Even as Israeli President Moshe Katsav kept up his public feud with the leader of Reform Judaism, he hosted a top leader of the Conservative synagogue movement in America.
During his recent trip to Israel, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, refused to meet with Katsav at his official residence. Yoffie explained his actions by citing Katsav’s refusal to use the title of “rabbi” to refer to the Reform leader. Katsav has fired back at Yoffie several times in recent weeks.
But Katsav held a meeting Wednesday with the Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Epstein told the Forward that he had asked for a meeting with Katsav because he was upset by the Israeli president’s position.
The Katsav-Epstein meeting lasted 45 minutes. According to Epstein, after he explained his position, Katsav warmly called him “Harav Epstein,” invoking the Hebrew word for rabbi that he would use when addressing Orthodox clergymen.
“I said I found this whole thing very hurtful and very painful as an observant and committed rabbi,” Epstein said. “He then moved very nicely and appropriately and said, ‘I hear what you’re saying.’”
Epstein said that he avoided directly raising the dispute with the Reform movement because he did not want to speak for other rabbis.
The detente with Epstein occurred while tensions with Yoffie continued to boil over.
In the past, Katsav reportedly had refused to call Yoffie by the title of rabbi, saying that the state does not recognize Reform rabbis and that he is personally accustomed to only addressing Orthodox-ordained rabbis in that manner.
Reform leaders noted that 15 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that conversions by Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora would carry equal weight for the purposes of qualifying for Israeli citizenship. In Israel, the Reform and Conservative movements do not receive the same legal recognition as the Orthodox movement.
Katsav addressed the controversy during his appearance Sunday at the opening of the annual meeting of the Jewish Agency for Israel. As a compromise proposal, Katsav said, he had decided to use the title of Reform rabbi to address the rabbis of the movement.
Epstein said that Katsav asked his opinion of the proposal. In response, Epstein said: “I don’t think the modifier is appropriate — I’m a rabbi like any other rabbi.”
On Sunday, Katsav complained that Yoffie “should approach the appropriate authorities” if he is unhappy with how the Israeli president addresses him.
“It is inappropriate to debate me via the media,” Katsav said. “I hear I’m being boycotted. No president of the Reform movement will boycott the president of the state or the state. [Yoffie] wouldn’t dare do that to the president of the United States. I am the president of a sovereign state.”