Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger refused to sign a letter on Tuesday authored by Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar calling on rabbis to attend a conference aiming to oppose state funding for non-Orthodox rabbis.
Metzger's decision is apparently based on opposition to Amar's campaign led by Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman.
Amar is planning to hold the conference next week and has invited Orthodox rabbis from around the country to attend. Shteinman, who has been leader of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy since Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv fell ill in February, thwarted the plan by urging rabbis to abandon the campaign against the non-Orthodox movements.
Metzger met with Shteinman on Sunday, receiving instructions not to attend the conference.
Shteinman compared the Reform movement to the Biblical plague of frogs in Egypt; as the people killed the frogs, more would just sprout in their place. According to Shteinman, the ultra-Orthodox face more urgent problems, such as the impending Tal Law alternative.
Officials in the Chief Rabbinate said that Metzger's refusal to sign the letter by Amar will likely lead to tension between the two chief rabbis. A statement released by Amar's office on Tuesday said "The rabbi finds it obligatory at this point in time to raise an alarm concerning the severe threat to Israel's Jewish identity."
In a historic move, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein informed the High Court of Justice on May 29 that the state will begin paying the salaries of Conservative and Reform rabbis employed by small municipalities and rural communities.
The Israeli government has always funded the salaries of neighborhood, regional and municipal Orthodox rabbis. The High Court's decision this year reiterated its 2006 decision to fund non-Orthodox rabbis. 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. 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 Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer, demanding that the state provide equal funding for non-Orthodox religious services is a community chooses such. At the time, the court suggested using 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 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. 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 later comments, 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 (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.'"