Will an unholy alliance destroy Israel’s Jewish character?
Illustration: Avishai Chen
The year is 2024, and in the Israeli prime minister’s office on Balfour Street sits Yair Lapid, while former PM and current foreign minister Naftali Bennett arrives once again in America for talks on Iran.
En route to Washington, he stops in Manhattan — site of a couple of his forgettable UN appearances — for a meeting at the headquarters of the Jewish Federations.
Gathered in the organization’s offices in the financial district is America’s Jewish communal leadership, there to congratulate Bennett for his term as Israel’s 13th prime minister. The cause for celebration is not the dovish approach to the Palestinian issue that the former hawk has taken since attaining power in 2021.
Rather, Bennett is being feted by the non-Orthodox establishment for the revolution in Israel’s religious status quo that his government has succeeded in pulling off.
In just three years, Israel’s first kippah-wearing leader has exceeded the wildest dreams of the secular left and the Reform lobby. Public transport runs freely on Shabbos, as hundreds of thousands of Israelis head for newly opened malls. The Kosel has been wrested from the hands of religious extremists, and the non-Orthodox have a broad plaza of their own.
Best of all, the chief rabbinate’s stranglehold on public life has been broken. Kashrus is privatized, civil marriage is all the rage, and liberal conversion courts are doing brisk business for all who meet the ever-lower halachic standards.
Four months into Israel’s strange left-right coalition, the above scenario isn’t the fevered raving of a chareidi politician, but the plausible endgame of a political process now well underway.
Barring the government’s fall or an unforeseen change of heart, next month Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana will pass a kashrus reform bill that is the biggest blow to the chief rabbinate’s standing since its founding a century ago.
And the former fighter pilot now at the controls of the Rabbanut is reaching for the sky in terms of religious reform. As Kahana told Ha’aretz in a recent interview, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman “almost fainted from joy” when he heard how far Bennett’s party intended to go.
In the pipeline are far-reaching liberalization of the giyur system; repeal of the Shabbos transport laws; and legalization of civil marriage. Taken together, it’s an all-out assault on the role that halachah plays in Israel’s public life.
“The left allowed Naftali Bennett to become prime minister,” says MK Avi Maoz, head of the Noam faction within Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party. “In return, he’s agreed to reforms whose goal is to make Israel a state of all its citizens, not a Jewish state.”
Obscured by the headlines about the coalition’s vulnerability to its Arab members and the status of the Iran talks, this is the real story of the new government.
With Netanyahu finally gone, an unholy alliance of secularists such as Lapid and Lieberman, the Reform movement, and the liberal fringe of the national-religious world represented by Bennett and Kahana has taken charge. Away from the furious denunciations of the changes issued by chareidi rabbanim, MKs, and activists, it’s the deep rift within the dati-leumi community that matters most to the struggle against those bent on destroying the status quo that has guaranteed Israel’s Jewish character since the days of Ben-Gurion.
Not Kosher, Not Cheaper
The four-and-a-half-page coalition agreement graced with the scribbles of Israel’s new political masters will doubtless fetch a high price somewhere down the line, but its contents have proven as misleading as some of its signatories’ own devious politics.
Whereas a full nine lines of text are devoted to the burning issue of runaway housing prices in one of the world’s most expensive real-estate markets, the thorny relationship between religion and state in Israel merits just 17 words.
Reality, though, has proven where the government’s priorities really lie: four months in, housing prices have barely been mentioned by ministers, but “dat u’medinah” — as religion-state issues are known — is a constant refrain that the coalition keeps front and center in the media coverage.
When Israelis resort to the Latin term “status quo,” it’s safe to assume that they’re talking about the arrangement put in place by Israel’s founding fathers granting halachah a central place in Israeli national life.
From banning public (not private) transport on Shabbos, to giving authority to the rabbinate over Jewish marriage and divorce (Arabs and other minorities have their own state-sanctioned religious courts), the Status Quo provided a crucial compromise between Israel’s twin identities as a democratic and religious state. But among secular Israelis, those arrangements feel increasingly out of step with modern Israel’s liberal values.
Whatever Bibi Netanyahu’s personal religious observance, since jettisoning liberal Yair Lapid in 2015, his political fate has been tied to the success of a right-wing-religious bloc for many of whom the Status Quo was sacrosanct.
The long dominance of that bloc ended this year, when Naftali Bennett broke the political stalemate by hitching Yamina’s wagon to Lapid’s left-wing caravan. A strand of thought that was bubbling on the fringes of the kippah-wearing, liberal religious world suddenly met the pent-up torrent of secularist and Reform demand for change in dat u’medinah, and swept away the old certainties provided by the Status Quo.
