TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel’s new government has taken aim at the country’s powerful religious establishment with a pair of reforms that would chip away at the tight grip of the country’s chief rabbinate on many aspects of daily life.
The reforms, which address rules on kosher food and conversions to Judaism, make only modest changes to current practices. But they have nonetheless sparked protests and outrage from religious leaders, underscoring the rabbis’ power and the deep divide between Israel’s observant and secular communities.
The Israeli rabbinate, backed by powerful ultra-Orthodox allies in parliament, have wielded for decades a tight grip over areas like weddings, divorces and burials. The formation of a new government last year without any ultra-Orthodox parties cleared the way for the reforms.
“For many years no change or reform regarding religious services was carried out whatsoever,” said Shuki Friedman, vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, who helped draft one of the reforms. “Now there is a government that is succeeding to change that.”
Israel views its Jewish character as a critical part of its identity and tasked the chief rabbinate decades ago with preserving that trait. But its power has frustrated many Israelis who see the religious body as corrupt and meddling.
“The time has come for the chief rabbis to understand that they are causing the most sacrilege to the state of Israel. They are causing the non-religious public in Israel to loathe Judaism,” said Rabbi David Stav, who heads Tzohar, a group that provides alternative Orthodox religious services outside the framework of the rabbinate.
Architects of the reforms say they are meant to streamline a cumbersome system and break up the rabbinate’s monopoly. The ultra-Orthodox establishment sees itself as the guardian of Israel’s Jewish identity after centuries of persecution and assimilation.
Challenging the rabbinate’s authority could “break up the fabric of Jewish life in this country,” said Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz, a member of the chief rabbinate council, which determines religious standards and rules for Jewish Israelis.
“It’s going to empty the whole purpose of the chief rabbinate, it will have no influence whatsoever,” he said.
The chief rabbinate, a body created with the intention of representing and uniting all Jews in Israel, has long been viewed with suspicion and mistrust by a wide swathe of Israelis — both those who are not religious as well as observant Jews who do not adhere to its strict interpretation of Judaism.
The ultra-Orthodox religious establishment resists any inroads from other streams of Judaism, including the liberal Reform and Conservative movements, which are marginal in Israel but make up the majority of American Jews. It also has strained relations with the more prevalent modern Orthodox Jews, whose interpretations of Judaism are more accommodating to secular lifestyles.
Various attempts over the years to reform the rabbinate have failed, mostly because of political considerations. But the current make-up of the Israeli government, a constellation of ideologically disparate parties, appears to have found common ground over the religious reforms. With no ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, they have been able to pass one reform and plan to move ahead on the second one soon.
“Change is hard. I understand the opponents and their concerns but I believe in a few years we will look back and understand that this move was essential,” Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana wrote on Facebook, adding that his reforms buttressed Israel’s Jewish character. Kahana, an observant Jew, was assigned a bodyguard after he received threats about his policies.
One reform is meant to streamline the process of kosher certification. The chief rabbinate grants kosher certification for restaurants, grocery stores or food production companies. It has thousands of inspectors who fan out to businesses to ensure they are meeting its standards.
The system has led to a bureaucratic nightmare for some businesses and charges of corruption because the inspectors are paid by the businesses seeking the coveted certifications.
“I don’t like the way the rabbinate works. I don’t like the power they have. I think the combination between kosher rules and economics is breeding ground for something unsavory,” said Ariel Rosenthal, who owns Hakosem, a Middle Eastern Street food restaurant in Tel Aviv.
The reform will see private entities become responsible for certification, with the rabbinate determining the standard for that certification. Rosenthal today gets an unofficial kosher certificate from Tzohar, which is not recognized by the rabbinate but signals to customers that his establishment adheres to the Jewish laws regarding food.
A separate reform which has yet to pass seeks to address the religious status of nearly half a million Israelis from former Soviet countries. While Israel allowed them to immigrate because of their Jewish ancestry, they are not recognized as Jews under the rabbinate’s stricter interpretation and thus cannot get married in Israel.
Those who want to convert today must do so under the strict guidelines of the rabbinate and are expected to remain religious once they convert, a practice most are not interested in adopting.
The reform would allow would-be converts to carry out the process with any rabbi that receives official permission to conduct conversions, opening up the process to clergy who might allow the convert to continue a secular lifestyle.
Proponents hope these reforms will pave the way for more liberalization. But in Israel’s tumultuous political system, the next government may include ultra-Orthodox parties who could roll back the changes, making their successful implementation critical.
“If there is a major wave of conversion, it will be very hard to reverse. If thousands of restaurants work with the new kosher certifiers, it will be very hard to reverse,” said Stav from the alternative religious services group. “The public will see that things can be better.”