In the end, the fight over whether Reform and Conservative leaders could sit on powerful religious councils in Israel apparently turned on a Talmudic loophole. By a vote of 50-49, the Knesset this week adopted a bill crafted to keep Reform and Conservative representatives off religious councils, which dispense millions of dollars to religious institutions throughout the country. But instead of requiring council members to pledge loyalty to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, as originally written, it asked only that they pledge loyalty to the religious councils: which in turn agree to abide by the Chief Rabbinate’s rulings. As a result, the non-Orthodox announced they would serve on the councils.
"We do not intend to permit this law to do what it intended to do," said Reuven Hammer, a Conservative rabbi from Jerusalem. "If they want to keep us off of the councils, they will have to find another way to do it. … Initially [as written], everyone would have had to swear loyalty to the Chief Rabbinate. That would have been difficult for anybody to follow. I don’t like to swear loyalty to anyone, yet alone the Chief Rabbinate. The ultra-Orthodox on the councils would not have followed it either because they have their own Council of Sages."
The Knesset’s Law Committee had voted 7-6 against the bill last week, but the full Knesset considered the measure because some fervently religious members of the Knesset had threatened to delay action on the budget bill unless it were considered.
Courts have recently ordered that religious councils in six cities seat Reform and/or Conservative representatives. The cities are Jerusalem, Haifa, Arad, Kiryat Tivon, Kiryat Bialik and Netanya.
Rabbi Mauricio Balter, the Conservative movement’s representative on the religious council in Kiryat Bialik, located north of Haifa, said he was looking forward to sitting for the first time on the council when it meets again in February.
"Obviously Shas representatives do not want it, but it will not stop me," he said.
Both rabbis were in Manhattan for a meeting of the executive committee of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said the "ultra-Orthodox community should not be too gleeful because at the next meeting of the religious councils, they will see us." And he noted that even though the bill was "significantly watered down, it passed by a slim one-vote majority."
Nevertheless, Rabbi Hirsch called the new law "very distressing, very disappointing and one that further widens the gap between American Jewry and Israel. It also categorizes two classes of Jews: the authentic Jews (the Orthodox) and the rest of the Jewish world, who represent 85 percent of world Jewry."
Mandel Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, said he doesn’t understand why the non-Orthodox, "individuals who are not halachic Jews, don’t believe in Rambam, [Maimonides], why they would want to be on a council that administers the Torah point of view. They should form their own councils."
Although the non-Orthodox have only one or two seats on religious councils, Rabbi Hammer said they would act as watchdogs to ensure that the councils equally dispense government funding to non-Orthodox institutions.
Rabbi Hammer said that although the bill was watered down, its intent was to "prevent our members from sitting on the councils and to prevent them from growing in Israel. Obviously, we feel uncomfortable because anyone who voted for it knew that."
Among those voting for the bill were Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai, who this week agreed to head a new centrist party that seeks to unseat Netanyahu and his coalition government.
Netanyahu’s diaspora affairs adviser, Bobby Brown, said Netanyahu voted for the bill in order to preserve the status quo.
"Unfortunately, we got onto the merry-go-round of courts and Knesset," he said by phone from Jerusalem. "A large portion of Knesset members wanted to find some way not to change the status quo. This was an attempt at compromise."
He said the prime minister’s office believed that rather than turn over religious status questions to the courts or the Knesset, it would have been preferable to have worked out a compromise. Brown said it was hoped the councils could have been placed under the jurisdiction of municipal governments, which then would have taken care of religious needs.
Rabbi Hirsch said he was troubled that Mordechai not only voted for the bill but also later bragged about it.
"That’s deeply disappointing because it shows that [the new party] has either an anti-pluralistic world view or that it doesn’t have the courage of its convictions," he said. "While it may have made narrow political sense to vote for it because Mordechai wants to attract the right wing vote, a person who aspires to be the prime minister must go beyond narrow parochial issues. He doesn’t represent only the citizens of Israel but he becomes the central figure of world Jewry."
Rabbi Hirsch added that the vote (coming as it does when the centrist party’s No. 2 man, former Chief of Staff Amnon-Lipkin Shahak, is in the United States attempting to raise money for the party) "will make his job more complicated."
Shahak could not be reached for comment.
The Knesset action came the same day that Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, a frequent critic of non-Orthodox Judaism, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the "Jewish people, statistically, are being wiped out at a much greater pace and this is due to intermarriage, which the Reform encourage and condone."
Asked his response, Rabbi Hirsch had one word, "Disdain."
Rabbi Hammer called the comments "disgraceful and absolutely inappropriate for a man in his position. To blame problems of assimilation and intermarriage on the Reform movement is either to show profound ignorance of the facts or to look for a scapegoat. Not everybody who is assimilating comes from a Reform congregation. The number of Orthodox who assimilate is legion."
Regarding the Sephardic chief rabbi’s remarks, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the Reform movement head said: "Why is it they claim we are a tiny movement and on the other hand they say we are going to be responsible for the death of Judaism. It’s a certain sign of desperation. We are winning the war and there’s no way in a modern open society they can keep us out."
Staff writer Eric J. Greenberg contributed to this report.