Religious reform: Government coalition members weigh in

A conversation with coalition partners on matters of religion and state.

 PRAYING AT Robinson’s Arch at the south end of  the Kotel, the section set aside for pluralistic prayer.  (photo credit: ROBERT SWIFT/FLASH90)
PRAYING AT Robinson’s Arch at the south end of the Kotel, the section set aside for pluralistic prayer.
(photo credit: ROBERT SWIFT/FLASH90)

In March, several political parties vying for the public’s confidence were resolute in their support for promoting religious pluralism in Israeli society. But declarations before joining the government are one thing; legislation is something else.

Now, with the first hundred days of grace behind them, I sat down with several coalition ministers and Knesset members to hear what headway has been made, and what lies ahead.

Moshe Tur-Paz (Yesh Atid): Forging an alliance between religious and secular Zionists

“It’s nothing short of a revolution,” MK Moshe Tur-Paz said after a meeting of the Knesset Committee on Religious Services. He was referring to the bill presented by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana (Yamina) introducing far-reaching reform regarding kashrut certification. “It frightens the haredim,” he explained, “who are afraid of opening the door to liberal Orthodox rabbis and forfeiting their sole authority in this sphere and the consequential loss of income.”

Tur-Paz, an Orthodox member of Yesh Atid, has been mandated by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid with the responsibility for driving the party’s policy in matters of religion and state, and he anticipates an “earthquake” shaking this domain.

“For 73 years, the assumption has been that there is the religious camp that wants to fortify the institution of the Chief Rabbinate, and the Left that has fought against that,” he elaborated. “Suddenly there is this alliance representing the secular Zionists and the majority of the religious Zionists, who together represent 80% of Israel’s Jewish population, coming together in favor of more kashrut options and less rabbinate interference. [Prime Minister] Naftali Bennett and Lapid, representing the right-wing and Center-Left blocs, signed an agreement on legislation that would bring this about, as well as wresting absolute control from the Chief Rabbinate in matters of conversion. That portends other profound changes down the line.”

 MK MOSHE TUR-PAZ (Yesh Atid, on left) with haredi MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism): Earthquake.  (credit: KNESSET SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
MK MOSHE TUR-PAZ (Yesh Atid, on left) with haredi MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism): Earthquake. (credit: KNESSET SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)

You seem confident such changes will come, but how far are you willing to go? As welcome as these reforms are, they do nothing to equalize the status of the liberal streams of Judaism, nor alleviate the plight of those FSU immigrants and others whom Israel doesn’t recognize as Jewish. They still won’t be able to marry here.

My position is that civil marriage should be an option, certainly for those unable to marry through the rabbinate, and perhaps also for those who can but don’t want to.

And weddings performed by non-Orthodox rabbis? Currently they’re illegal in Israel. Will this government pass legislation changing that?

I can’t tell you that, but it’s something we have to deal with. I’m not in favor of separation of religion and state. However, I do believe every Jew should be able to practice Judaism as they understand it. I want there to be choice.

But there isn’t. Reform and Conservative Jews here feel like second-class citizens. Members of these movements overseas are already saying they don’t believe Israel really wants them. The suspension of the agreement regarding egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall is a particularly sore point.

If more Diaspora Jews would make aliyah, things would change. I nevertheless see it as my mission – personally and as an MK – to broadcast to every Jew that they should feel at home here, and to make sure it is so. I can’t force an Orthodox rabbi to accept Conservative Jews, but I can demand that of the state.

I share the need for the agreement to be implemented. The Western Wall belongs to the entire Jewish people. But there is the symbolic and there is the practical. In negotiation there is always the need for compromise. I’d like to arrive at one everyone can live with.

Can we anticipate that?

If this government holds, I can tell you there will be meaningful reform. That’s both Kahana’s agenda and ours. We’ll arrive at agreements.

There are murmurings that some things aren’t happening because some in the coalition insist on keeping the door open to the ultra-Orthodox.

I don’t believe is the case, though I’m in favor of them joining. But they would have to understand that it would be on our conditions, not Netanyahu’s. Whether they join or not, we’ll continue to pass the reforms important to us. The conservative pundits are correct in saying we’re becoming more liberal.

Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana (Yamina): Bolstering the Chief Rabbinate through competition

Given Tur-Paz’s enthusiasm over the kashrut reform, it was surprising to hear Kahana state unequivocally that he believed his kashrut reform bill would actually strengthen the Chief Rabbinate, which he said was one of his objectives in introducing the legislation. He rejected the claims that ending the rabbinate’s monopoly would amount to a first step in dismantling the institution altogether. 

In fact, he insisted, the law would invest the rabbinate with authority it has heretofore not enjoyed, empowering it to determine universal standards for kashrut and establishing an authoritative supervisory body under its control. Why, then, the fierce resistance to the initiative?

In a word: competition. Although according to the new law the Chief Rabbinate would remain the regulator of kashrut, it would no longer be the sole body granting kashrut certification. At present, a business establishment may apply only to a local rabbinic authority for a kashrut license. Kahana’s initiative would enable it to turn to a host of independent bodies anywhere in the country.

But there’s another reason. The bill includes a proviso bill allowing three rabbis to establish kashrut standards of their own, either stricter or more lenient than those of the rabbinate.

Whoever formulates these standards, will they deal exclusively with matters of ritual slaughter and the preparation of food, or prevent certification of establishments that host New Year’s Eve celebrations or remain open on Shabbat?

The standards will deal only with kashrut. But the entity granting certification can determine if it has the capacity to supervise an establishment on Shabbat.

The three rabbis setting the standards: might they be affiliated with liberal Orthodox bodies such as Hashgacha Pratit and Tzohar? Or even be non-Orthodox?

Only rabbis trained and approved by the Chief Rabbinate, who have served in kashrut-related capacities, will be authorized to set standards. I would have preferred not to have this option altogether. It is there only in case the Chief Rabbinate should decide not to cooperate at all in instituting this reform, or if it should establish standards far from realistic.

Shimon Ma’atok, the ministry’s director-general, further clarified: “This bill deals exclusively with Orthodox kashrut. It provides no opening whatsoever for any other sort... We’re not there.”

Alon Tal (Blue and White): Championing equality for the non-Orthodox streams

Kahana’s explanation of his kashrut bill is why Tal is not happy with it. Although not undervaluing the importance of the legislation, he doesn’t believe it goes far enough. 

“Anything that weakens the stranglehold of the Chief Rabbinate is an important step forward,” he said, “but this law will continue to entrench the Orthodox as the sole arbiters of kashrut in this country... I find it offensive that the Religious Services Ministry is not prepared to allow Reform or Conservative rabbis to issue kashrut certificates of their own. It only exacerbates the inequality of these movements.”

That is a situation Tal is dedicated to changing with the support of his colleagues, whom he assures me all share a deep attachment to Jewish tradition while rejecting coercion.

He also believes his faction is particularly appreciative of the diversity of Jewish life, and is especially sensitive to the need for growing Jewish pluralism in Israeli society. 

Tal, an active member of the Masorti Movement, is striving to do just that. It is not his only priority (environmentalism is the first and empowerment of women another) but one he is passionate about. He has learned quickly, though, that making progress isn’t easy; even his coalition partners did not support his amendments to the kashrut bill.

“I’m disappointed,” he said. “But I know politics is the art of compromise and getting this bill through, even as is, is vital – and an important step toward other reforms as well.”

Tal is more optimistic about the implementation of the Kotel agreement. He has already prepared legislation stipulating its full execution as initially approved, before having been frozen by the previous government, and doesn’t anticipate any objection from coalition partners. Conversations I had with some of them make me suspect otherwise.

Some of your colleagues tell me they expect the agreement will have to be amended to be adopted. Others have hinted there is opposition to pushing it at this time altogether, in order to keep the coalition door open to the ultra-Orthodox.

It will pass, if not by law, then by government decision.

I don’t want to detract one iota from its importance, but the reality is that the Western Wall agreement, while of enormous symbolic significance, won’t impact our daily lives. Is there any hope for reform under this government that will allow people to marry or be buried as they’d like?

Right now these issues aren’t a priority for most of my colleagues – either because they don’t affect them personally or because there are other things more pressing, like the budget, health and education.

