No matter what you think of Naftali Bennett, the current religious affairs minister in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he knows how to cut to the heart of a matter.
Take the treatment of rabbis in Israel — all rabbis. For years, the Reform and Conservative movements have fought their inequitable treatment in general, and that of their rabbis in particular, at the hands of the government and Chief Rabbinate.
The two progressive movements won a resounding victory last year when the High Court of Justice allowed rural towns and regional councils to choose their own rabbis, with their salaries paid by the state.
Now, the Religious Affairs Ministry, under Bennett’s leadership, wants to go even further.
The Ministry announced last week it would revamp the way community rabbis are chosen. Specifically, it would abolish the position of state-appointed community rabbis, allowing cities and rural areas to select their own state-supported spiritual leaders — be they Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.
The changes won’t take effect right away. According to the Times of Israel, “the specific criteria by which community rabbis will be approved have yet to be set, and the timeline for implementing the new system is unclear.”
Neither does this development put non-Orthodox rabbis in the Jewish state on an equal footing with the Orthodox. The Chief Rabbinate, after all, still controls religious affairs in the country, such as marriage and conversion.
Still, this is a seismic change in Israeli religious life. It now lets Israelis at the grassroots — rural and urban — determine who will be their spiritual leaders.
Already, progressive Jewish leaders are lauding the announcement by the Religious Affairs Ministry, while haredi leaders are expected to fight it with everything they have (even though the Chief Rabbinate remains a potent force in Israel, this move would chip away at some of its power).
But we think the real debate over this issue will be carried, not among Israeli Jews, but Diaspora Jews. For years, progressive Jews have fought to have their brands of Judaism accepted as equals to Orthodoxy in Israel. Finally, the new equality is taking root.
But it’s coming thanks to a government minister whose other policies are anathema to many progressive Jews.
The politically conservative Bennett, leader of HaBayit HaYehudi (the Jewish Home Party) also takes a hard-line stance on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Specifically, he opposes a two-state solution and has proposed annexing to Israel about 60 percent of the West Bank where Israeli settlements are located.
But Bennett has his detractors on the Orthodox side as well. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party, has called Bennett’s party a “home for gentiles” and Bennett himself has been attacked — figuratively as well as literally — for his apparent support of drafting haredi Jews into the army.
What do we say? Democracy is messy. You want something; you give something. The pluralization of Judaism in Israel is an important achievement, and the opportunity to make it may not come around again for a long time.
Bennett deserves Diaspora support on this issue; all movements should be equal in Israel. As for the rest of his policies, they’ll take care of themselves.