First on the menu of the religion reform dinner is kashrus. In a marathon 11-hour Knesset session last Thursday, the temporary Religious Services Committee headed by Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party worked its way through the lengthy “Kashrut Improvement” section of the budget bill due to be voted on in November.
At first sight, the proposed changes are an improvement on the current patchy system. For the purposes of religious administration, Israel is divided into religious councils responsible for everything from employing rabbis at neighborhood and municipal levels to infrastructure like batei din and mikvaos, and crucially, running local kashrus. The chief rabbinate acts as the regulator of the whole system, setting and enforcing standards across the range of halachic areas.
The heart of the wide-ranging reforms is privatization, providing three different levels of kashrus, ostensibly along the lines of the situation prevailing outside Israel. According to Matan Kahana, the reform’s sponsor, the aim is to end the conflict of interests in which restaurants pay the mashgiach supervising them. Going forward, mashgichim will be employed by for-profit kashrus providers and the rabbanut itself would become a watchdog, setting halachic standards and policing the private agencies.
But the reality, says Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weiss, a member of the chief rabbinate’s Kashrus Committee and longtime rabbi of Kfar Haroeh, would be far worse.
“The bill says that if the Rabbanut rules too strictly for the kashrus company, it can be overruled by three rabbis, one of whom has served as a municipal chief rabbi,” he says. “There is no shortage of rabbis with no kashrus experience who will rule leniently, and so the end result is a race to the bottom in kashrus terms.”
An example, says Rabbi Weiss, is Shabbos. Currently, venues open on Shabbos can’t receive a hechsher, but that would change under the new guidelines. Kashrus would stand on its own, regardless of a venue operating on Shabbos, despite the fact that cooking on Shabbos renders the utensils used treif.
“The average Israeli who wants to eat kosher, and visitors to Israel who see a ‘kosher’ sign, won’t know that standards have fallen,” he warns. “People just aren’t expert enough to know the inner workings of the kashrus system.”
A source in a major American kashrus provider who has been following the debate agreed. “The comparison to the American model is naive,” he says, “because that model takes lots of resources to replicate. A rabbi in Kiryat Shmona can’t provide reliable kashrus in Tel Aviv.”
If the Rabbanut’s kashrus arm is de facto neutered, the effects would be felt far beyond Israel’s shores.
“America and Israel are the two major markets in kashrus terms,” explains a European kashrus expert, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “What hits shelves in Europe is generally a byproduct of what happens in the Israeli market. It’s a matter of commercial logic — if standards are weakened in Israel, that means that fewer kosher products will arrive in stores here, and with lower kashrus standards.”
Resistance to the Kahana reforms has been fierce at every level of the chief rabbinate, but it’s not just conservatives railing against innovation. Many have pointed to a model already at work on the municipal level in Petach Tikvah, which deals with the problems inherent in mashgichim being employed by the business they supervise.
The reforms were put in place in 2018 by Petach Tikvah’s municipal chief rabbi, Rav Micha Halevy, who ended the situation where mashgichim were employed by businesses, instead putting them on the municipal payroll, with the businesses charged an hourly rate based on the amount of hashgachah hours consumed.
“Because the system operates at scale, with 13,000 hashgachah hours monthly,” he says, “it pays for itself and the financial implications of removing or adding a particular business are not a factor. When you have systems like this operating over large areas, the certification of outlying places such as moshavim can be subsidized by that of profitable urban areas, just as happens in the provision of public transport, for example.”
The reform’s backers have touted the Treasury estimates of savings of up to half a billion shekels. But according to Rav Halevy, the combination of cost-effectiveness and central rabbinical control that the Petach Tikvah model provides will be lost with Kahana’s approach.
“If different kashrus providers are competing for the same businesses across different areas, there’s only two things that can happen: standards will go down, or cost will go up,” says Rav Halevy.
Proponents of the kashrus reforms — notably Kahana himself — have noted that competition is a fact of kashrus provision overseas, and that Israeli consumers stand to gain by introducing market forces into kashrus provision. Petach Tikvah’s chief rabbi rejects that model.
“It’s well known that in chutz l’Aretz, besides the big kashrus providers, there are many private kashrus labels, whom, to put it delicately, it’s very difficult to rely on,” says Rav Halevy.