So what can we expect from this government regarding progress in matters of religion and state?

Small steps, but crucial ones, like breaking the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate. Before this government came into power, that would have been unthinkable. I also hope to submit a bill liberalizing laws regarding marriage which I expect will get support. 

Now is the time to push for these changes. If it’s not going to happen under this government, it never will.

Alex Kushnir (Yisrael Beitenu): Integrating haredim into the work force

What are the chances of the government actually effecting the changes that Tal champions? That’s how I began my conversation with MK Kushnir. Specifically, I asked him if he believed my grandchildren would be able to marry here. One of my daughters-in-law is among the estimated 300,000 immigrants from the FSU born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother; their religion here is registered as “unknown.” 

Since only religious weddings are allowed in Israel, and only those deemed Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate can wed, she was legally barred from getting married. Nevertheless, adamant about her Jewish identity, she chose to convert and marry through the Masorti Movement. That, however, changed nothing in the eyes of the religious authorities, who continue to regard her and her children as non-Jews.

“I’m optimistic,” he replied. “It will happen long before your grandchildren will be standing under the huppah. This government is on a clear trajectory, characterized by a desire to open the gates of Judaism. Everyone is fed up by the religious coercion we’ve had to endure, and the attitude that there’s only one way to be Jewish.”

Is it realistic to expect that this government will introduce legislation permitting both civil marriage and marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis?

Yes. I’ve even heard murmurings to that effect from Kahana. He’s not one to simply throw around words. This is something this government really must promote. It can’t be that our children are good enough to be drafted into the army and die for this country, but not good enough to stand under the wedding canopy.

Civil marriage only, or also those officiated by non-Orthodox rabbis?

The state’s only role insofar as marriages are concerned should be to register them, not to decide what sort of rabbi, or if any rabbi at all, needs to conduct the ceremony. But to get there, we need to start with small steps, and this government is taking them. As long as the haredim remain in the opposition, our chances are good.

Also regarding haredim in the army? The legislation being proposed drastically reduces the number of ultra-Orthodox to be drafted compared to the original bill.

The principle is simple, finding the proper formula to ensure they share the burden of defending this country while also integrating into the workforce. To that end, I’ve already prepared legislation that would establish a state-run haredi educational framework to include core subjects essential for productive employment. The economic fallout of not integrating the haredim into the labor market is catastrophic and we need to take the first steps toward making this happen now.

Another matter the haredim are resisting: implementing the agreement regarding pluralistic prayer at the Kotel.

That should have happened a long time ago, and every day of delay is an embarrassment. Once the budget is approved, I’m convinced this government will deal with this successfully.

Michal Rozin (Meretz): Separation of religion and state

MK Rozin concurs with Kushnir’s assessment that once the budget is passed, we can expect movement on the issue of the Western Wall. But what she expects to be approved is far less than what she would have liked. As chair of the Knesset Caucus for Freedom of Religion and Pluralistic Jewish Renewal, and a longtime supporter of Women of the Wall, she has had her sights set on much broader reform. 

“As far as I’m concerned, the entire Western Wall should be open to all of the streams and to men and women alike. It’s not a synagogue; it’s a national site,” she said. “But we need to consider not only what we’d like, but also what we can achieve. 

“This isn’t an easy government. It’s not comprised only of the Center-Left and liberal parties. And it’s going to be difficult to advance things like public transportation on Shabbat and civil marriage. But I do believe we’ll be able to offer some relief from the haredi domination of religious life in this country. That’s already happening in the areas of kashrut and conversion.”

Yet even with this legislation, kashrut will remain exclusively in the hands of the Orthodox.

We are working on exchanging the black kippah [typical of the haredim] with the knitted kippah [worn by the religious Zionists]. People want tradition, but they hate coercion. We’re making things easier for them in areas they care about. Meretz, of course, would like to dismantle the Chief Rabbinate altogether, but if that is not going to happen, at least we can moderate its influence.

The kashrut law, for example, will satisfy a large segment of the population who want to spend Shabbat morning at the beach and then eat in a restaurant where they know the food is kosher. Kahana’s bill will allow for that, doing away with the absurd situation where restaurants have been closed for reasons that had nothing to do with the food. The public wants a more liberal approach, more openness, more choice.

