Bennett reveals reform of religious services

Meretz MK: Bayit Yehudi in charge of religious services is just a change from a black kipa to a knitted one.

May 19, 2013 15:40
Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett arriving for cabinet meeting, April 28, 2013.

Naftali Bennett at cabinet meeting 370. (photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Yediot Aharonot)

Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, alongside Deputy Minister Eli Ben- Dahan, unveiled a series of reforms on Sunday, calling the proposals “revolutionary.”

The objective was to improve the professionalism of religious services and make them more accessible to the general public, Bennett said, speaking at a press conference in Jerusalem.

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“This is an opportunity to sanctify God’s name and to draw people closer [to Judaism],” said Bennett, emphasizing that religious services were required by the entire population “and not just one community.”

The Bayit Yehudi chairman attributed the main push for reform to Ben-Dahan, who runs the ministry.

Although various groups expressed support for some of the planned reforms, there was also widespread criticism from both secular and religious quarters, including political parties on the Right and Left.

Notable among Bennett’s comments was his assertion that “there is no competition in Judaism, although there can be and should be [competition] for serving the Israeli public.”

Non-Orthodox movements have in recent years been increasingly lobbying for state recognition and funding, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid has said on at least three occasions that he intends to bring all Jewish streams onto an equal footing in terms of funding and state recognition, while also vowing to institute civil marriage.

Ben-Dahan has said Bayit Yehudi will veto any legislation in this regard.

Meretz MK Michal Roisin told The Jerusalem Post the reforms being advanced by Bayit Yehudi amounted to “service with a smile” but with no substantial change in addressing the needs of the public.

She pointed in particular to the demands for civil marriage and divorce registration as basic requirements “of any normative state.”

“What we have here is the exchange of a black yarmulke for a knitted yarmulke, and service with a smile,” Roisin said. “But the coercive nature of the service within an Orthodox framework remains, and this is what is divisive and what distances people from religion.”

At the same time, haredi MK Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism criticized the proposals, saying they endangered traditional Judaism.

“In matters relating to the foundations of the Jewish people, we must not make changes under the guise of simplifying bureaucracy,” said Porush.

“Today we’re talking about technical issues, tomorrow, God forbid, there will be a break with Jewish tradition.”

During the press conference, Bennett and Ben-Dahan announced three main reforms that they will seek to advance in the field of religious services, relating to local religious councils.

These bodies are a primary provider for services such as marriage registration, burial arrangements and many other life-cycle events, and have frequently been criticized as unprofessional, unapproachable and inattentive to the needs and sensitivities of the general public.

The first of the planned reforms is to abolish separate marriage registration districts, so as to allow anyone from any locale to register anywhere in the country, thereby creating competition between councils for the NIS 600 registration fee, in the hope that this will lead to improved services.

Many religious groups, such as the Tzohar rabbinical association, have voiced concerns in recent years that an unwelcoming and bureaucratic atmosphere prevails in many marriage registration offices at local religious councils, which causes many couples to chose to marry abroad in civil ceremonies.

The worry for such groups is that the downturn in ceremonial Jewish marriage will create an irrevocable split in the Jewish population in Israel, since the principal tool used to prove Jewish identity is providing the Jewish marriage certificate of a person’s parents.

Tzohar welcomed the proposal on marriage registration, pointing out that it has campaigned for several years to open up the registration jurisdictions to competition.

In a particularly bitter fight with the Religious Services Ministry back in 2011, Tzohar shut down its free marriage service in protest of what it called discriminatory restrictions placed upon it by the ministry.

This incident led to legislative efforts to abolish separate marriage registration districts, including a bill submitted by Yisrael Beytenu’s MK Faina Kirschenbaum, which passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset and was stalled following the dissolution of the Knesset ahead of January’s election.

Bennett and Ben-Dahan vowed to “disconnect politics from the provision of religious services,” by creating a professional appointments process for the position of chairman for local religious councils.

Currently, council chairmen are selected by representatives of the religious services minister, the local municipal authority and the rabbinate.

By creating a professional appointments process for the position, said Bennett, “the opportunity for cronyism and the distribution of jobs will be uprooted” from local religious councils.

This proposal came in for severe criticism from the national-religious Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah lobbying group, which argued that the proposed appointment process would be anti-democratic and would deny local municipalities the ability to determine an appropriate executive for the region’s religious council.

Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah said the idea was “an unacceptable form of centralization [which] strengthens the monopoly of religious services in Israel,” adding that it contravened proposals made by at least two public committees on the issue.

The organization argued that public tenders for professional positions, such as those that would be made for the chairmanship of religious councils, are frequently skewed to favor candidates with particular qualifications – and that such tenders would ultimately put the religious services minister in control of the process.

“Just like a mayor, the chairman of a local religious council needs to be elected by the public and not appointed by a minister, and this proposal strengthens the religious services minister in making these appointments instead of strengthening communities and the wider public,” Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah said.

Hiddush, a religious freedom lobbying group, also weighed in, welcoming recognition of the problems in the provision of religious services but arguing that the reforms dealt with marginal issues and would “perpetuate Orthodox control over religious life.”

Hiddush director Reform Rabbi Uri Regev said the only solution for the provision of religious services in a democratic state was “freedom of choice in marriage and the abolition of a coercive state-run rabbinate.”

The third reform announced by Bennett and Ben-Dahan would see the number of local religious councils reduced from 132 to 80 in order to reduce unnecessary expenditure and increase efficiency.

Ben-Dahan said that the money saved on employing clerks and supporting the bureaucracy of the extraneous councils would be used for the improvement of services.

Both the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel criticized the proposed reforms, arguing that preserving the provision of religious services within an Orthodox framework was divisive and restricted choice.

“The only revolution that can heal the crisis of religious services in Israel is the abolition of the Orthodox monopoly and allowing real choice for different Jewish communities and denominations,” director of the Israel Reform Movement Rabbi Gilad Kariv said.

“A cosmetic facelift will not solve the plight of hundreds of thousands of people ineligible for marriage, will not provide for a sane conversion process or give expression to the fact that a millions of Jews belong to non-Orthodox denominations,” Kariv said.

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