The Petach Tikvah framework has not just received widespread rabbinic attention in the kashrus controversy — its chief rabbi has been visited by the reforming minister himself to discuss the model. “Matan Kahana came here to meet me, and when I discussed our model and the problems with his proposals, I’m embarrassed to say that his reply was, ‘I think differently, and so do my rabbanim.’ ”
Kahana’s rabbinical backers, whom he quotes repeatedly, are far from the mainstream of the national-religious community from which he hails. “He quotes four rabbanim, three of whom are not active in kashrus. The fourth — Rabbi David Stav of Shoham, who heads the Tzohar rabbinical organization — has said of the Rabbanut’s kashrus that ‘it’s so bad that whatever you replace it with will be better.’ ”
That, says Rav Micha Halevy, is absurd. “I don’t know what the overall situation of the chief rabbinate’s kashrus provision is, but what’s the point of replacing it with a system with glaring faults? We need to fix the current system, and that can be done effectively, as demonstrated in Petach Tikvah.”
For an idea of the dynamic now driving sweeping change through Israel’s rabbinate, head for the Negev Auditorium on the second floor of the Knesset’s committee wing.
Due to Covid-era occupancy limits, the large chamber — normally used for special events — is now host to the “Vaadat Sheirutei Dat” (Religious Services Committee) debating the legal revolution. That’s where I headed as the MKs hunkered down last Thursday for what turned out to a marathon 11-hour session ending just in time for Tikkun Chatzos.
But in place of the regular parliamentary ceremonies that take place there, committee head Yulia Malinovsky of Yisrael Beiteinu turned a session last week into a performance of its own kind. Imitating an antireligious video made by Tommy Lapid, Yair Lapid’s father, Malinovsky arrived at the debate armed with a large supermarket bag.
“Gloves with Badatz, stain remover with kashrut,” she intoned theatrically. “Ah! This one I liked — straws with a hechsher!” she said, removing one item after another from the pink Rami Levy shopping bag.
Malinovsky’s point was that the rabbinate extorts money from unwitting consumers by charging for unnecessary kashrus on products clearly not intended for consumption.
That charge is rejected by a leading Israeli kashrus expert. “Things like gloves and aluminum containers that come into contact with food need a hechsher. Others need hashgachah for Pesach, even they are not intended for food. And those like bleach, which clearly don’t need a hechsher, nevertheless receive one by request of companies themselves, who report higher sales from people who will only buy with a Badatz hechsher, regardless of the need. But this doesn’t cost the consumer a penny, because we have a pre-existing relationship with the companies concerned.”
Naturally, though, the clip of the incident went viral, popular with its intended audience: the secularist Russian and native Israeli voters who are part of Yisrael Beiteinu’s core vote. This demographic — both on the left and parts of the right — hate what they perceive as religious coercion, and are resentful of the status quo that denies them some of their favorite non-kosher delicacies, not to mention the right to marry without religious restrictions.
For Israelis who are halachically non-Jewish or ill-disposed to marriage through the rabbinate, lockdown meant that flying to Cyprus for a civil marriage wasn’t an option, and many resorted to getting married in the Norwegian embassy, which, as sovereign territory, could offer that service.
So whereas bashing kashrus laws is red meat for the base, what’s next is far more important for both Israel and those same voters. The annex to the coalition agreement signed between Lapid and Lieberman is a statement of Yisrael Beiteinu’s priorities. Even before the “duty to guarantee Israeli interests in Area C” of the West Bank — i.e., Israel’s core security interests — the document calls for removing the “legal impediments for non-halachic marriage in Israel” — i.e., civil marriage.
To understand why Shabbos transport laws and civil marriage are so high on Lieberman’s to-do list, you don’t need to look far. In 2019, Israel’s Central Statistics Bureau declared that more than 60% of immigrants from the former Soviet Union aren’t halachically Jewish. The total figure for non-Jews in Israel (besides Arabs), the report found, is almost half a million.
Against that background, it’s not hard to explain Avigdor Lieberman’s 2019 decision to abandon Bibi’s right-wing-religious bloc. Although motivated by a well-known personal vendetta, it also made political sense: Lieberman’s secular base is deadly earnest about breaking the chief rabbinate’s grip on personal status in the country. Because without change, they are stuck in legal limbo, unable to marry the girl next door.
Bridge to Nowhere
It was back in 2018, at a bustling pre-Covid conference of America’s Jewish Federations in Tel Aviv, that I first understood the destructive potential of an alliance between the Reform movement and the liberal fringes of Israel’s national-religious community — which has materialized in Bennett’s government.
A breakout session whose topic was the reform of the chief rabbinate drew a large crowd, who witnessed the novel sight of a representative of Israel’s Reform movement sharing a platform with a Conservative movement rabbi from New York and an Orthodox rabbinic reform group.
“You see, we can share a platform, and nothing will happen,” the Reform rabbi told an embarrassed-looking representative of the ostensibly halachic Ne’emanei Torah V’Avodah (NTA) movement.
