Naftali Bennett at cabinet meeting 370.
(photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Yediot Aharonot)
For the past few months, media attention has been directed almost exclusively at
Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s difficult first steps in politics. But now Bayit
Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, the second “great Ashkenazi male hope,” is in
On Sunday, in his position as religious services minister (he
also holds the economy and trade portfolio), Bennett, alongside deputy minister
Eli Ben-Dahan, presented a number of reforms in the way religious councils
function, reforms that Bennett referred to as “revolutionary.”
step proposed by Bennett is the abolishment of separate marriage registration
jurisdictions. Until now, couples had to register in their city or town of
When the local rabbi refused to recognize the Jewishness of
one or both – such as when one or both were converts to Judaism – the couple had
no other option.
Even when chief rabbinate directives required the local
rabbi to register the couple, he often refused, claiming the right to religious
freedom of conscience. If Bennett’s proposal is implemented, anyone will be
allowed to register for marriage anywhere in the country. This will generate
competition among the religious councils – and the rabbis – for the NIS 600
registration fee, though no rabbi will be coerced into registering anyone
against his will. At the same time, by opening up options for choosing a wider
range of Chief Rabbinate-affiliated rabbis across the nation – including more
lenient rabbis – couples will find it easier to register.
aimed at “separating politics from religious services,” has to do with the way
the chairmen of religious councils are appointed. Currently, the religious
services minister and the local government choose the chairmen. One’s political
ties – not necessarily one’s ability to provide religious services – is the
all-important criterion for getting tapped for the position. Bennett proposes
creating a professional appointments process via tenders.
Bennett wants to reduce the number of local religious councils from 132 to 80 to
cuts costs and streamline operations.
It is refreshing to see a religious
services minister publicly recognize the dysfunctional nature of religious
affairs in Israel. His predecessor, MK Yaakov Margi (Shas), denied there was a
need for change, claiming the system worked well.
However, the reforms
proposed by Bennett do not go far enough. State-administered religious services
suffer from all the built-in ills that afflict many other state-run endeavors:
mind-numbing bureaucratic red tape, a lack of a service ethos, advancement based
on seniority and cronyism rather than merit.
When the services being
provided are welfare payments, automobile licensing or passport renewal,
expectation levels are low and so is the potential for disappointment. But when
the state bureaucracy, with all its fundamental disadvantages, starts meddling
in the highly charged and emotional matters of religion, a crisis of faith can
It should come as no surprise that in Western countries where
there is only one official state religion, the level of religiosity among the
populace tends to be low while cynicism levels are high. Citizens are
discouraged from taking the initiative to build houses of worship since it is
considered to be the state’s role.
In contrast, in the United States,
where there is a vibrant denominationalism and various religious sects vie for
believers, religious life is dynamic and religiosity is high.
together to create their own unique religious communities and don’t rely on the
state for religious services.
Obviously, in Israel, which defines itself
as Jewish, the situation is quite different from the US. However, the same sorts
of ideas can be applied in a Jewish context. Dynamic Orthodox movements such as
Chabad, Tzohar, Breslav and Rosh Yehudi and non-Orthodox movements such as the
Masorti (Conservative) and Reform movements, provide a wide range of religious
And they do so even though the Chief Rabbinate is supposed to offer
the very same services. Imagine how dynamic Jewish life could be in Israel if
the Chief Rabbinate were reduced to a bare minimum and the vast majority of
religious services were provided by organizations and movements that really want
to serve the Jewish people, and not by a bunch of bureaucratic functionaries who
receive a monthly salary from the state regardless of the quality of their work.
Instead of making cosmetic changes to the state-run religious services
apparatus, Bennett should come up with a more innovative and ambitious plan
befitting a hi-tech entrepreneur.
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