(JTA) — The front-runner in Israel’s presidential election has equated Reform Judaism with “idol worship” and refused to refer to Reform rabbis by their title.
Former Knesset speaker Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin, considered a Likud party elder statesman, is one of six candidates running to succeed Shimon Peres in the largely ceremonial post chosen by the Knesset every seven years. Rivlin is backed in the June 10 vote by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and much of the center-right governing coalition.
In two stints as speaker of the Knesset, Rivlin was known for his respectful treatment of colleagues of varying political affiliations, though he is not as accepting of diversity within Judaism.
His most scathing remarks about Reform Judaism came in 1989 after visiting Temple Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue in New Jersey.
“I was completely stunned,” Rivlin said in an interview published in Yediot Acharonot. “This is idol worship and not Judaism. Until now I thought Reform was a stream of Judaism, but after visiting two of their synagogues I am convinced that this is a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.”
Rivlin, who is secular, is not alone among Israeli politicians in seeing Orthodoxy as the sole authentic Jewish practice. Moshe Katsav, who served as president until 2007, also declined to refer to Reform rabbis as rabbis.
But Rivlin’s attitude toward non-Orthodox Judaism is seen by critics as being at odds with his reputation for fairness.
“On a personal level he’s a nice person, kind and caring,” said Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who led Rivlin’s 1989 trip to Emanu-El and now heads the religious pluralism organization Hiddush. “He may be open-minded on a variety of issues, but his mind was made up on issues of the religious pluralist picture of contemporary Judaism. In that respect he was the same old anti-liberal, closed-minded traditionalist Israeli.”
Rivlin, who declined to speak to JTA, was first elected to the Knesset in 1988 and twice served as the body’s speaker. A self-identified disciple of Revisionist Zionism founder Zeev Jabotinsky, Rivlin opposes territorial concessions to the Palestinians and wants Israel to retain the West Bank. He has said that he supports giving Israeli citizenship to West Bank Palestinians.
Rivlin’s opposition to a two-state solution means that he would be unlikely to reprise the diplomatic role that Peres has played in his tenure as president. A well-known dove, Peres has been uniquely suited to the task of representing Israel to audiences abroad that are skeptical of the country’s right-wing government.
But while Rivlin is hawkish on territorial issues, he is widely regarded as a staunch defender of democratic norms, placing him at odds with others on the right on issues related to civil liberties.