to feel loved and not alienated. Someday, there will be enough people here who understand that there’s more than one way to be Jewish.”

The announcement comes as a bitter political battle brews between Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Bennett’s Jewish Home party recently vetoed a law initiated by Hatnua that proposed to add 50 women to the body that selects the chief rabbi, even though it had previously supported the bill.

Bennett’s Jewish Home party claimed that it would not support the legislation if the women appointed come primarily from the ultra-Orthodox sector.

Livni attacked Bennett on her Facebook page. “Naftali Bennett’s party, the Jewish Home, decided to rob women of the right to vote… This is blatant exclusion of women that improperly uses a veto to block an ethical law, approved by all factions of the coalition.”

Livni promised to match Bennett’s veto and hold up his party’s attempts to reform the Religious Services Ministry.

Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.

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