And what does Meretz want?

Ideally, separation of religion and state; not the American model where public funds can’t be used for religious purposes. Here, just like the government builds community centers, cultural venues, sport facilities and zoos, it should also be building synagogues and mikvaot – but open to everyone. But there should be a total disassociation of religion from politics.

There should also be a complete disassociation of laws of personal status and civil law. Everyone has to have the right to marry as they wish. It is absurd that a wedding of any sort that takes place outside of Israel must be registered here, while the same wedding, if it were to take place within the country, is not recognized. It’s not rational. There’s no justification for that.

Will you be able to convince your coalition partners of that?

Even those who understand the logic are going to be hesitant. People are afraid of the breakdown of the status quo and of losing their constituencies. I understand that. We need courageous leadership to make the shift. Am I optimistic that the sort of leadership essential to enacting the necessary reforms will emerge over the next few years? I’m not sure, but Meretz has a work plan, and perhaps we’ll be successful in convincing people logically. Can I guarantee that this will happen? No, but I’m certainly not giving up.

Nachman Shai (Labor): Revitalizing ties with the Diaspora

Progress regarding religious pluralism, touted by Rozin, is also important to Diaspora Affairs Minister Shai – not only for the sake of those living in Israel, but also for our relationship with those overseas. Among his first initiatives upon taking office was establishing a unit for Jewish Renewal, to revitalize ties between Israel and Jews abroad – a challenge, he said, that is among the highest priorities for Israel today.

“There are two issues here. The first is the distancing from Israel, particularly among young American Jews; that is a very serious problem,” he said. “The progressive camp is very critical about things we actually care deeply about in Israel – democracy and human rights. The second is in regard to religious freedom, highlighted by the crisis over the suspension of the Kotel agreement, which has impacted very negatively on the relationship between Israel and the largest denominations in American Jewry. 

“It is time to get back on track, to deal with both challenges, to open a dialogue, to counter this detachment from Israel and Zionism, in order not to forfeit the next generation.”

If repairing the damage to Israel-Diaspora relations is indeed of such consequence, and if the suspension of the Western Wall agreement was a major factor in causing the harm, why haven’t we seen any movement in regard to its implementation?

I’ve actually submitted a government resolution that would return us to the original Western Wall arrangement, without changing a single word. The prime minister understands very well the need for doing this, how important it is for American Jewry – particularly for the Reform and Conservative movements – and he’s personally a strong supporter of the initial agreement, but first he needs to pass the state budget. After that, I believe it will be among his top priorities.

And within the coalition, do you anticipate any objections?

I’ve talked with most of the government ministers. We’re in a good place.

But as critical as resolving the matter of the Western Wall is, it’s essentially of symbolic importance. Do you see this government passing legislation that will equalize the standing of the non-Orthodox streams in Israel?

I don’t see that happening any time soon. Personally, I’m very much in favor, and we should be moving in that direction with civil marriage too, but we have to work very carefully, taking one step at a time. These are delicate political issues.

In the meantime, what can we expect from the unit for Jewish Renewal that might ameliorate some of the deterioration in our ties with Diaspora Jewry?

Right now, we’re engaged in serious mapping of the field, meeting with a wide array of organizations that work in this area, listening to their requests, gathering ideas and building a mechanism for implementing projects. All the funds will be spent in Israel, promoting religious pluralism. But we’re not going to dictate how best to do this. 

Those active in this realm will assist us in determining that. But there’s no reason whatsoever for the government to be helping the Orthodox while other denominations are ignored. I hope the budget we’ve been allocated will compensate just a bit for all the years when that was the case.

What about plans to engage with other Jewish communities around the world, like the Abayudaya of Uganda, that Israel refuses to recognize, or the dozens of emerging communities who want to engage with us. Do you see your ministry getting involved with them?

This is an important issue I intend to delve into. I’ll get there. It’s on my agenda.

Zvi Hauser (New Hope): Forging ties with communities with an affinity to the Jewish people

The emerging communities I mentioned to Shai are the subject of a 66-page report issued by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry in 2017. Its surprising conclusion is that there are some 35 million people around the world with an affinity to the Jewish people, either by blood or aspiration, and it challenges conventional thinking regarding boundaries and belonging. 

