Think About It: Jewish religious services in Israel

Why Israel needs, and has, a Ministry for Religious Affairs is one of the anomalies of the Israeli political system.

Naftali Bennett speaks to a forum on planning issue. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Naftali Bennett speaks to a forum on planning issue.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Naftali Bennett is both economy and trade minister and religious affairs minister. His deputy in the latter post is Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, a member of Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party. Within Bayit Yehudi Ben-Dahan belongs to the Tkuma faction, the more hawkish component of the parliamentary group, and much stricter in terms of religious practices, and closer in this respect to the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) than to the old-style National Religious Party.
Why Israel needs, and has, a Ministry for Religious Affairs, which deals exclusively with issues related to the Jewish religious councils and burial services, is one of the anomalies of the Israeli political system.
Until 1981 Israel had a Ministry for Religions, which was responsible for the religious establishment and services of all the religions in Israel. In 1981 the ministry was renamed the Ministry for Religious Affairs.
In accordance with the coalition agreement signed in 2003 between Ariel Sharon’s Likud and Tommy Lapid’s (Yair Lapid’s father) Shinui the ministry was closed down, and the services it provided were divided among several other ministries. In the last year of his government, under pressure from Shas, Ehud Olmert recreated a slimmer version of the old ministry, which, as mentioned above, was put in charge of some religious services of Jews only, with the rest of the services remaining in the hands of other ministries.
There is no question that if it were not for the religious parties the Ministry for Religious Affairs would not exist, and religious services would be under the responsibility of the Interior Ministry.
I suspect that if asked, off the record, what he thinks of the issue, Bennett would agree that the ministry is superfluous. However, its existence is certainly convenient for him, since it enabled him to give his partners from Tkuma (headed by Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel) another government post. However, the ministry itself apparently doesn’t really interest him, and he is not inclined to intervene in Ben-Dahan’s activities.
While Ariel provides the periodic politically-motivated scandal in the sphere of Israel’s construction activities in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, Dahan creates storms in teacups in the sphere of religious services.
Most recently he initiated a bill, together with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, which proposes to tighten the inspection over kashrut in food manufacturing and serving establishments, by turning kashrut inspectors into a sort of kashrut police.
Formally the move is designed to prevent cheating in the sphere of the kashrut inspection (mashgihei kashrut), which is riddled with nepotism and corruption. However, there are those who suspect that it is really designed to clamp down on restaurants and ballrooms that claim to serve kosher food but do not have a kashrut certificate from the Chief Rabbinate (or one of its haredi alternatives) because their owners are sick and tired of the bureaucracy and (in their mind) superfluous expense involved in getting a kashrut certificate, and paying a kashrut inspector.
The problem is that these establishments insist on showing signs that announce that they are kosher, even though according to the law this is illegal, since they do not hold a valid kashrut certificate (one could probably get around this problem by stating on the sign that “the food served corresponds to the Jewish dietary laws” without using a derivative of the word “kosher”).
The opponents of the new move argue that it is scandalous that the religious establishment dares speak out in favor of enforcing the kashrut laws, when time and again it pooh-poohs rulings of the High Court of Justice to the effect that the custom of the rabbinate to condition the granting of kashrut certificates on the establishments preserving the Sabbath, and on their clients being modestly dressed, is illegal.
Ben-Dahan is well aware of the fact that the current kashrut apparatus of the rabbinate is scandalous and repellent, and that also the other services provided by the rabbinate, by means of the rabbinical councils, are far from satisfactory. He has even gone on record as proposing reforms designed to improve the system.
However, he and Bayit Yehudi do not really have the power to bring about significant change, and so they resort to fighting rear-guard battles against those who, on the basis of common sense and halacha (Jewish Law), are trying to circumvent the strict letter of the law – as in the case of Orthodox wedding ceremonies, independently performed by Orthodox rabbis, who are not always associated with the rabbinate and rabbinical councils.
Thus, for example, when the law, originally proposed by MKs from the Labor party and Likud-Beytenu, which enables couples registering for marriage to choose in which rabbinical council to register irrespective of where they live, was passed by the Knesset on October 28, 2013 (by a majority of 57 to 14), Ben-Dahan insisted on including a reservation in it, which provides for the imprisonment of up to two years of Jewish couples who get married in private Jewish weddings, without registering in the rabbinate, and of those performing such weddings.
Ben-Dahan introduced this reservation, proposed by three haredi MKs, in order to convince his own party – Tkuma, which objected to the law, to enable him to vote for it. Incidentally, this provision is not designed to affect Conservative, Reform, or alternative weddings, but only maverick Orthodox weddings.
In addition to the government bill proposed by Ben-Dahan regarding the issue of kashrut, there are currently on the Knesset’s table a Private Members’ Bill, introduced by MK Aliza Lavi from Yesh Atid, which proposes far-reaching changes in the existing kashrut apparatus, designed to make it more transparent and palatable to those using it, and a Private Members’ Bill, introduced by MKs Robert Ilatov and David Rotem from Yisrael Beytenu, which proposes doing away with the religious councils that are subject to the Chief Rabbinate, and moving the provision of Jewish religious services directly to the municipalities and local councils.
While Ben-Dahan’s and Lavi’s bill is designed to leave the current system of religious services in place, but improve it, Ilatov’s and Rotem’s bill is designed to change the current system, by weakening the Chief Rabbinate’s control over it, but without touching the Orthodox monopoly.
Those who object to Ben-Dahan’s and Lavi’s bill from a religious perspective believe that the current setup is beyond repair, and that it merely alienates Jews who are otherwise partial to the Orthodox monopoly. Those who object to Ilatov’s and Rotem’s bill from a religious perspective fear that it will weaken the conventional Orthodox hold on religious practices in Israel, and lead to greater divisions among the Jewish people.
But where are the seculars and members of the non-Orthodox Jewish streams in this story? None of the mentioned bills proposes to break the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish religious services, or to give Jews in Israel non-religious alternatives with regard to marriage and divorce and burials.
It is perhaps paradoxical that if those who want to see the Orthodox monopoly broken were forced choose between the two alternatives mentioned above, logic dictates that they should support the preservation of the current set-up, with the hope that it will eventually collapse or implode. Supporting meaningful reforms of the current system, to make it more user friendly, is liable to leave the Orthodox monopoly in place for many more years to come, and from a non-Orthodox perspective, that is undoubtedly the worse alternative.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.