NEWS STORY: Israeli religious dispute put on hold

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

JERUSALEM _ Stepping back from the brink, Reform and Conservative Jewish groups said Tuesday (Oct. 28) they would delay for an additional three months court appeals on their legal status in Israel and resume cooperation with a government panel seeking a compromise on the issue.

Reform and Conservative leaders made the announcement after an unprecedented meeting with a senior representative of the nation’s Orthodox chief rabbis, who are appointed by the government and have the final word on Jewish religious issues in Israel. The meeting was organized by Israeli President Ezer Weizman.

Officials also said the dialogue will be expanded beyond the main issue of who has authority over conversions to Judaism in Israel to include the equally thorny topics of the prayer rights for women at the Western Wall and non-Orthodox representation on municipal religious councils.”In order to bring peace and reconciliation to the people of Israel, we agreed to delay the appeals to the Supreme Court for another three months,”said Rabbi Richard Hirsch, secretary of the Reform movement’s World Union for Progressive Judaism.”It seems that there is something to talk about,”declared Israel Rosen, an official representative of the chief rabbis, who shook hands publicly for the first time with the liberal Jewish leaders Tuesday at Weizman’s official Jerusalem residence.

Reform and Conservative leaders touched off a political storm here Monday when they said that, after two earlier delays, they would now go ahead with court appeals designed to force the government to extend legal recognition to non-Orthodox converts to Judaism and to seat non-Orthodox members on municipal religious councils.

Orthodox political parties, who have the power to bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, said they would withdraw their support for the ruling coalition if laws were not immediately passed to negate whatever gains were achieved in court by the Reform and Conservative movements.

In addition to threatening the government’s stability, the issue also threatened to undermine the political and religious relationship that American Jews _ most of whom are Reform and Conservative _ have with Israel, where Orthodoxy is the politically dominant Jewish religious stream.

The Orthodox have blamed Reform and Conservative Jews for precipitating the crisis by trying to upset Israel’s long-established religious status quo with the court cases. The non-Orthodox groups have charged the Orthodox with being undemocratic because of their unwillingness to allow the liberal movements to gain equal recognition under Israeli law.

Monday, a delegation of Reform and Conservative leaders from the United States said they would no longer delay their court suits because Israel’s two chief rabbis were refusing to cooperate with a government committee appointed last June to negotiate a settlement to the longstanding dispute over conversions.

The announcement was met with a barrage of criticism from Israeli politicians and Orthodox leaders, who charged the liberal Jewish groups with pulling out of negotiations before the committee had completed its work and might still succeed. Orthodox politicians also threatened revenge, saying they would push for quick approval of the legislation designed to circumvent the court cases.

Weizman then offered both sides a way out of the impasse by arranging the unprecedented meeting between the non-Orthodox leaders and Rosen. While not committing to any compromise formula, Rosen said the country’s Orthodox leadership would seriously consider the committee’s recommendations.”The committee is made up of good and important people from all of the streams, and therefore everything is dependent on its results. What we need is time,”he said.

Alex Lubotsky, an Orthodox Knesset (parliament) member who has played a key role in the negotiations, said the committee’s work would be expanded to find a”comprehensive”solution to the many outstanding problems that exist between liberal and Orthodox Jews in Israel.”The committee will continue its work, and its role will even be expanded a bit, to discuss the issue of religious councils and the question of women praying at the Western Wall. There is kind of a green light to the committee from the chief rabbis, which I think is very important,”he said.

Orthodox authorities who control the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, have not permitted women to pray in organized groups there because they say it contradicts traditional Jewish law.”The chief rabbis have so far refused to meet with Reform and Conservative rabbis, so the fact that they sent a senior person to shake hands with them was quite a major thing,”Lubotsky added.

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