In a historic move, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein informed the High Court of Justice on Tuesday that the state will begin paying the salaries of Conservative and Reform rabbis employed by small municipalities and rural communities.
For years, the government has paid the salaries of hundreds of Orthodox rabbis serving in regions, cities, towns and neighborhoods throughout the country. From now on, in accordance with the attorney-general's decision, Conservative and Reform rabbis will be funded as well. They will be considered "rabbis of non-Orthodox communities" and not employees of local religious councils. Their salaries will be paid not by the Religious Services Ministry, which is headed by an ultra-Orthodox Shas minister, but by the Culture and Sport Ministry.
The rabbis' employers, who prefer more liberal religious services in the spirit of progressive Judaism, will be subsidized by the government up to the amount of salaries of Orthodox rabbis.
At this stage, the decision is limited to small agricultural communities and kibbutzim, and will not be implemented in large cities.
In 2005, the Israel Religious Action Center petitioned the High Court on behalf of the Birchat Shalom community, Kibbutz Gezer, the Reform movement, and Reform Rabbi Miri Gold, demanding equal funding by the state for non-Orthodox religious services. During a discussion of the matter on May 9, the court decided to pass the decision on to the attorney-general due to the complexity of the matter of religion and state.
The court suggested usage of the title "Rabbi of a non-Orthodox community" for Reform and Conservative rabbis and is expected to provide a ruling on the issue in the near future.
The petitioners pointed out on Tuesday that the announcement by Weinstein constitutes a historical precedent for the non-Orthodox movements and the public they serve, whom they claimed have suffered from a discriminatory lack of funds for their religious services.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said, "This is a first step, but an important one, on the way to equalizing the status of all religious sects in Israel."
Religious Services Minister Yakov Margi (Shas) said he was opposed in the past and is still opposed to employing non-Orthodox rabbis. On Tuesday, Margi said that if he is forced to pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis, he will ask Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Shas spiritual leader, to permit him to resign as religious services minister.
In comments on Wednesday, Margi took his attacks on non-Orthodox religious streams a step further, by saying "the Reform movement is guilty of hundreds of years of assimilation."
"The Reform think that they're bringing in a new spirit to Judaism, but in practice it is an evil wind," Margi told Army Radio.
In a reaction to Margi's statement, executive director of the Hiddush organization, attorney Rabbi Uri Regev said, "Only in the Israeli reality can a minister of religion announce he will continue to oppose the law and the attorney-general's instructions."
Science and Technology Minister Rabbi Daniel Hershkowitz, of the Orthodox New National Religious Party was also outraged by Weinstein's announcement and said, "It is not possible that decisions concerning the Jewish identity of the state will be in the hands of attorney-generals and government clerks. Just like they can't determine who is worthy of an academic degree, they should similarly not be permitted to determine who is worthy of the title 'Rabbi.'"
Following Tuesday's historic announcement, the Rabbinical Assembly, the international body of Conservative rabbis, issued the following response:
“This is a historic day for Israelis and Jews around the world," said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. "In order for Judaism to grow and thrive in Israel, it is necessary that the government recognize its obligation to provide equal funding to various Jewish religious streams and expressions that flower in the Jewish state.”
"The announcement of Israel's Attorney-General Weinstein represents a dramatic step forward in the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel, said Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, president of the Rabbinical Assembly. “The historic inequities in the funding of local community rabbis in Israel has long hampered efforts to bring a greater variety of spiritual options to Israelis. Hopefully, this decision will open the door to new and exciting Jewish spiritual opportunities that will strengthen Israel, and bring Israelis to a new appreciation of Jewish tradition."