Israeli and diaspora
Jews spar over
Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua makes a point to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, right, during a Jewish Agency discussion June 26 in
Jerusalem on the diaspora and Israel. John Ruskay, the panel moderator, looks on.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
n a meeting at his office on June
28, Israeli President Moshe Katsav
referred to Rabbi Jerome Epstein,
executive vice president of the United
Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as
"rav," the Hebrew honorific for rabbi.
A few weeks earlier, Rabbi Eric Yoffie,
president of the Union for Reform
Judaism, had refused to meet the presi-
dent after Katsav refused to call him rabbi,
saying he was bound by state regulations
that recognized only the ordination of
The brouhaha comes on the heels of
several other developments over the last
couple of months — including some that
involve tensions between Orthodox insti-
tutions in America and in Israel — that
have some in the Jewish community
publicly fretting over a widening schism
between Israelis and American Jews.
• In May, the Israeli rabbinate said it
would no longer automatically recognize
conversions performed by Orthodox
rabbis from North America. The move
angered many in the community who felt
the rabbinate was questioning their legiti-
macy. It further worried some liberal Jews
who said that if Orthodox rabbis were
being so treated, it could not bode well for
• That same month, Israeli novelist A.B.
Yehoshua told an audience of American
Jews that Jewish life is experienced more
completely in Israel than anywhere else.
The comments set off a firestorm of
angry recriminations from diaspora Jews
who felt that, once again, they were being
assigned second fiddle.
• A year after agreeing to do so, Israel's
Ministry of Education still is not recogniz-
ing academic degrees earned by gradu-
ates of New York's Yeshiva University, an
Orthodox institution. In remarks to the
Knesset's Education Committee on June
25, the university's president, Richard
Joel, called the policy "inconceivable" and
Taken together, this series of events
has highlighted for many the sense that
Israelis and American Jews do not under-
stand each other very well. This may be
particularly true on matters relating to
the non-Orthodox movements, which,
while numerically dominant in the United
States, are relatively small in Israel and not
well known among many Israelis.
"Israel is growing as a society unto
itself, with its own cultural milieu, and the
diaspora is growing in its way:' Joel said,
stressing that the Y.U. situation was more
bureaucratic than political. "To believe
that somehow Israel is, culturally, the 51st
state is, I think, unreasonable?'
The gap, he added, is likely born of sev-
eral factors, including the profoundly diver-
gent political situations each group faces.
"Not having the constant pressure of the
enemy at the borders has created a differ-
ent reality for us than it has for Israelis',' he
said. "We just expect that we have the right
to weigh in on issues:' Joel continued.
"They say,'We're glad you're interested,
but you don't live here:We say, `But this is
our homeland: They say, `Then how come
you're not living in your homeland?"'
Rabbi Epstein, for his part, said the
Katsav situation does not represent evi-
dence of a major rift. Nevertheless, "It could
become a schism and that's why I went to
have this meeting — to try to prevent it','
he said. "It's very easy to let a schism occur.
It will take all sides working together" to
During the course of his meeting with
Katsav, Rabbi Epstein said, the two men
engaged in a cordial, honest exchange. "I'm
not asking you to let me be your posek:' or
religious arbiter, "or your teacher, but I'm
asking you from the bottom of my heart
to regard me as my community does, as a
rabbi and a ray," Epstein said he told the
president. During the last 15 minutes of
their talk, Epstein said, Katsav made the
switch and began referring to him as "tay."
Katsav's resolution with Rabbi Epstein
means that he backed away from a posi-
tion that he had stated so emphatically','
Rabbi Yoffie said. Nevertheless, "his failure
to very specifically indicate that Reform
rabbis will also be called by their religious
title is distressing and, while this is prog-
ress, it's insufficient progress."
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public
affairs for the Orthodox Agudath Israel of
America, says the dispute between Rabbi
Yoffie and Katsav was constructive in that it
drew attention to "the essential and crucial
theological gulf between the Jewish reli-
gious tradition and contemporary Jewish
theologies that compromise it ...
"Whatever one chooses to call them,
teachers of the Torah's divinity and
Halachah's (Jewish law's) unchanging
nature are in a different theological uni-
verse from those who teach rejection of
Meanwhile, Arye Mekel, Israel's consul
general in New York, said that Israeli rep-
resentatives abroad address rabbis from all
denominations as rabbi.
"It has become clearer what is the role
of American Jewry and the role of Israel;'
he said. "Your role is to support the State
of Israel, because it is the Jewish state',' he
"At the same time, our role is to assist
you and your No. 1 problem, which is
July 20 • 2006