An NTA official told me the organization exists to combat “chareidization,” or rising halachic and Torah learning standards now underway across the national-religious world.
The group is just one of many across the liberal wing of the dati-leumi world that sees the Rabbanut as having been captured by chareidi forces who prevent the liberalization they say is necessary to reach out to secular Israelis. Groups such as Tzohar, a rabbinical organization that has built alternative conversion, marriage, and kashrus tracks to the chief rabbinate over the last decade, are the fruits of that thinking.
The frames of reference within that ecosystem explain the moves of Bennett’s Yamina party and its religion-state point man, Matan Kahana.
The former commando and F-16 pilot told Ha’aretz, “I served in the Sayeret and the Air Force — two of the most secular parts of the military —so there is no one better suited than me to be a bridge between secular and religious.”
Bridge-building is very much a buzzword within the NTA-Tzohar worlds, and it implies a partnership of mutual respect and legitimacy as the basis of the secular-religious relationship. Indeed, many in the liberal dati world are uncomfortable with the use of the word kiruv, which implies that the two societies aren’t fundamentally equal.
It’s in the name of bridge building that Naftali Bennett feels comfortable joining together with Reform rabbi Gilad Kariv — now a Labor Party MK and head of the Knesset Constitution committee — and promoting the Reform plaza at the Kosel. It’s also in the name of bridge-building that Matan Kahana told Channel 12 that more lenient conversion standards were necessary “to prevent intermarriage here in Israel.”
And it’s also in the name of bridge-building that he called for civil marriage in Israel, telling Ynet that “if Judaism were more embracing and connecting, people would also choose to get married k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael.”
That couldn’t be further from the truth, says Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weiss.
“In my experience in Kfar Haroeh,” says the British-born rabbi, “the bridge was only one-way. Secular people are not impressed with this type of liberalization. And lowering halachic standards for conversion just creates problematic giyur. As Dayan Golditch of Manchester used to say, ‘Lax Catholics make lax Jews.’ ”
Avi Maoz is an MK who leads the Religious Zionism Party’s Noam faction, associated with Rav Tzvi Tau’s Har HaMor yeshivah (which identifies as chareidi-leumi — a faction within the dati-leumi spectrum that follows Rav Kook’s ideology while maintaining chareidi standards of halachic practice). According to Maoz, who entered the Knesset recently, the outlook of the liberal wing stems from a long-standing sense of inferiority that is rife across the sector.
“They feel inferior to the chareidim in halachic practice, so there’s a sense of ‘we’ll show them’ now that they’re in charge of the chief rabbinate,” he says. “And they feel inferior to the secular majority, so they want to take over all the major positions of public life, so that there should be a kippah-wearing chief of staff and prime minister.”
That two-pronged inferiority complex, says Maoz, has led the religious liberals to team up with the secular left to take power. The price: stripping the state of its Jewish identity.
“The roots of the left’s push on liberalizing religion that are now supported by the whole coalition go back to the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, which passed with a small majority, with fewer than 50 MKs present,” says Maoz. “They didn’t know the significance of what they were voting on, but Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak then used the law to make democracy — which doesn’t even appear in the Declaration of Independence — into a value equal in importance to Israel’s Jewish character. Since then, the impetus has been to liberalize Israel’s halachic system. But why should we? People can choose what to do in private — we don’t stop them driving their car on Shabbat — but Israel was founded as a Jewish country, and that means that halachah should shape the public space.”
Rav Elyashiv’s Warning
If rabbis overseas are concerned by the assault on kashrus in Israel, the proposed conversion reforms are far more serious. The chief rabbinate occupies a place in the international halachic architecture something like the American Treasury’s position in the global financial system. Washington’s financial sanctions impact even non-American trade simply because American banks clear so much of international trade. So too, the chief rabbinate’s access to Israeli state levers can prevent lenient conversion batei din from gaining legitimacy, even far from Israel’s shores.
Against that background, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, who is Israel liaison to the Coalition for Jewish Values, and headed the RCA’s beis din for giyur in New Jersey, says that the reforms will “cause an irrevocable rift in the Jewish People.”
“These reforms will undermine Israel’s status as a Jewish state and make it an Israeli state that contains people of all religions and none,” he says. “Granted, there is a problem here of the left’s making, because they imported hundreds of thousands of Gentiles beginning in the 1990s. But most of those Gentiles are completely uninterested in converting to Judaism. They want to be Israelis, not Jews. So the notion that someone is going to wave a magic wand over them and make them Jews is preposterous.
