(photo credit: courtesy yad vashem)
This past Sunday, a press conference was held in Jerusalem which may yet come to
signify the start of a revolutionary change in the provision of religious
services in the Jewish state.
Speaking to reporters, Religious Services
Minister Naftali Bennett and Deputy Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan announced a
series of long-overdue reforms that will, for the first time, introduce elements
such as competence and competition into the country’s moribund system of
Sure, no smell of gunpowder was evident, nor did
anyone break out into a rendition of “I dreamed a dream” from Les Miserables,
but the storming of the Bastille of Israel’s religious bureaucracy is most
As anyone who has gone through a life-cycle event in
Israel knows all too well, the country’s local religious councils are in a
unique position. They come into contact with the public at some of the most
intimate and emotional moments of a person’s life, ranging from marriage to
Since this is frequently the only real substantive contact with
Judaism that many Israelis may have, the impression left by the experience is
deep and enduring.
And often overwhelmingly negative.
callousness and coarseness abound, with critical positions doled out based on
political considerations rather than professional criteria.
One Israeli I
know who defines himself as secular told me that he had to work long and hard to
convince his fiancé to get married by a rabbi here in Israel. She had heard so
many nightmarish stories from her friends and colleagues that she was determined
to travel to Cyprus to wed in order to avoid having to go to the local religious
Indeed, according to the Tzohar organization, which has led the
charge to improve religious services in the country, one in four secular
Israelis now choose to marry abroad, signifying a sharp rise over previous
And that is what makes the Bennett/Ben-Dahan reform so timely and
so important, because it is not too late to fix the system.
their plan rests on three pillars which would streamline the bureaucracy and
compel it to improve.
The first part is an ingenious injection of
capitalist energy that will force religious councils to effectively compete with
one another for clientele by abolishing separate marriage registration
districts. In other words, anyone from anywhere in Israel will be able to
register to marry anywhere in the country that he wishes, rather than having to
go through his local band of bureaucratic bandits.
This will lead to
religious councils trying to outdo one another by providing better conditions
and levels of service, since they stand to earn the NIS 600 registration fee for
each couple they process.
This change marks the culmination of a process
that was championed by Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirschenbaum of Yisrael
Beytenu, who introduced legislation in the previous Knesset to abolish the
registration districts for marriages.
The second reform to be implemented
will alter the way in which the chairmen of religious councils are selected,
transferring the power away from politicians and cronies and instituting instead
a professional appointments process. As Bennett noted at the press conference,
“the opportunity for cronyism and the distribution of jobs will be
Finally, in a move that is eminently suitable to the times in
which we live, the number of local religious councils will be slashed from 132
to 80, a drop of nearly 40 percent. According to Rabbi Ben- Dahan, the savings
resulting from the cuts will be reinvested into the system to further improve
the service provided to the public.
To be sure, critics wasted little
time before pouncing, with some labeling the reforms as merely “cosmetic” while
others insisted they did not go far enough.
But don’t let the naysayers
Bennett and Rabbi Ben-Dahan have put forward a bold initiative,
one that will shake up the ossified bureaucracy, clear out the cobwebs, and have
a profound impact on the provision of religious services in this country. It
will change the way the bureaucrats relate to the public, and the manner in
which many secular Israelis relate to our heritage.
this revolution is rooted in the timeless wisdom of the Talmud itself, which
declares in Tractate Bava Batra (21b-22a) that “kinat sofrim tarbeh chochmah
(lit. “jealousy among scholars increases wisdom”). As the Talmud there states
regarding those who teach Torah to children, the result is that, “Each teacher,
fearful of his rival, will perform his role with extra care.”
religious councils, and the entire bureaucracy itself, soon follow suit.