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

After a year in the Religious Services Ministry, Yamina MK gets a middling grade from liberal figures for shaking up Haredi hegemony but failing to advance core issues

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Then-Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana speaks during a Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on August 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Then-Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana speaks during a Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on August 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

Hardworking but green around the edges

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.

New Right candidate Matan Kahana before his discharge from the air force (Avichai Socher)

“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.

Rabbi David Stav, cofounder and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

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.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, right, and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attend the the ‘Yeshivas March’ against conversion and kashrut reforms, in Jerusalem, January 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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. I’m here to improve religious services,'” Stav said.

Ravitsky Tur-Paz said Kahana had breathed new life into an office that had long been a stagnant political backwater and took into consideration not only the needs of his own national-religious community but those of the general public.

Shlomit Ravitsky Tur-Paz, head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Program on Religion, Nation and State. (Alex Kolomoisky/Israel Democracy Institute)

“He started working in areas that for years had been quiet, that had felt like they couldn’t be moved and couldn’t be addressed. And he succeeded. He started moving that cart and gave hope for other issues, that they too could be moved and be addressed. There is progress — not enough and there’s maybe a lot more to do, but the progress is not only in what was done but also in the knowledge that the national-religious camp cares about the country, and that a right-wing person is not necessarily conservative on those issues, that they can look for what needs to be changed and what needs to be improved,” she said.

“His eyes were open and his ears were attentive to other groups,” Ravitsky Tur-Paz said. “Matan Kahana was not just looking to give answers to his community but to the wider public.”

The last time the ministry was out of Shas’s hands, from 2013 to 2015, it was run by Naftali Bennett, who did little in the position. “Bennett’s focus was always more on diplomacy and defense,” Ravitsky Tur-Paz said.

Bringing in women

To Ravitsky Tur-Paz, Frank and Farber, one of Kahana’s primary achievements was the official involvement of women in religious life in Israel, in some areas for the first time and in others in more significant ways than before.

Kahana has named at least 11 women to head local religious councils, which are responsible for managing the religious services in their communities: maintaining ritual baths, managing kashrut supervisors and overseeing religious burial societies, among other things. Before Kahana, only one woman had ever led a local religious council and she had been selected by the local government, not by the religious services minister.

Kahana also led the passage of a law that aimed to reform the selection process for rabbinic judges, requiring that at least three of the 13 members of the selection committee be women.

And last month, Kahana’s office announced a new plan to recognize and pay the salaries of female so-called meshivot halacha — literally “Jewish law respondents” — who serve many of the functions of a rabbi but without the title, chiefly answering questions about Jewish law, or halacha.

Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, left, with Haya Kliger, on July 15, 2021 (Courtesy)

“I think the biggest accomplishment is getting women involved in the religious establishment,” said Farber.

“I think we take partial credit for that,” he added, referring to a number of lawsuits and efforts made by his organization over the years to advance the issue of gender equality on religious issues.

Ravitsky Tur-Paz similarly ranked Kahana’s involvement of women as one of his top achievements.

“Women being appointed to lead religious councils is an accomplishment. There are now more than 10 women who were appointed to lead councils. That’s a new situation. Previously there was a court case just to get a woman permitted to be a member of a council,” she said.

Frank noted that those efforts had been advancing even before Kahana, often driven by petitions to the High Court of Justice by groups like Farber’s Itim. But he stressed that the minister went far beyond what would have happened without him.

“The strengthening of religious feminism and its support by the establishment was kicked up a notch, and that comes from him. For that he deserves congratulations,” Frank said.

The unknown kashrut victory

Kahana’s main legislative victory was in the area of reforming the process through which restaurants and businesses can be certified as kosher.

Until now, this issue was solely under the purview of the Chief Rabbinate. While other groups could give supplementary certifications, a restaurant could only call itself “kosher” if it had rabbinate approval. This monopoly readily lent itself to abuse and corruption as restaurants and food businesses found themselves at the whim of rabbinate-approved kashrut supervisors, or mashgihim, who could, for instance, demand that businesses buy produce only from certain vendors.

Kahana’s reform will end that monopoly and open kashrut supervision to competition by allowing other rabbinic bodies — and not just the rabbinate — to certify businesses as kosher.

“The situation before the reform was a catastrophe. So Matan Kahana came and said, ‘I want to change it,'” said Stav, whose Tzohar organization has for years fought to establish its own nationwide kosher certification regime.

Ultra-Orthodox representatives of the Chief Rabbinate cross Jaffa Road in Jerusalem as they deliver a kosher certificate to a local restaurant, on December 31, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Though some aspects of this legislation have already been rolled out, the main thrust of the reform will only go into effect in January 2023. This means that the full rollout will be overseen by whoever becomes the next religious services minister, which will depend on who wins the election in the fall.

