The government of Israel announced last week, for the very first time, it would pay the salary of a non-Orthodox rabbi on an equal footing with an Orthodox one. In so doing, it conferred official state recognition on non-Orthodox rabbis serving non-Orthodox communities in the Jewish state. (Please see the related story in this edition of The CJN.)
The application of the government’s new policy, however, was quite circumscribed. Only non-Orthodox rabbis in rural or farming communities are eligible for the salary funding. Their non-Orthodox colleagues who serve congregations in larger urban communities are not. In addition, the funding for the non-Orthodox rabbi comes from the Ministry of Sports and Culture rather than the Ministry of Religious Services, as do the salaries of the Orthodox rabbis.
Nevertheless, despite the narrow sweep of the government’s decision, it was so entirely a departure from past policy that Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, wholeheartedly praised it. “The government’s decision to recognize Reform and Conservative leaders gives official recognition to these dynamic community leaders and rabbis who work tirelessly to build strong and vibrant Zionist and Jewish communities throughout Israel. I believe this decision has both practical and symbolic importance. It contributes significantly to the strengthening of the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel…and as another step towards bringing unity to the Jewish People.”
With this small but weighty announcement, the government of Israel inched closer to more robustly honouring the promise to all its people, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, to “guarantee freedom of religion.”
And as Sharansky implied, the government has also very significantly strengthened the underpinnings of the bridges of peoplehood with the Jews of the Diaspora. For that very Declaration of Independence explicitly appeals to the Diaspora “to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel… in the realization of the age-old dream, the redemption of Israel.”
There is in the government’s announcement more than a faint echo of Neil Armstrong’s dramatic statement 43 years ago when he became the first human being to set foot on the moon: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Rabbi Miri Gold, a Reform rabbi from Kibbutz Gezer, who as of last week is now also being paid as a rabbi in the State of Israel by the government of Israel, could also validly say, “That’s one small step for a non-Orthodox rabbi, one giant leap for Jewish religious pluralism in Israel.”
But it was only the first step on that long, arduous road to official inclusion of all religious streams in Israel.