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The reforms are the first change to the religious status quo since the new government, conspicuously free of Haredi parties, took office in March. The religious services ministry used to be a bastion of the very Haredi power that it is now cracking. It was previously controlled by the Shas party, and is now run by the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party and headed by party chairman Naftali Bennett.
“This was done in the spirit of the struggle over the state rabbinate that has been taken over by the ultra-Orthodox,” said Guy Ben-Porat, a Ben-Gurion University political scientist who has just published a book on state and religion in Israel. “Bennett is struggling to take it back.”
Some Orthodox rabbis are claiming that Bennett should have gone further, disciplining or removing intransigent registrars and not just sidelining them. Seth Farber, runs the organization ITIM, which lobbies for a modernized rabbinate. Farber said that the reform is a “positive step” but insists that couples should ultimately have the right to marry through their local rabbinate and shouldn’t have to go further afield.
Stern from the IDI believes it possible that the breaking of Haredi power over marriage may pave the way eventually for permission to Conservative and Reform rabbis to register marriages. “Once you pluralize a bit, you may think about a second stage of pluralizing,” he commented, saying that while the connection is not direct, psychologically the possibility for change has been opened up.
But the Reform and Conservative movements saw no such opportunity. The executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, told the Forward that he considered the reforms “irrelevant” as they simply realign power within Orthodoxy without giving hope to the cause of religious pluralism. He pointed out that they also offer no solution to thousands of people who are not halachically Jewish and are therefore unable to marry in Israel.
Kariv said that Bennett raised hopes during the election campaign that he would rethink the relationship between state and religion. “If this is the new face of Modern Orthodoxy, then I say it’s a real disappointment,” Kariv commented.
Ben-Porat said that the marriage reform actually weakens the cause of pluralism by making the Orthodox monopoly more acceptable in the eyes of the public, therefore increasing its life expectancy. “The aim of this reform is to keep the Orthodox monopoly alive,” he said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org