Report proposed transferring religious responsibility to the local level.
By MATTHEW GUTMANShas chairman Eli Yishai and National Religious Party chairman Zevulun Orlev rejected a proposal to improve the providing of religious services, warning it would lead to the separation of Church and State.
Shinui chairman Yosef "Tommy" Lapid supported the proposal in principle, but said it did not do enough to completely separate religion from the state.
The proposal, called the Ne'emanei Report, was presented to the three party chairmen in Jerusalem Monday night by Ne'emanei Torah VeAvodah, an organization devoted to modernizing Jewish Orthodoxy. The presentation took place at a conference on the crisis in religious services in Israel, which was attended by about 150 supporters of the organization.
The organization came under fire by rabbis last year for discussing the possibility of premarital sex within the framework of Orthodox Jewish law.
The Ne'emanei Report, drafted and presented by Hadar Lipshitz, a doctoral student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, suggested transferring responsibility for all religious services from the state level to the local level without making statutory or budgetary changes that guarantee free religious services to Israeli citizens.
State control over religious services would be lessened by reducing the state's weight in religious council votes from 45 percent to just 20%, raising the influence of local authorities from 45% to 55%, and giving the local rabbi 25% of the vote instead of the current 10%.
According to the proposal, citizens would pay a voluntary 'religion tax' similar to the health tax paid by members of health service funds. Taxpayers would be registered with a synagogue, which would receive funding in accordance with membership.
The synagogue would become the primary service provider, employing the local rabbi and providing basic educational service and a place of worship.
Services that an individual synagogue cannot provide, such as marriages, burials, mikvaot (ritual baths) and kashrut, would be provided by a national union of synagogues.
In addition, the Ne'emanei Report suggested introducing competition as a way of improving services. Several national unions of synagogues, each providing marital services, would compete among themselves to offer the best possible service.
The proposals are based on the Tzadok Committee recommendations first presented in 1993. The committee consisted of Haim Tzadok, Haim Kovarsky, former Lod mayor Maxime Levi and MK Yitzhak Herzog (Labor).
Orlev strongly opposed the proposal.
"I see this suggestion as a threat to the organic connection between religion and state," said Orlev. "It conjures up images of disunity and Jewish exile in which each Diaspora community is separated from the next."
"Religious services must remain an intrinsic part of the state," he added. "This is fundamental to the definition of Israel as a Jewish democratic state."
Yishai said the proposal lent ammunition to the enemies of religion. "The simple fact that Lapid agrees with the proposal proves how dangerous it is," said Yishai. "This idea is dangerous. It would be the first step toward separating religion and state. From experience, I know that any signs of reform and you open the way to complete separation."
"You are a group of smart people," Yishai added, addressing the audience, primarily religious and highly educated. "But let's leave it to the rabbis to decide. Otherwise we will be faced with skyrocketing levels of assimilation."
Neither Yishai or Orlev offered suggestions of their own on how to improve religious services.
The outgoing chairman of Ne'emanei Torah VeAvodah, Moshe "Kinly" Tur-Paz, voiced concern that the real threat to institutionalized religion was the incompetently-managed religious services apparatus.
"If we do not adopt the Ne'emanei Report or some type of similar reform, we are liable to lose everything," said Tur-Paz.
"As long as thousands of women are chained to recalcitrant husbands who refuse to give a divorce certificate, callous rabbinic judges refuse to help prospective converts, and incompetent bureaucrats foster frustration among citizens who depend on their services, the future of religion and state as an organic whole will be in danger," he said.