New reforms aim to weaken the power of Israel’s chief rabbis


Israel’s new government has targeted the country’s powerful religious establishment with two reforms that would loosen the country’s chief rabbinate’s tight grip on many aspects of daily life.

The reforms, which deal with rules for kosher eating and conversions to Judaism, make only minor changes to current practices. But they have nonetheless sparked protests and outrage from religious leaders, underscoring the power of rabbis and the deep divide between Israel’s practicing and secular communities.

The Israeli rabbinate, backed by powerful ultra-Orthodox allies in parliament, has maintained a firm grip on areas such as marriages, divorces and funerals for decades. The formation of a new government last year without ultra-Orthodox parties cleared the way for reforms.

“For many years, no changes or reforms were made to worship,” said Shuki Friedman, vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank that helped draft one of the reforms. “Now there is a government that can change that.”

Israel regards its Jewish character as a crucial part of its identity and mandated the chief rabbinate decades ago to preserve this trait. But its power has frustrated many Israelis, who view the religious body as corrupt and meddling.

“The time has come for the Chief Rabbis to understand that they are inflicting the greatest sacrilege on the State of Israel. They make the non-religious public in Israel loathe Judaism,” said Rabbi David Stav, head of the Tzohar, a group that offers alternative Orthodox worship outside the rabbinate.

Architects of the reforms say they are designed to streamline a cumbersome system and break 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 unravel the fabric of Jewish life in this country,” said Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz, a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council, which sets religious standards and rules for Jewish Israelis.

“It will drain the entire purpose of the chief rabbinate, it will not have any impact,” he said.

The Chief Rabbinate, a body created to represent and unite all Jews in Israel, has long been viewed with suspicion and distrust by a broad segment of Israelis—both non-religious and non-religious practicing Jews who do not adhere to his strict interpretation of Judaism.

The ultra-Orthodox religious establishment resists any intrusion from other strands of Judaism, including the liberal Reformed and Conservative movements, which are marginal in Israel but make up the majority of American Jews. It also has strained ties with the predominant modern Orthodox Jews, whose interpretations of Judaism are more in tune with secular lifestyles.

Various attempts over the years to reform the rabbinate failed, mostly because of political considerations. But the current composition of the Israeli government, a constellation of ideologically disparate parties, appears to have found common ground through religious reforms. With no ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, they were able to pass one reform and plan to move forward with the second soon.

“Change is difficult. I understand the opponents and their concerns, but I believe in a few years we will look back and understand that this step was essential,” Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana wrote on Facebook, adding that his reforms benefit the Jewish people character of Israel. Kahana, a devout Jew, was assigned a bodyguard after receiving threats about his politics.

A reform aims to streamline the process of kosher certification. The chief rabbinate issues kosher certification for restaurants, grocery stores, or food production facilities. It has thousands of inspectors reaching out to companies to make sure they meet their standards.

The system has led to a bureaucratic nightmare and allegations of corruption for some companies, as inspectors are paid by the companies 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 of 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 stipulates that private institutions will be responsible for certification, with the rabbinate setting the standard for this certification. Rosenthal received an unofficial kosher certificate from Tzohar today, which is not recognized by the rabbinate but signals to customers that his establishment adheres to Jewish food laws.

A separate reform, yet to be passed, aims to address the religious status of nearly half a million Israelis from former Soviet countries. Although Israel allowed them to immigrate because of their Jewish descent, they are not recognized as Jews according to the stricter interpretation of the rabbinate and therefore cannot marry in Israel.

Those who wish to convert today must do so under the rabbinate’s strict guidelines and are expected to remain religious after conversion, a practice most are uninterested in.

The reform would allow potential converts to undertake the process with any rabbi who receives official permission to conduct conversions, and open 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 turbulent political system, the next government could include ultra-Orthodox parties that could reverse the changes, making their successful implementation critical.

“If there is a big wave of conversions, it will be very difficult to reverse them. With thousands of restaurants going with the new kosher certifiers, it’s going to be very hard to reverse,” said Stav of the alternative worship group. “The public will see that things can be better.” New reforms aim to weaken the power of Israel’s chief rabbis

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