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Matan Kahana has upset the religious status quo, and his work won’t be easily undone

49 9 1
03.07.2022

In his short term as head of Israel’s Religious Services Ministry, Matan Kahana made his mark on the often-overlooked office, rolling out a number of reforms that won’t easily be reversed no matter who wins the upcoming election.

Kahana updated the long-maligned process of naming municipal rabbis, removing many of the aspects that left the positions open to corruption and abuse. At his direction, women have not only been allowed to participate in the management of religious services but are now mandated to do so for certain tasks.

But Kahana has failed so far to advance one of his key issues — reform of the process of conversion to Judaism — and his primary legislative victory of opening the country’s kashrut certification regime to competition has yet to take effect, making it unclear how successful it will ultimately be. Though he helped pass a law to improve the method of appointing rabbinic judges, he has not yet used those changes to facilitate appointments.

Kahana served as religious services minister for most of the past year. In May, he resigned the role as part of an ultimately futile effort to shore up the coalition’s control in the Knesset (the coalition has since collapsed and new elections have been called). Kahana now holds the position of deputy religious services minister but still effectively runs the ministry.

Throughout his time in office, Kahana has been at odds with the country’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties and with national religious authorities, specifically the chief rabbis, as most of his proposals have shifted power away from their institutions.

To get a sense of Kahana’s successes and failures, The Times of Israel spoke with four leading figures from the liberal wing of Israel’s Orthodox community: Rabbi David Stav, one of the founders of the Tzohar movement, which aims to serve as a welcoming facilitator for Israelis when dealing with religious issues, in place of the often more intimidating rabbinate; Tani Frank, the director of the Center for Judaism and State Policy at the Shalom Hartman Institute; Rabbi Seth Farber, who runs the organization Itim, which works to make Israeli religious services more accessible and fair to the public; and Shlomit Ravitsky Tur-Paz, the head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Program on Religion, Nation and State (she is married to Knesset member Moshe Tur-Paz of the Yesh Atid party, which is part of the coalition with Kahana).

Kahana’s office refused multiple interview requests.

All four figures hailed Kahana’s good intentions, believing him to be hardworking and truly dedicated to his cause, but they also noted his shortcomings, principally a lack of experience that led to stumbles and missed opportunities.

Specifically, they said, Kahana waited too long to advance legislation and make changes, meaning that some projects — notably conversion reform — never got off the ground and others that eventually succeeded could not be applied fully.

Though he had a long and illustrious military career — serving in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit and then, in a nearly unheard-of move, in the air force as a fighter pilot — Kahana is a political neophyte, serving in the Knesset only since 2019.

“Three years ago, the guy was a pilot. People think that someone gets into a government ministry and they automatically learn to use everything at their disposal. It’s not easy. But he went into this with all his strength,” said Frank, who was deeply involved as an outside expert in developing some of the government’s positions on religion and state issues.

All four said that while Kahana’s political inexperience reduced his effectiveness somewhat, it did not prevent him from diving headfirst into the often tempestuous waters of religion in Israel.

“This is a religious services minister who came to work very seriously and who has worked very hard, out of religious devotion, and out of a real desire to do something good for the people of Israel and the Torah of Israel,” said Stav, whose Tzohar will likely be one of the groups to benefit the most from Kahana’s kashrut reform.

“You can argue with him, disagree with him, but this is a minister who came to work thoroughly to improve issues of Judaism and rabbinics in Israel,” he said.

Frank similarly gave Kahana credit for taking action and putting himself in the religious establishment’s crosshairs in order to advance his proposed reforms.

“I give him a commendation — the biggest commendation — mostly for the fact that he showed up and put himself as the presenter of these issues,” Frank said.

As most of the reforms that Kahana put forward were part of the official coalition agreement that the government was obligated to advance, he could have relatively easily distanced himself personally from the efforts. Instead, Kahana took on those fights as his own, at no small cost as a religious Jew.

“He was dealing with not-insignificant political forces from within his own political house,” Frank said.

“For any religious person, going head-to-head with the Chief Rabbinate is difficult. The religious establishment is important, it’s fundamental. Even if there’s corruption that needs to be cleaned up, it’s still one of the basic values of the Jewish state in Israel for the national-religious community,” he said.

Just a few weeks ago, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef publicly railed against Kahana during a speech to the Conference of European Rabbis in Munich. “They brought in a pilot who understands the skies but doesn’t understand Jewish law,” Yosef said.

For 11 of the past 14 years, the Religious Services Ministry has been held by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and was used in large part to give political appointments to party allies. The only times it hasn’t been held by Shas, including at present, was when the party wasn’t in the government.

“For the first time, there’s someone who says, ‘I didn’t come to give out jobs to my party.........

© The Times of Israel


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