The report bemoaned the lack of government policy in the matter, warning that “the disregard and continued inaction vis-à-vis these communities may have devastating consequences for the future of Israel and the Jewish people,” expressing concern that failure to reckon with the phenomenon could result in “the creation of parallel communities which will be recognized in various countries as Jewish but will have no relation to the Jewish people or the State of Israel.” 

The researchers urged a proactive response, including the establishment of “a national authority to tackle this issue“ and, in the meantime, “enable ongoing engagement with this new and evolving reality” that would create channels of dialogue with these communities, initiate programs to bring their leadership to Israel and expand criteria for acceptance to government-sponsored Israel programs enabling their youth to participate in them.

Hauser was among the prominent public figures who authored the report. Today he is an MK in the New Hope Party, and for him, the “Jewish question” is as much about this issue as it is about traditional matters of religion and state.

Now, as then, he believes passionately in the need to cultivate connections with those who feel themselves tied to us. “These communities are a strategic asset of the highest order,” he asserted. 

“There are millions of them with the potential to influence millions more, yet we are ignoring them,” he lamented. “Any other country would jump at the opportunity to nurture a relationship with such a population.” 

Instead, he said, even the few who are aware of the phenomenon view it as a mere curiosity, and exhibit no real interest in exploring it. “I’m not talking about the gates of acceptance into Israel or the Jewish people. Those I put to the side. The immediate objective has to be to harness these people as influencers for the good of the country.”

But it’s precisely those gates that frighten the bodies you’d like to see fostering these relationships. From my experience as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive, mere mention of the report conjures up fears of our being caught completely unprepared to manage an imagined flood of requests to move to Israel.

Because of that fear we’re not prepared to deal with this trend, which is only going to grow, with or without us. We have to adopt a strategy that sees this development not as a threat, but an opportunity. Those who feel this affinity are going to express it in ways that need to interest us. Jewish law aside, those who insist they have Jewish genes are going to be inclined to engage with Israel and the Jewish people. We need to take advantage of that, for our own good.

Yet the Interior Ministry refuses to acknowledge even those communities the Jewish Agency has formally recognized as Jewish, like the Abayudaya of Uganda. Do you foresee a change now that Shas is no longer in control?

The Interior Minister needs to see the broader picture. I wasn’t satisfied with how [Shas leader Arye] Deri handled things, applying a narrow view to matters under his jurisdiction. Things need to change.

I’ve raised the matter with your coalition partners. It’s not even on their radar screens.

No. But we can’t go on with business as usual, as if these people don’t exist. We need to ignite the conversation, ignite the imagination. There’s an historic opportunity here and it’s our responsibility to embrace it.

Are you optimistic? Does New Hope have a message of hope for those being ignored by Israel, for the disenfranchised, for the non-Orthodox who feel themselves second-class Jews?

The state must belong, in the most profound way, to the entirety of the Jewish people as equals, including all streams of Judaism. This is integral to Israel’s mission, its epic aspirations and its day-to-day practicalities. We’re working toward that, translating lofty ideals to the complexities of sovereignty. This is at the heart of the Zionist idea.

‘After the budget’

A common refrain throughout these conversations was: only after the budget is approved would the public be able to judge the success of this “government of change” in legislating significant religion and state reforms that impact our lives here, and the degree to which Jews abroad will relate to Israel as truly being the nation-state of the entire Jewish people.

In the meantime, these ministers and MKs are proud of the benefits their fragile partnership had already yielded, and are generally optimistic about future progress that will make Israeli society more agreeably Jewish.

It was also clear, though, that each Knesset faction has its unique conception of an ideal Israel. Navigating a path that would give expression to the parties’ commonalities, without treading on their distinctive visions, is just one more challenge this accidental government must face. The voters’ evaluation of its success will depend not only on what actually happens, but also on their own notion of what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state. 

The writer recently completed a term as deputy chairman of The Jewish Agency Executive, during which he engaged extensively in matters relating to issues of religion and state, Jewish pluralism, and Israel-Diaspora relations.