Storming the Bastille of Israel’s religious bureaucracy

Fundamentally Freund: One Israeli I know who defines himself as secular told me that he had to work long and hard to convince his fiancé to get married by a rabbi here in Israel.

Hardeim (photo credit: courtesy yad vashem)
(photo credit: courtesy yad vashem)
This past Sunday, a press conference was held in Jerusalem which may yet come to signify the start of a revolutionary change in the provision of religious services in the Jewish state.
Speaking to reporters, Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett and Deputy Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan announced a series of long-overdue reforms that will, for the first time, introduce elements such as competence and competition into the country’s moribund system of religious councils.
Sure, no smell of gunpowder was evident, nor did anyone break out into a rendition of “I dreamed a dream” from Les Miserables, but the storming of the Bastille of Israel’s religious bureaucracy is most assuredly underway.
As anyone who has gone through a life-cycle event in Israel knows all too well, the country’s local religious councils are in a unique position. They come into contact with the public at some of the most intimate and emotional moments of a person’s life, ranging from marriage to death.
Since this is frequently the only real substantive contact with Judaism that many Israelis may have, the impression left by the experience is deep and enduring.
And often overwhelmingly negative.
Tales of callousness and coarseness abound, with critical positions doled out based on political considerations rather than professional criteria.
One Israeli I know who defines himself as secular told me that he had to work long and hard to convince his fiancé to get married by a rabbi here in Israel. She had heard so many nightmarish stories from her friends and colleagues that she was determined to travel to Cyprus to wed in order to avoid having to go to the local religious council.
Indeed, according to the Tzohar organization, which has led the charge to improve religious services in the country, one in four secular Israelis now choose to marry abroad, signifying a sharp rise over previous years.
And that is what makes the Bennett/Ben-Dahan reform so timely and so important, because it is not too late to fix the system.
Essentially, their plan rests on three pillars which would streamline the bureaucracy and compel it to improve.
The first part is an ingenious injection of capitalist energy that will force religious councils to effectively compete with one another for clientele by abolishing separate marriage registration districts. In other words, anyone from anywhere in Israel will be able to register to marry anywhere in the country that he wishes, rather than having to go through his local band of bureaucratic bandits.
This will lead to religious councils trying to outdo one another by providing better conditions and levels of service, since they stand to earn the NIS 600 registration fee for each couple they process.
This change marks the culmination of a process that was championed by Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirschenbaum of Yisrael Beytenu, who introduced legislation in the previous Knesset to abolish the registration districts for marriages.
The second reform to be implemented will alter the way in which the chairmen of religious councils are selected, transferring the power away from politicians and cronies and instituting instead a professional appointments process. As Bennett noted at the press conference, “the opportunity for cronyism and the distribution of jobs will be uprooted.”
Finally, in a move that is eminently suitable to the times in which we live, the number of local religious councils will be slashed from 132 to 80, a drop of nearly 40 percent. According to Rabbi Ben- Dahan, the savings resulting from the cuts will be reinvested into the system to further improve the service provided to the public.
To be sure, critics wasted little time before pouncing, with some labeling the reforms as merely “cosmetic” while others insisted they did not go far enough.
But don’t let the naysayers fool you.
Bennett and Rabbi Ben-Dahan have put forward a bold initiative, one that will shake up the ossified bureaucracy, clear out the cobwebs, and have a profound impact on the provision of religious services in this country. It will change the way the bureaucrats relate to the public, and the manner in which many secular Israelis relate to our heritage.
Not surprisingly, this revolution is rooted in the timeless wisdom of the Talmud itself, which declares in Tractate Bava Batra (21b-22a) that “kinat sofrim tarbeh chochmah” (lit. “jealousy among scholars increases wisdom”). As the Talmud there states regarding those who teach Torah to children, the result is that, “Each teacher, fearful of his rival, will perform his role with extra care.”
May our religious councils, and the entire bureaucracy itself, soon follow suit.