Holy Wars in Store for Bennett Over Reform of Israel's Rabbinate

The rabbinate will continue to control Jewish marriage after reforms presented by the religious services minister, but for the first time, competition will be introduced into the system.

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If you’ve converted to Judaism and you’re from Ashdod, Rishon Lezion or Ashkelon, too bad. There’s a good chance you won’t be able to register to marry in the city where you live since the local chief rabbi, whose allegiance is to strict rabbis outside the system, does not recognize the state-sponsored conversion you underwent and sees you as non-Jews in every way.

If you’re a Jewish woman who’s found the man she wants to marry, but not careful about your privacy, you’re in for some trouble, too. Officials of the religious council where you live will ask you about the dates of your menstrual cycle, and you will be required to have several meetings with a bridal instructor who will tell you, with no supervision or professional code, your duties toward your husband.

If you’re a young engaged couple who has decided to marry during the second half of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, during the period known as the Three Weeks between the 17th of that month and the fast of Tisha b’Av, you could be in for some trouble there, too. Chances are that the religious council officials in the city where you live will refuse to register you for marriage even if you have a religious dispensation and have found an Orthodox rabbi who will agree to perform the ceremony during that time.

The reform presented Sunday by Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett and his deputy Eli Ben Dahan — the first clause of which cancels the regional division of marriage registration areas — is supposed to give hope to people in the situations described above. A man or woman from Ashdod who has converted to Judaism will not have to go through the local rabbi at any stage, couples will be able to choose where to register based on the speed and efficiency of service, and every woman will be able to choose freely what sort of guidance she wants and the kind of atmosphere she will encounter when she goes to register.

It’s true the Chief Rabbinate will continue to have exclusive authority to perform weddings for Jews within Israel’s borders and that civil marriage is out of the question. But if the reform goes through, the revolutionary and vital concept of competition will enter the religious-services picture here for the first time.

It means competition among rabbis, competition among religious councils, competition for citizens, men or women, when they are about to marry — and competition for their registration fee. This revolution, which will require most of the religious councils to travel decades forward in time, takes into account for the first time the fact that there is more than one way to be Jewish (for now that way is Orthodox; recognition of the other movements will have to wait). The Haredi Ashkenazi rabbi of Ashkelon can provide excellent services to some of his city’s residents — Haredim, for example — while others, say from one of the surrounding kibbutzim, might wish to receive services from a religious Zionist rabbi.

This reform comes alongside two other changes that Bennett and Ben Dahan are planning: the dismantling of dozens of religious councils and the fundamental way by which the councils are chosen. Instead of elections, a search committee would be established or a tender issued establishing professional criteria.

Bennett promises “to remove politics from religion,” but in practice, the change will strengthen his position relative to local officials. According to Dr. Hadar Lipschitz of the modern Orthodox Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah movement, the procedure of a professional search may also open the door to having members of the Reform and Conservative movements as heads of religious councils.

But the reform that will have the most immediate impact on many citizens is the one allowing citizens to register for marriage wherever they wish. Bennett and Ben Dahan have announced a reform that Israeli citizens were waiting for and only opposed by Haredim. That is a political advantage in the current environment.

Ben Dahan says he has an authoritative opinion from the Justice Ministry that the wedding reform requires no legislation, but merely a circular issued by the director-general, to go into effect. Not even Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who was involved in the scuttling of the Tzohar bill, which aimed at reforming the marriage system, is expected to oppose the reform, since he depends on a coalition between Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett to run for a second term.

The announcement of the reform may well mean a political accomplishment for Bennett at a time when the very word “reform” and the Haredim go well together. But it also diverts attention from the real battle that is going on in matters of religion and state. Bennett is hesitating, and still has not revealed who he would like to see as Israel’s chief rabbi. In this regard, he is managing a delicate and complicated confrontation between Haredi Zionist rabbis and conservative elements in his own faction, headed by Rabbi Uri Ariel. The latter wants to force Bennett to accept a rabbi of their own choosing, while much of the moderate religious-Zionist and secular public, who voted for Bennett, expect him to work for the election of a chief rabbi who will distance himself from conservatism and the Haredi Zionist stream. Bennett hesitates to act with leadership and decide.

Over the next few days, Bennett will have to do something extremely sensitive in the area of religion and state: draft new regulations for the holy sites in the wake of the complicated situation vis-a-vis Women of the Wall. If the entire religious-Zionist sector is watching him carefully on the former issue, when it comes to the latter issue he will be scrutinized by all Jewish communities the world over, including millions of Reform and Conservative Jews in North America. Bennett is subject to enormous pressure on both issues, much greater than the pressure that faces him regarding marriage reform. He must deal with the conservative elements on the one hand, while on the other, being held to the slogan that he himself coined: something new is beginning.

Bennett, right, and Dahan presenting the marriage reforms on Sunday.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi