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PM Olmert gives Arnie Eisen Smicha

There was some controversy last year when the president of Israel refused to call Eric Yoffie “Rabbi” when the leader of the Reform movement visited his office. Now, in an effort not to repeat that controversy, the prime minister of Israel seems to be playing it safe and calling every religious leader “Rabbi” — whether they are or not. An article in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reports that when Arnie Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary, David Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and David Ellenson of Hebrew Union College visited Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this past week, all three men were called “Rabbi” even though Eisen is not an ordained rabbi.

The beginning of the article is quoted below. The complete article is here.

Until ignorance divides us
By Yair Ettinger (

Last Friday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received three guests in his office, all with the double-barreled title of rabbi and professor: They are well-known scholars among American Jews and fairly well-known in Israel: Rabbi David Hartman, who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and is associated with liberal Orthodoxy; Rabbi Arnie Eisen, the chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS); and Rabbi David Ellenson, the president of Hebrew Union College (HUC), the Reform Movement’s rabbinic seminary.

Far from the discriminating eyes of the ultra-Orthodox, the earth beneath the prime minister’s office did not tremble when Olmert addressed each of his conversants as “rabbi” and devoted time to those who would like to find loopholes in the wall put up by the rabbinic establishment.

The three found in Olmert a favorable view of initiatives to “increase Jewish identity among Jews” in Israel and abroad. They declined to elaborate on the content of the meeting, but a talk with Rabbi Ellenson, one of the most influential leaders among American Jewry, indicated which way the wind is blowing.

During his visit to Israel, Ellenson had a hard time getting over the depressing impression made by senior Israeli figures a few days before his departure from the United States at an international gathering of university presidents. On Saturday night, he related, a rabbi recited havdalahh [marking the conclusion of Shabbat] for all the participants, and Ellenson noticed the Israelis. “One of them, the president of a very large university in Israel, told me he had never seen such a service and never even heard of its existence.”

He was greatly saddened, said Ellenson. “I hate the word ignorance, I prefer to be more gentle, but I know that’s how it is. What does it mean that an intellectual doesn’t know what havdalah is? How would you describe it? And he is not the only one among the Israelis.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |