Ben-Dahan lauds reforms to religious services but says work cut short by early elections

Conservative movement says “extensive surgical operation” needed for religious establishment to satisfy requirements of general public.

Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The short-lived 33rd government was notable for the fact that Bayit Yehudi took control of the Religious Services Ministry, the first time a national-religious party has done so since 1998.
The ministry had almost exclusively been in the hands of Shas, although it was totally abolished between 2003 and 2009.
The national-religious political and rabbinic leadership has frequently chaffed at the prolonged control of the haredi political parties over the religious establishment, so Bayit Yehudi’s control over the ministry was seen as an opportunity to make some important reforms to the provision of religious services after prolonged Shas control.
Although fundamental reforms to grant greater freedom in life-cycle choices for the general public, such as civil unions and recognition of non-Orthodox religious ceremonies, were frequently held up – often by Bayit Yehudi – the party did seek to improve the provision of religious services on offer and the frequently unwelcoming bureaucracy surrounding them.
One of the major reforms the party and Religious Services deputy- minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, who was responsible for the day to day running of the ministry achieved, was to change the way municipal chief rabbis are elected.
Under the previous system, 50 percent of the representatives were selected from synagogues in the city, but the synagogues chosen to send delegates to the electoral body were often selected with a bias toward haredi communities. A petition to the High Court of Justice alleged that the system led to politicized appointments.
Under new formulation for electing such rabbis that Ben-Dahan implemented, half the representatives on the body will now be drawn from the local municipal council in accordance with the size of the political parties on the council. This will give greater democratic representation to the city residents, while the representation from synagogues is reduced to 25% of the electoral body and the input from the minister is 25%, but his representatives need to be approved by the city mayor.
The first elections under the new system, implemented this summer, were those for the positions of Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis of Jerusalem, which were conducted in October and resulted in the election of one national-religious rabbi, Arye Stern, and one haredi rabbi, Shlomo Amar.
In another significant reform, Ben-Dahan also oversaw the passage of the so-called Tzohar bill that abolished marriage registration zones. The government legislation that the Religious Services Ministry proposed, allowed a couple to register for marriage in any local rabbinate, not just their place of residence.
The reform is designed to stimulate competition between local rabbinates for the NIS 700 registration fee, to improve their marriage registration service, which has frequently been the subject of complaints from the public, especially the non-religious sector that often encounters an unhelpful and overly bureaucratic system.
In another marriage-related reform, the ministry demanded that local rabbinates comply with current guidelines and certify prenuptial agreements for assets, brought to them by couples registering for marriage.
It was discovered by the ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group that at least 10% of local rabbinates failed to adhere to ministry regulations, which stipulate that such prenuptial agreements be certified.
The ministry has since spoken with the local religious councils in question and insisted that the agreements be authorized.
Additionally, significant progress was made on the issue of what are known as halachic prenuptial agreements, designed to prevent the situation in which one spouse of a married couple refuses to grant or accept a bill of divorce, thereby trapping their partner in the marriage.
A joint committee was established comprising representatives from the Religious Services and Justice ministries, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Chief Rabbinate, and the rabbinical courts to draw up a prenuptial agreement that would impose penalties on recalcitrant partners refusing to agree to divorce. The committee has in the last week come to an agreement on three different prenuptial agreements that relevant institutions will honor.
Once given final approval, local religious councils will be obligated to offer couple’s registering for marriage the opportunity of signing one of the prenuptial agreements, and it is hoped that the measure will significantly reduce the phenomenon of divorce refusal.
Ben-Dahan also says that he succeeded in securing the appointment of new communal rabbis to 69 moshavim, kibbutzim and local regional councils to provide them with religious services and rabbinic leadership.
Such appointments had essentially been frozen for more than 11 years as a result of a dispute between the Justice Ministry and the Treasury.
A settlement was reached in 2014, whereby the rabbis are appointed by the individual communities so that the selected candidate fits with the character and perspective of the residents where the rabbi will serve.
The ministry actually received 200 requests from various towns and communities to gain the services of a communal rabbi, although funds have only been found for 69 so far.
Legislation was advanced, though not completed, to establish disciplinary committees for municipal chief rabbis who are not fulfilling their work obligations.
There is currently no method of calling such rabbis to account, since they are elected as a lifetime appointment, until 75, and no disciplinary procedures have ever been adopted for rabbis in these positions, who often earn in excess of NIS 500,000 a year.
The legislation, which passed its first reading in Knesset, stipulates that upon receipt by the ministry of a significant complaint or an accumulation of several complaints, the religious services minister will be authorized, in consultation with one of the national chief rabbis, to establish an investigative committee into that rabbi’s activities, comprised of one rabbinical judge, a separate chief municipal rabbi and a legal adviser to the ministry.
The committees will be empowered to recommend to the ministry that certain disciplinary actions be taken, such as initiating a trial period for him to improve the fulfillment of his official duties, and even that the rabbi be dismissed from his post.
The legislation has not passed its final readings in the Knesset, but the bill is set to be revived in the next parliament and it is hoped will gain final approval.
But not everyone has been so enthused with the reforms that the outgoing government enacted.
The non-Orthodox movements in particular have said that the changes Ben-Dahan and the ministry made are simply window- dressing, designed to superficially patch over the deeper problem of Orthodox control over religious services.
Director of the Conservative Movement in Israel Yizhar Hess, said that claims of substantial change in the provision of religious services were “a deception” and said that the reforms enacted were “cosmetic in nature” and carried out due to the pressure and dissatisfaction with the current system of the general public, to “forestall the abolition of the Orthodox monopoly.”
“Just like you can’t solve a serious health problem with pain-killers, so too you can’t solve the underlying problems of religious services by papering over the cracks,” Hess told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
“We’re talking about cosmetic changes, a bit of powder on the cheeks, not even plastic surgery, instead of the extensive surgical operation that is required,” he said.
Ben-Dahan rejected these claims, however, and claimed that the majority of Jewish Israelis prefer religious services within an Orthodox framework.
He said that he was proud of the achievements gained during the brief life-span of the 33rd government and insisted that retaining control of the Religious Services Ministry was a central goal for Bayit Yehudi.
“The area of religious services had largely stagnated for many years, but over the last 18 months we have been able to advance many important initiatives,” Ben-Dahan told the Post. “I would be happy to return to the ministry to continue with the other proposals we are working on but which have been put on hold because of the elections.”