“Taken together,” he says of the entire legislative push from kashrus to personal status, “it will be a Jewish state in name but not in practice. And that will be a great tragedy. That this tragedy is being engendered in part by religious Jews is disgraceful.”
During previous pushes for liberalization of halachic standards, the Rabbanut’s defenders have resorted to talk of sifrei yuchsin, or Jewish lineage records, becoming a realistic phenomenon if the reforms were to go through.
Petach Tikvah’s Rav Micha Halevy explains what’s at stake: “Kahana has effectively said that he — not Israel’s rabbanim — will decide what the standards are. Today it’s kashrus, and tomorrow it’s conversion and marriage.
“So if both locally and overseas, subpar Orthodox conversions are recognized by the Israeli state, and those converts can marry here, we’ll have no choice but to keep central records of who is Jewish, whose kashrus can be eaten. Even among the Orthodox world, we’ll turn into two different nations, who won’t marry or eat with each other.”
The fury felt within Israel’s broader dati-leumi world against its own left wing was on display in the Knesset. Shlomo Kari, a kippah-wearing Likud MK who identifies with the national-religious world, told the Religious Services Committee, “It’s terrible that those who claim to represent religious Zionism are those who have set out to destroy the chief rabbinate, which was founded by Rav Kook a century ago.”
Gesturing to his opposition colleagues from Degel HaTorah and Shas around the table, Kari noted the irony that it was chareidi MKs — who themselves weren’t consumers of the Rabbanut’s supervision — who were fighting most fiercely to protect the chief rabbinate.
Those chareidi MKs had an august historical example to follow: Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv ztz”l himself, as a former senior posek for the chief rabbinate in the 1970s, instructed Degel HaTorah politicians to do everything they could to preserve the institution’s integrity.
But in a prescient comment during a bygone crisis for the Rabbanut that recently came to light, Rav Elyashiv warned of a day when the Rabbanut would be rendered irrelevant.
Writing in Mishpacha’s Hebrew edition in August, Jerusalem deputy mayor Chaim Cohen, a Shas politician who had a close relationship with Rav Elyashiv, recalled a conversation with the great posek 15 years ago. The threat back then was a Supreme Court ruling that would recognize Reform conversions.
According to Cohen’s memory of the event, one option that the chareidi politicians raised was to support a separation of religion and state of the kind advocated by liberals — but for opposite reasons.
Rav Elyashiv’s reply was startling: “Keep working to thwart these proposals,” he said, “but there’ll come a time when there’ll be no choice but to take this direction.”
Back in the Knesset, committee chair Yulia Malinovsky was illustrating exactly the tragicomic nature of the current government’s push to reform religion in Israel.
In a manner reminiscent of a strict school principal, she scolded the various opposition MKs who spoke out of turn, constantly interrupting the progress of the discussion.
Finally, her patience went, and as the break for Minchah and lunch loomed, she snapped: “If you don’t stop interrupting, I’ll cancel Minchah!”
There was a moment’s silence, as the room full of men of all religious stripes — both coalition and opposition, for and against the legislation — looked at each other, and then a peal of laughter broke over the round chamber.
Although the committee chairwoman took back the remark with a laugh, it was a symbolic moment illustrating the tragic way that Israel’s religious laws are being reshaped by those who — by their own admission — practice very little in their own lives.
All eyes are now on the political clock. November 14 — the date by which the state budget must be passed — is critical. The inclusion of the religious reforms in the budget bill — and not in a normal bill subject to greater scrutiny — is a ruse designed to force the Arab coalition members from Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party to vote with the government, because if the budget fails, new elections are automatically triggered.
But despite the creaking of the Frankenstein coalition — a strange mash-up of left and right — the government is proving more stable than many had thought.
Given the polls showing Bibi’s resurgence and the crumbling of support for everyone from Bennett’s Yamina to Gideon Saar’s New Hope party, this government could rattle on for a long time to come. As my colleague Avi Blum notes, the coalition’s very weakness is its strength. Many now in government know that if fresh elections are called, they will be sent packing as Bibi roars back.
Avi Maoz says as much: “If the budget passes, they will have their kashrus reform, which will come into effect at the end of 2022, and then they’ll move on to conversion and marriage reform, plus Shabbos.”
But he concludes on an optimistic note. “Politics is like a wheel, and when we come back to power we’ll rebuild the Rabbanut, and we won’t leave a trace of the churban that they’re inflicting.”
Others are not so sanguine. “People think that we’ll be able to put the clock back,” says Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weiss, “but the creeping erosion of the Shabbos laws shows that in today’s Israel, that’s not possible. That’s why this battle is so crucial.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 881)
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