There has been little respite in recent months from a slew of controversies that
have erupted in the Jewish state relating to the role and prominence of
religious life in the country.
From the explosive issue of haredi
enlistment in the army to the ongoing campaign being waged by those seeking
equal prayer rights at the Western Wall, problems with a religious foundation
seem to be proliferating in Israeli society.
And it is not only the
headline-grabbing disputes that are involved. Problems of a more administrative
nature within the realm of religion continue to cause frustration, discontent
and suffering, especially surrounding the provision of services for life-cycle
events that are defined and administered according to Jewish law.
the fundamental policies advocated by the Bayit Yehudi party during the recent
election campaign was to reform the provision of religious services in order to
stop the growing alienation felt by many Israelis towards the Orthodox religious
establishment in the country.
The burden of this task will fall in large
part on the shoulders of the newly appointed Deputy Minister for Religious
Services, MK Rabbi Eliahu Ben-Dahan of Bayit Yehudi, who is now running the
In large part, the raft of conflicts that have arisen
surrounding matters of religion, such as public transportation on Shabbat,
non-Orthodox conversion and civil marriage, relate to the control of religious
affairs by an Orthodox establishment, as well as the close connection of
religion and state in Israel.
According to Ben-Dahan, some of these
conflicts are inevitable because as the only Jewish state, it is important to
preserve the Jewish character of the country.
“This is the only Jewish
state in the world, and the only state which is [defined by its] nationality and
its religion. Because of this, we want to be strict and guard the things that
express the uniqueness of the Jewish people at all costs,” says the deputy
“Yes, these issues can cause conflict between the non-religious
and religious communities, but it is still important to preserve the public
symbols of Judaism in our country.”
According to the deputy minister, the
fact that “some individuals and communities” are adversely affected by the
dominance of Orthodoxy is unavoidable if Israel is to protect what he says are
its “central principles.” “There’s no doubt that in any reality in which there
are people living in a collective, public forum, there are individuals who are
negatively impacted,” says Ben-Dahan.
“Since we want to be one people,
there is no choice. There’s no other way apart from knowing that
sometimes there are people who lose something. For sure, I won’t say that this
doesn’t happen. People lose out.”
One of the most central issues
surrounding matters of religion and state that Ben-Dahan will face is that of
marriage in Israel. Since the founding of the state, marriage and divorce have
been under the sole jurisdiction of the different religious authorities in the
country, making it impossible for two people of different faiths to marry, while
civil marriage for people of the same faith is also not
Additionally, marriages conducted by non-Orthodox Jewish rabbis
are not recognized by the state.
This issue has caused much consternation
among non-Israeli Jewry, especially in the US. During the recent election
campaign, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid promised “to do everything in my power” to
institute civil marriage in Israel and bring non-Orthodox streams onto a level
footing with the Orthodox Jewish establishment with regard to funding and
Ben-Dahan is adamant, however, that such reforms will not occur
within the life of the current government.
“It won’t happen because the
coalition agreement stipulates that there won’t be any changes to matters of
religion and state without all parties in the coalition agreeing to them,” said
Should such issues be raised, he says, Bayit Yehudi will most
likely veto them.
The deputy minister acknowledges that the societal
tensions caused by the issue of marriage, along with other problems, have arisen
because of the close connection between religion and state in the
The way around it, he says, is twofold: greater empathy for the
opposing positions and the purity of their motives, along with reforms for the
provision of religious services within the framework of Orthodox
“It’s crucial that we believe that the other person has good and
true intentions. We need to respect those with opinions different from our own
and acknowledge that they are not acting in order to harm those who disagree
with him,” he says.
“We must ascribe value and respect to positions which
are held by others and not disparage and belittle each other.”
As to some
of the reforms he is planning, Ben- Dahan says one of the first bills he is
advancing would open up marriage registration jurisdictions and thereby allow
anyone from any part of the country to register for marriage wherever they
Currently, a couple one must register for marriage in the city of
residence of one of the spouses.
