Opinion | A Small Religious Revolution

Israel’s new religious affairs minister may be taming the rabbinate.
Matan Kahana

It is easy to list the many things that the relatively new and highly diverse Israeli government cannot do. Example: It cannot advance a peace process with the Palestinians, nor an annexation in the West Bank. Ideological differences among members of the coalition would not allow it.

It is not so easy to list the substantive or ambitious things the coalition can do. Still, one comes to mind: It can seek to tame ultra-Orthodox power. Unlike most recent coalitions, this one is notably lacking in ultra-Orthodox influence. The Haredi parties are not members; the guardian of Haredi interests, Likud, is in the opposition; some of the coalition’s dominant parties, namely Yesh Atid and Israel Beiteinu, ran on an explicit anti-Haredi agenda, and the prime minister represents a constituency that supports reining in Haredi power.

Thus, the minister most active in reforming his jurisdiction so far is Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana. And while his recent actions don’t necessarily rock the world of most Israelis, they do rock the small world of religious wheelers and dealers, who are experts in the power games played by the factions that manage Israel’s unholy infrastructure of religious affairs.

Kahana started his small revolution by proposing a reform in the way the state handles kosher certificates. Its details are complicated. But its essence is simple: to give local rabbis the power to bestow such certificates, thus shifting power away from the chief rabbinate.

Why would Kahana, himself religious, and a representative of a somewhat religious party, Yamina, do such a thing? Why would a member of this faction, which used to support the state rabbinate’s power, work to weaken it? There are two possible answers. Pick the one you find more convincing.

Answer 1: Because Kahana and his advisors realize that this is the right thing to do and that a somewhat more pluralized system (albeit still Orthodox and rabbinate-approved) would make for better kashrut services. Kahana argues that the reform will make the service simpler, more efficient, less corrupt and less expensive. (Not everyone agrees with the analysis on which he relies for these convenient predictions.)

Answer 2: Because Kahana realizes that the rabbinate that was once the darling of the Religious Zionists has fallen under the influence of the ultra-Orthodox establishment. The only way to shift the power back to his own faction is to weaken the rabbinate overall and disseminate its power among local rabbis, many of whom are closer to his own outlook and ideology.

I suspect both answers are correct. That is, Kahana has ideological reasons for his actions, and those actions also serve his factional interests. The general public won’t oppose any reform that damages the rabbinate, which, ironically, is one of the least revered and most disliked public institutions in Israel. Fighting its influence is always popular, except among the voters of the religious parties, who are currently on the sidelines.

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Next in line is a more ambitious reform, dealing with the procedures that govern conversions. Again, the details are complicated, but the principle is simply to let local Orthodox rabbis, in cities and municipalities, handle conversions as they see fit, thus allowing conversions to take place in a more relaxed and welcoming (though still Orthodox) way. Why? Again, there are at least two lines of reasoning. One is about taking power away from the rabbinate. The other, more interesting, is substantive: to give the system of Orthodox state-approved conversion more widespread appeal. (Note that neither motive has anything to do with American Jewish concerns about the validity of non-Orthodox conversions.)

The rabbinate is strict and inflexible on conversions. The result is that not many Israelis convert—even though many immigrants from places such as the former Soviet Union aren’t considered Jewish by halachic standards. They can immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return as relatives of Jews, but here their status is somewhat vague. Some see themselves as Jews even without the rabbinate’s approval; some prefer to be citizens of no religion. This creates legal complications (they cannot get married in Israel, where all marriages are by religious authorities) and raises questions concerning the nature of their connection to this place (since Israel was formed to be a Jewish state).

Will this change when more liberal Orthodox rabbis have the power to offer their own versions of a state-mandated path to conversion? No one knows. The optimists believe that many thousands of immigrants are going to walk this more hospitable road to Judaism. The pessimists—I’m one of them—suspect that those who don’t convert don’t want to convert, even if it’s made easier. And yet, even many pessimists don’t see much harm in trying. Maybe it isn’t going to make conversions more widespread; yet if it weakens the rabbinate, that’s good enough for us. Even if Kahana’s reforms are only about power, they are still worthy of support.

Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based editor and columnist, founder of themadad.com and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute. 

Opening picture: Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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