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Rabbis? Clowns

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Thursday, September 1, 2005

By Shahar Ilan silan@haaretz.co.il 

Miri Gold, the rabbi of Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel, will become one of the most famous and controversial figures in the Reform movement in Israel over the next few years. Not that Gold is seeking publicity or enjoys being in the spotlight. On the contrary. But she was found by the Reform movement to be the most suitable candidate to petition the High Court of Justice and put to the test two weighty questions: Is a liberal - that is, a Reform or Conservative - rabbi entitled to receive a salary from the state as the rabbi of a community, and does this entitlement apply to a female rabbi? 

Early next week, the Movement for Progressive Judaism's Israel Religious Action Center will petition the High Court to compel the state to allot a salaried position to a liberal rabbi on Kibbutz Gezer. The petition is sure to instigate a new struggle between religion and state: Who's a rabbi? 

It was only a question of time, of when the Reform movement would put the issue to the legal test. One ultra-Orthodox leader wondered out loud this week why they hadn't done it earlier. The "Who's a Jew" struggle over conversion issue showed that the religious political parties would try, with the help of a coalition majority, to pass legislation that would forbid the appointment of Reform and Conservative rabbis. The experience gained in that struggle also proves that American Jewry would relate to any such attempt as a strong affront and as a declaration by Israel that their rabbis are second-class rabbis. 

At present, not a single liberal rabbi is recognized by the state as the rabbi of a neighborhood, community or city. The Reform are not being too ambitious by asking for a city rabbi. First, by law a city rabbi has to be approved by the Chief Rabbinate. Despite the criticism of the High Court's ostensible optimism, the court very rarely strikes down laws. Second, city rabbis sign kashrut certificates. It is doubtful that many Reform rabbis have either the knowledge or the desire to head a kashrut organization. 

Gold's case is much simpler. Among the points in her favor: 

* The rabbi of a community requires the Chief Rabbinate's approval only as a matter of procedure, and it is much easier for the High Court to strike down a matter of procedure than a law. 

* The functions of a community rabbi are not defined in writing, and therefore it will be more difficult for the state to claim that the rabbi has to do things that a woman cannot do. 

* Nearly all members of Kibbutz Gezer that are interested in religious services use the services provided by Rabbi Gold. 

* No fewer than 16 regional and community rabbis appear on the Web site of the Gezer Regional Council. Fifteen of them receive salaries from the state. The only one who does not is Rabbi Gold, who is employed at a half-time position by the Reform movement. "This is discrimination, for which the Prime Minister's Office (the PMO is responsible for religious services - S.I.) is directly responsible," says attorney Gilad Kariv, the director of the public policy department of the Israel Religious Action Center. 

Kariv makes it clear that Gold is only the first in a long line. The Reform movement is also demanding that the state allocate salaried positions to rabbis on Yahel and Lotan, their kibbutzim in the Arava. "The next stage is neighborhood rabbis," he says. 

In recent years, it seemed as if the Reform were moderating their legal campaigns and placing priority on social activity and dialogue. Kariv is identified with this policy. He reports that he has met several times with members of the team that is drafting the blueprint of the reform in religious services, which operates under the aegis of the PMO. 

During these discussions, he proposed that they establish nationwide religious councils that would furnish religious services to Reform and Conservative Jews. The advantage, for the state: Reform and Conservative Jews would not be members of the other religious councils, nor would the other councils have to supply services to them. "We made great efforts to dialogue, and reach a quiet solution. But they're not interested." 

Synagogue in the bosom of nature 

Kibbutz Gezer was re-populated in the 1960s by American immigrants who came from Reform and Conservative backgrounds. Rabbi Gold has acted as the spiritual leader of the Gezer community for the past 20 years. She was ordained in 1999. Gold runs the Sabbath Eve prayers and is in charge of life-cycle event ceremonies: preparation for bar and bat mitzvah, weddings, funerals, counseling to couples, preparation for conversion, etc. 

Gold notes with regret that she officiates at an average of only one wedding a month. She reports that couples that have taken the step of choosing a Reform or Conservative rabbi prefer a man, in order not to pose a double challenge to their families and guests - both a Reform rabbi and a woman. One of the unique services that the community provides (in fair weather) is a synagogue in the bosom of nature. 

Gold knows that her struggle will "not be a picnic" and that she will be at the center of a harsh public conflict. Members of the community, she says, "who are seeking a slightly different Judaism, and joint family seating in the synagogue" are entitled to have their taxes pay for a rabbi who is suited to them. 

Natural candidate 

The law requires that the salaried position of a community rabbi be requested by the regional council. The Gezer Regional Council has a history of assisting the community. It partly funded the renovation of the synagogue, and aids in the maintenance of the building, and also included Gold on the list of rabbis that appears on the council's Web site. However, there is a big difference between what it has done until now, and throwing its support behind a legal battle, and Reform leaders were afraid they might have a hard time enlisting the regional council in their struggle. 

However, Peter Weiss, the head of the Gezer Regional Council not only made the request for the community rabbi, but even noted: "It goes without saying that the rabbi to be appointed to the position should be suited to the character of the community. Rabbi Miri Gold is the natural candidate for this position." 

Weiss explained to Haaretz: "I have no problem with it. I have a very large religious population - Shas, National Religious Party, Karaites and also Reform and Conservative Jews. We live in peace with one another. They should approve her salaried position. Happily. I'm in favor of her being paid just like every other rabbi." 

Are you afraid of negative reactions? 

"I'm not afraid of anything. Only God. It's only right that they are taking this to the High Court of Justice. I can't understand why they are playing around with this job." 

When the subject is Reform Jews, the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) tend to use particularly extreme expressions of disdain. The deputy minister of the Social Affairs Ministry, Avraham Ravitz, expressed the hope that "the High Court of Justice will put an end to the exploitation to which various clowns subject it. The court doesn't have to let these funny outbursts to fool us. 

"But I know where I am living. Who knows," said Ravitz, "how the court will hear the petition, and - much more frightening to me - who will legally represent the state." 

Unsurprisingly, Ravitz has strong feelings about `Who's a Rabbi?': "A rabbi is a Jew that observes the Torah and the commandments and a person who believes in the Creator of the world. You call this a rabbi? Every smart-aleck person who tramples fences and has a lawyer? That has no connection whatsoever to the Jewish religion." 

The director of Religious Services in the PMO, Meir Spiegler, said in response that he was aware of the request for a rabbi in Gezer, but has not yet dealt with the matter. "The Chief Rabbinate is opposed across-the-board to the appointment of Reform rabbis," he noted.

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