Many local rabbinates have bad
reputations for the level of service and bureaucracy people experience when
registering for marriage, as well as seeking other religious
The increased competition resultant from this reform, says
Ben-Dahan, will create a significant boost to the provision of many religious
“If the Jerusalem department for marriage knows that the
residents of Jerusalem are not captive to them, but can go to Mevaseret or
Ma’aleh Adumim or Beit El to register, they will understand that it’s a
different world, there is competition,” he says. “If there’s competition and you
don’t provide a good enough service, then you’re going to lose
BEN-DAHAN ALSO seeks to shake up the conversion system,
particularly with regard to Israelis from the former Soviet Union who are not
Jewish according to Jewish law.
There are approximately 330,000 Israelis
who fall into this category, who encounter significant difficulties when
requiring services for life-cycle events such as marriage, divorce and burial
because they are not classified as Jewish.
In addition to those problems,
several Orthodox groups are concerned with the possibility of assimilation and
intermarriage with Israelis considered to be Jewish according to Jewish law, and
have therefore strongly advocated for a state-driven campaign to attract more
people in this demographic to convert.
In 2011, less than 2,000 Israelis
from the former Soviet Union converted.
Ben-Dahan says that the Religious
Services Ministry will shortly be launching a campaign to reach out to Israelis
of Jewish ancestry in order to encourage conversion.
He cites a lack of
knowledge about the process as one of the reasons behind the low demand for
conversion, as well as a failure to appreciate the importance of converting for
the person in question and their children.
“In many cases they don’t
understand that the conversion process is not as tough as they might think, and
that it can certainly be achieved,” he says.
Like other religious
services, the conversion process has suffered from burdensome bureaucracy, as
well as insensitivity to candidates and strict controls, partially designed to
prevent conversion from becoming a tool to obtain Israeli citizenship by foreign
Ben-Dahan’s plan to boost the number of conversions is to enlist
the help of people who have already converted to act as emissaries for the
conversion program, who would go out to communities and explain the
“I want to bring this community closer to the idea of conversion
and explain that it is not so terrible,” he says.
Another issue which
remains at the forefront of the struggle against the religious status quo is the
ongoing problems experienced by women whose husbands refuse to grant them a bill
of divorce, or get.
Although the rabbinical courts, which have exclusive
jurisdiction over the divorce proceedings, can impose punitive sanctions against
husbands who refuse to grant a get, in practice this tool is rarely
According to a Rackman Center report, sanctions, such as revocation
of driver’s licenses and even imprisonment, are employed in just 1.5 percent of
applicable cases – so one of the main avenues being pursued by women’s rights
groups to remedy the problem is to have more liberal-minded rabbinical judges
appointed to the rabbinical courts.
Women’s rights groups say that this
effort has been stymied by the lack of women on the 10-member committee
responsible for selecting rabbinical judges, and they have therefore been
conducting a concerted campaign to reserve a number of spots on the panel for
They argue that because the panel includes the two chief rabbis
and two supreme rabbinical court judges, who are perforce men, four spots should
also be reserved for women.
Ben-Dahan, however, says he disagrees with
the principle of reserving spots for women, arguing that 40% of the panel is not
set aside in other government forums. He added that since the new justice
minister, who is also automatically a member of the selection committee, is a
woman – Tzipi Livni – and that a spot on the panel reserved for a Bayit Yehudi
MK will be given to a woman, no further legislation is necessary.
says he would not oppose legislative efforts to reserve more spots on the
committee. In his opinion, however, “it is a mistake.” “If you try and get to
much, you won’t achieve anything,” he notes.
AS HAS been apparent with
the controversy over Western Wall prayer rights and the campaign by the Women of
the Wall activist group, the disputes that have erupted of late centering on how
public religious life in Israel is conducted will not disappear.
anything, they are likely to become more intense and more frequent as those who
do not subscribe to Orthodox practice, and those frustrated with the general
lack of empathy emanating from the state’s religious service providers, become
increasingly assertive in pursuit of their rights.
If the Israeli public
is to be reconciled with the religious establishment in its current Orthodox
guise, much will depend on how Ben-Dahan runs his ministry and the extent to
which he is prepared to instigate reforms for the better, smoother and more
attentive provision of religious services to its customers.
reforms fail to materialize, it is likely that calls for a complete separation
of religion and state will get both louder and a great deal more intense.