Entrepreneurial Judaism

Imagine how dynamic Jewish life could be in Israel if the Chief Rabbinate were reduced to a bare minimum and the vast majority of religious services.

Naftali Bennett at cabinet meeting 370 (photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Yediot Aharonot)
Naftali Bennett at cabinet meeting 370
(photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Yediot Aharonot)
For the past few months, media attention has been directed almost exclusively at Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s difficult first steps in politics. But now Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, the second “great Ashkenazi male hope,” is in the limelight.
On Sunday, in his position as religious services minister (he also holds the economy and trade portfolio), Bennett, alongside deputy minister Eli Ben-Dahan, presented a number of reforms in the way religious councils function, reforms that Bennett referred to as “revolutionary.”
The first step proposed by Bennett is the abolishment of separate marriage registration jurisdictions. Until now, couples had to register in their city or town of residence.
When the local rabbi refused to recognize the Jewishness of one or both – such as when one or both were converts to Judaism – the couple had no other option.
Even when chief rabbinate directives required the local rabbi to register the couple, he often refused, claiming the right to religious freedom of conscience. If Bennett’s proposal is implemented, anyone will be allowed to register for marriage anywhere in the country. This will generate competition among the religious councils – and the rabbis – for the NIS 600 registration fee, though no rabbi will be coerced into registering anyone against his will. At the same time, by opening up options for choosing a wider range of Chief Rabbinate-affiliated rabbis across the nation – including more lenient rabbis – couples will find it easier to register.
Another reform, aimed at “separating politics from religious services,” has to do with the way the chairmen of religious councils are appointed. Currently, the religious services minister and the local government choose the chairmen. One’s political ties – not necessarily one’s ability to provide religious services – is the all-important criterion for getting tapped for the position. Bennett proposes creating a professional appointments process via tenders.
And finally, Bennett wants to reduce the number of local religious councils from 132 to 80 to cuts costs and streamline operations.
It is refreshing to see a religious services minister publicly recognize the dysfunctional nature of religious affairs in Israel. His predecessor, MK Yaakov Margi (Shas), denied there was a need for change, claiming the system worked well.
However, the reforms proposed by Bennett do not go far enough. State-administered religious services suffer from all the built-in ills that afflict many other state-run endeavors: mind-numbing bureaucratic red tape, a lack of a service ethos, advancement based on seniority and cronyism rather than merit.
When the services being provided are welfare payments, automobile licensing or passport renewal, expectation levels are low and so is the potential for disappointment. But when the state bureaucracy, with all its fundamental disadvantages, starts meddling in the highly charged and emotional matters of religion, a crisis of faith can result.
It should come as no surprise that in Western countries where there is only one official state religion, the level of religiosity among the populace tends to be low while cynicism levels are high. Citizens are discouraged from taking the initiative to build houses of worship since it is considered to be the state’s role.
In contrast, in the United States, where there is a vibrant denominationalism and various religious sects vie for believers, religious life is dynamic and religiosity is high.
People work together to create their own unique religious communities and don’t rely on the state for religious services.
Obviously, in Israel, which defines itself as Jewish, the situation is quite different from the US. However, the same sorts of ideas can be applied in a Jewish context. Dynamic Orthodox movements such as Chabad, Tzohar, Breslav and Rosh Yehudi and non-Orthodox movements such as the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform movements, provide a wide range of religious services.
And they do so even though the Chief Rabbinate is supposed to offer the very same services. Imagine how dynamic Jewish life could be in Israel if the Chief Rabbinate were reduced to a bare minimum and the vast majority of religious services were provided by organizations and movements that really want to serve the Jewish people, and not by a bunch of bureaucratic functionaries who receive a monthly salary from the state regardless of the quality of their work. Instead of making cosmetic changes to the state-run religious services apparatus, Bennett should come up with a more innovative and ambitious plan befitting a hi-tech entrepreneur.