Sunday, June 18, 2006

On the President of Israel's snub of the Reform Chief Rabbi

A cover story was published in the Detroit Jewish News back in September 2005 titled "What's in a Name" that focused on what rabbis choose to be called. It focused on a good number of rabbis in Michigan who don't mind being called "Rabbi FirstName" (myself, Rabbi Jason, included). One argument made in the article was that the title of rabbi is an important one and connotes respect (honorific) as well as providing the rabbi with necessary referential power. Last week, Israel's President Moshe Katzav insulted the President of the Union of Reform Judaism Rabbi Eric Yoffie by refusing to refer to him with the title "Rabbi." In fact, Katzav refused to extend this courtesy to any Reform rabbi. Not the best political move on Katzav's part. In today's edition of Ha'aretz, columnist Shmuel Rosner wrote a very intelligent piece on Katzav's mistake:

From who is a Jew to who is a rabbi

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is in Israel now and since he doesn't carry a cell phone I couldn't get hold of him. I told his assistant he should be ostracized for such a habit. I intend, however, to keep calling him "rabbi" as I couldn't find a good way to turn the cellular inconvenience into a relevant excuse for omitting his title.

Yoffie is the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. You might not think it's the greatest branch of Judaism. You might not think he is an important scholar. You might not think he can be your spiritual leader. You might not think he can decide halachic (Jewish law) questions. Nevertheless, he is the President of this organization, representing some 1.5 million North American Jews who view him as a rabbi. And you better learn to live with it since it is not going to change.

Moshe Katzav is also a president, representing an even bigger organization, the State of Israel. You might not think he is the right man at the right place. You might not think he can
be your political leader. You might not think his office is the most relevant or necessary of them all. Nevertheless, he is the president of this state, representing some seven million Israelis who view him as the president. And those who didn't like the choice had to learn to live with it, as it was not going to change.

There's a bond between these two organizations. The Reform movement wants the best for Israel, supports it, and prays for its well being. You can take an issue with them for not doing enough to strengthen ties with the Jewish state, but you can't say they aren't trying. You can't say Yoffie is not trying. Israel is as important to him as anything. And he deserves some credit for it and some respect too. He could have chosen differently.

One can argue that the Reform movement needs Israel as every Jew does. It is a proven fact that Jewish identity is much stronger when a connection to Israel is established. But Israel also needs the support of the Reform movement. It is one of the most reliable sources of political support for Israel in America, and we all know how vital this could be.

Now, the president of Israel has a problem with the Reform movement. He is more of a traditional kind of Jew, and there's nothing wrong with it. What is more problematic is his decision not to address Rabbi Yoffie (or any other Reform rabbi) as "rabbi." My friend and colleague Shahar Ilan reported Thursday that Yoffie decided not to attend a reception at the President's Residence because of this.

Katzav's office didn't deny the report, and for good reason. In a television interview Katsav granted to Channel 1 on Rosh Hashanah Eve, he explained that he was brought up to address as "rabbi" only those ordained in accordance with the lifestyle he maintains and that the president is not obligated to recognize Reform rabbis until the State of Israel does so. What a lame excuse. What - as the ADL's Abe Foxman politely called it - an "ill advised" decision.

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