“How it will work, if it will work — I have no idea. There’s no way to know if it will succeed. But the law passed. The reform is happening,” Stav said.

Ravitsky Tur-Paz was somewhat more optimistic about the future of the kashrut reform, due to the fact that private businesses have something to gain from it.

“Even if the government changes, it will be hard to roll this wheel back,” she said.

Frank credits the kashrut reform’s success to its inclusion in the so-called Arrangements Law, a piece of legislation that is passed as part of the budget. That effectively ensured the reform would go through without the need for resolving any intra-coalition qualms with it.

“This established in law that kashrut is not an area that the rabbinate controls. It is an area of Judaism that the rabbinate does not have a monopoly over in terms of Jewish law. Yes, it’s still within the world of Orthodoxy and all that, but on January 1, 2023, three local rabbis can get together and declare, ‘Kashrut is what we determine it to be.’ That is incredibly significant and important and it sets a precedent for other issues,” Frank said.

The conversion letdown

Israel’s current system of conversion to Judaism is widely regarded as ineffectual. There are nearly 500,000 people in the country who are classified as having “no religion,” the vast majority of whom emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel under the Law of Return, which requires that they have at least one Jewish grandparent, but who are not necessarily Jewish according to Israel’s interpretation of Jewish law. This status can have severe implications on their ability to marry and divorce, among other things, as Israel only offers religious marriage.

Each year only some 1,000-2,000 of these people officially convert to Judaism — many of them through a streamlined program in the military. Many more start the conversion process, which can last for several years and require the prospective converts to make serious changes to their lifestyle, but eventually abandon the effort.

Though there are deep disagreements as to why people stop their conversions in the middle or never start them in the first place, at least a portion of the failure can be attributed to increasingly high barriers set up by the Chief Rabbinate.

Kahana’s conversion reform was meant to address these issues, returning the power to affirm conversions to local rabbinates, which could perform them until the mid-1990s, when they were stripped of the authority. In theory, this would allow for a wider range of opinions on conversion: Can children convert without their parents? Must families that convert send their children to ultra-Orthodox schools? Is it enough to plan to live a traditional Jewish lifestyle but not necessarily intend to strictly follow all Jewish laws?

Though the Chief Rabbinate has relatively straightforward answers to these questions — no, yes, and no, respectively — other Orthodox rabbis have dissenting views, with historical precedent to support them.

Conversion reform was part of the coalition agreement, meaning it should have in theory been relatively easy to pass, and even came with a specific timeline — passage of the relevant legislation within 60 days.

But instead of forcing the legislation through, Kahana chose a different tack and tried to build consensus around the reform, speaking to Orthodox leaders and groups around the world. He had one notable success, getting the influential national-religious leader Rabbi Chaim Druckman to speak out in favor of the legislation in February — albeit with the notable caveat that he would not call for it to be passed if the Chief Rabbinate opposed it, which it emphatically did.

Those who were most in favor of Kahana’s proposed conversion reform see this effort to garner support as having been its downfall.

“I actually talked to him in his first couple of days [as minister] and I said to him: ‘You’re a former pilot. Let’s say there’s a mission you have to do. And you were told you have an 80 percent chance of success right now, today. Or you could study the mission and do all the analysis, etcetera, for six months or a year and at the end, you’d still have an 80% chance. It would be a different 80% because some chances would improve with all of the studying, but the percentage would go down because of the time factor. So, what would you do?'” recalled Farber.

Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM. (Courtesy)

Farber’s Itim organization is at the forefront of the conversion fight, having established a major non-governmental Orthodox conversion court, Giyur K’Halacha, which approves conversions, albeit without rabbinate recognition.

“But he decided to try to build consensus with the right wing and with the rabbinate. That was his failure. That was his Achilles’ heel… I think he’d acknowledge that today. Sometimes you have to just do things and deal with the consequences,” Farber said.

Frank too saw Kahana’s efforts to bring people on board as doomed from the start and thus a waste of time.

“This is an issue that there had already been discussions about for years. I think the process was too long, too Sisyphean, with all of the efforts to reach out to the Chief Rabbinate,” Frank said.

“The effort wasn’t completely fruitless,” he added, noting Druckman’s eventual support, “but at the end of the day, we got to the same point where we would have anyway even if the process had been shorter by several months. This was a law that was supposed to pass, and didn’t.”

Following months of vocal opposition from the ultra-Orthodox parties, the Chief Rabbinate and the opposition’s far-right Religious Zionism party, within the coalition some right-wing lawmakers began to murmur their own concerns about the conversion reform. The proposal encountered its first setback in March after it failed to pass before the end of that parliamentary session. And once MK Idit Silman resigned from the coalition the following month, leaving it without a majority, the reform was effectively dead in the water.

