Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, alongside Deputy Minister Eli Ben-
Dahan, unveiled a series of reforms on Sunday, calling the proposals
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.
“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
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
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.
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said Bayit Yehudi will veto any legislation in this regard.
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
“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
“In matters relating to the foundations of the Jewish people, we
must not make changes under the guise of simplifying bureaucracy,” said
“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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Currently, council chairmen are selected by representatives of
the religious services minister, the local municipal authority and the
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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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