Municipal rabbis and rabbinic judges

A somewhat mixed victory for Kahana was in his changes to the ways that municipal rabbis and rabbinic judges were elected.

In terms of the former, Kahana reformed a system that was wide open to corruption, abuse and incompetence. The municipal rabbinate was the subject of multiple lawsuits and pointed criticism in State Comptroller reports.

The issue was considered particularly pressing as dozens of cities, towns and regions throughout the country do not currently have a rabbi, including major cities like Tel Aviv, Haifa and Rishon Lezion. Municipal rabbis are meant to serve as the direct religious authority for the Jewish residents of their city or town, signing off on things like marriage licenses and kashrut certificates for local restaurants. But over the years, the position has been sapped of most of its responsibilities, and lifetime appointments meant that those already in the position had little accountability toward their constituents.

“The municipal rabbinate system was paralyzed,” Stav said. “[Kahana] did something and started to work on it.”

In May, the minister approved new rules for the appointment and employment of municipal rabbis to make the process more democratic. This included putting the power to choose them more clearly in the hands of local government, requiring the selection committee to be at least 40% female, setting a 10-year term limit, and forcing municipal rabbis to retire by age 70.

Unlike with his kashrut and conversion reforms, there was very little pushback from the Haredi establishment over these changes. Though the municipal rabbi reforms are based on a ministerial decision, meaning they can, in theory, be changed by the next person to hold the position, the main aspects of the reform — the term limits in particular — are unlikely to be altered. They fall in line with the standards for other public positions and a reversion to the previous model would likely be indefensible in court, making this change one that is likely here to stay.

Yet it can only be seen as a partial victory for Kahana as — like with conversion reform — his efforts came far too late.

Unlike conversion reform, the municipal rabbi reform was the result of an internal ministry effort and did not require legislation or even government approval. As such, Kahana effectively could have reformed the system on day one. Instead, he waited nearly a full year to do so.

“The issue of municipal rabbis is another that should have happened months earlier,” Frank said.

Tani Frank, the director of the Center for Judaism and State Policy at the Shalom Hartman Institute. (Hartman Institute)

Kahana relatively quickly ushered through a law to change the way rabbinic judges were elected, but after doing so failed to take advantage of the new system to get new judges appointed. These judges can wield tremendous power in the lives of average Israelis as they adjudicate things like divorces even for secular Israelis, due to the lack of civil marriage and divorce in Israel.

“Yeah, you changed the law for appointing rabbinic judges. But how many rabbinic judges have been appointed since you changed the law? Zero rabbinic judges. None to the local rabbinic courts and none to the rabbinic high court. Not that he didn’t have plans, but it got pushed back and pushed back. Same thing with municipal rabbis. How many were named? Same answer — zero,” said Frank.

Municipal rabbis are the linchpin of many of Kahana’s reforms. They will be the ones to approve different kashrut certifications and — in theory — they would have approved new conversion courts. If they remain in total lockstep with the rabbinate, then there is little change from the status quo.

Lag B’Omer and the untouched issues

Another area that fell under Kahana’s purview as head of the Religious Services Ministry was overseeing the annual celebrations on Mount Meron during the holiday of Lag B’Omer on May 19. This is not normally a job for the ministry, but Kahana’s office was given the task after last year’s tragedy at the site, in which 45 men and boys were crushed to death in the deadliest civil disaster in Israeli history.

This year’s festivities, which were strictly controlled, passed without any deaths or serious injuries, but they also passed without real festivities, as the new rigid size limits and other restrictions prevented the type of freewheeling religious ecstasy that had become synonymous with Lag B’Omer on Mount Meron.

Kahana himself recognized his mixed results. “In the test of meeting our goals: Zero people killed and zero injured is a great success in my eyes. But on the second goal of a joyous and successful celebration, we failed,” he said, during an after-action review of the event last week.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews shuffle past the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai as they attend Lag B’Omer celebrations on Mount Meron in northern Israel on May 18, 2022. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Beyond his successes and failures, there were a number of areas in which Kahana had only just started work, most notably in how the country’s chief rabbis — one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi — are appointed.

To Frank, this was a serious oversight as the next elections for the Chief Rabbinate will be held next year, in 2023. These elections are held within a 150-person committee, comprising 80 mostly municipal and regional rabbis; and 70 public officials, mostly mayors and a few Knesset members.

On this issue, according to Frank, Kahana failed twice over, once by not changing the laws and protocols of how chief rabbis are elected and again by not making rabbinic appointments in order to get more electors in line with his worldview on the committee.

“There were no advancements in legislation or in terms of protocols. The makeup of the selection committee for the chief rabbi didn’t change even though he tried to advance that,” Ravitsky Tur-Paz agreed.

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