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  • Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana (Danny Shem-Tov)
    Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana (Danny Shem-Tov)
  • Matan Kahana (left), a former combat pilot and colonel (ret.) in the Israeli Air Force, pictured with his Yamina party leader, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (Courtesy)
    Matan Kahana (left), a former combat pilot and colonel (ret.) in the Israeli Air Force, pictured with his Yamina party leader, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (Courtesy)
  • Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana speaks in the Knesset on June 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
    Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana speaks in the Knesset on June 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
  • Newly appointed Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana (Yamina) with outgoing Minister Yaakov Avitan (Shas), at a ceremony marking the transfer of authority at the ministry on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Newly appointed Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana (Yamina) with outgoing Minister Yaakov Avitan (Shas), at a ceremony marking the transfer of authority at the ministry on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Interview'The Haredim want to label me Reform. I am not Reform'

The Orthodox revolutionary: How Matan Kahana aims to revive Israel’s Jewish identity

The minister of religious services has overhauled kashrut supervision, and is now turning to conversion, as he seeks to remake the state’s role in religion. Haredi MKs are outraged

Main image by Danny Shem-Tov; Avichai Socher; Olivier Fitoussi/Flash 90; Yonatan Sindel; Flash90

A little less than five months ago, during the Knesset debate that preceded the swearing-in of the government, Yamina’s Matan Kahana delivered a thundering rebuke to the various ultra-Orthodox MKs who had been castigating incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his new coalition as anti-Jewish, wicked and a direct threat to the Jewish state.

“Who are you to teach us about fearing Heaven?” Kahana demanded of the ultra-Orthodox legislators from the Knesset podium. “Who are you to lecture us about sanctifying God’s name? You should be ashamed of yourselves. Your behavior is the worst imaginable desecration of God’s name.”

“When did you ever pray the Amidah while lying in an [IDF] ambush, in the pouring rain and bitter cold?” Kahana asked furiously. “When did you ever pray to God before going into battle?”

A strictly Orthodox Jew, Kahana is also, extraordinarily, a graduate of both the IDF’s most elite unit, Sayeret Matkal, and a veteran combat pilot — having re-enlisted, in the Air Force, on the very day he completed his 3.5 years service in the Sayeret.

From the self-interested perspective of ultra-Orthodox politicians, the arrival of this lifelong religious Zionist and frontline defender of Israel as the minister of religious services is thus a particular nightmare.

As his Knesset response to their near-hysterical assaults on the coalition underlined, Kahana cannot easily be depicted as anything other than a figure of both national valor and Orthodox credibility, hard though they continue to try. Yet he constitutes a major threat to these legislators, after their decades of control over Israel’s religious lifestyle — as he moves quickly to overhaul Israel’s kashrut supervision process, starts revamping local religious councils to ensure more roles for women, begins to turn his attention to the vexed issue of conversions to Judaism, and seeks to enable their own captive ultra-Orthodox community to more easily enter the workforce.

At the same time, however, Kahana has made plain that he sees himself as no threat at all to the genuine adherents of the Torah world, emphatically including the ultra-Orthodox sector, whose interests he explicitly vowed to protect in that same blistering Knesset speech.

Time and again in our conversation, Kahana returned to two prime themes: that he seeks to make progress via agreement rather than coercion, and that he will do nothing that departs from the parameters of halacha — Jewish religious law

Indeed, in a fascinating interview with The Times of Israel, Kahana — a father of four boys who lives in Beit Gamliel, an Orthodox moshav in central Israel — stressed that his goal in the ministry is to strengthen Israel’s Jewish identity and character, which he argues has been diluted over the decades.

While one might have thought the ex-military man would have sought out a defense-related job in government, he stressed that the religious services post was the only one he wanted, that he fully intends to keep it for the entire four-year lifespan of the coalition, at least, and that he sees his remit as extending far beyond religious services to grapple with the entire ultra-complex issue of the interaction between religion and state.

Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana in the corridor outside his Knesset office (Yitzhak Kelman)

Time and again in our conversation, held in his windowless ministerial office in the Knesset just as parliament was gradually voting to approve the hundreds of clauses in the state budget, Kahana returned to two prime themes: that he seeks to make progress via agreement rather than coercion, and that he will do nothing that departs from the parameters of halacha — Jewish religious law. As he had made rousingly evident in that Knesset speech ahead of taking up his ministerial office, he is an authentic Orthodox Jew, committed to deepening the Jewish identity of Israel — no matter how his ultra-Orthodox detractors, atypically reduced to a hapless spectators’ role in the running of government religious affairs, may seek to misrepresent him.

The following is an edited transcript of our interview, which was conducted in Hebrew.

The Times of Israel: We wanted to interview you, broadly speaking, in order to understand what you are aiming to do now that, after many, many years, the sphere of religious affairs in Israel is being overseen by somebody from the Modern Orthodox rather than the ultra-Orthodox community. So, we have lots of specific questions, but that’s the general goal: What are you hoping to achieve, how great are your ambitions?

Matan Kahana: I was in the IDF until three years ago. So you’d expect someone who is a colonel in the Air Force, a pilot, with a background in Sayeret Matkal [the IDF’s elite reconnaissance unit], if he enters politics, to want to focus on the defense arena. But I’d been making plain for the past two years that I wanted to be the minister for religious services.

That’s because I believe that the biggest rift among the Jews in the State of Israel stems from the issues of religion and state. And someone like me can actually tackle those issues.

Matan Kahane, in pilot’s gear, with Yamina party leader Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (Courtesy)

Why someone like me? Because, on the one hand, I come from a very strong Orthodox background. I’m the poster boy for religious Zionism. I grew up in the religious Zionist frameworks — a madrich in Bnei Akiva; a graduate of yeshiva high school; I’ve always kept the commandments, prayed three times a day, worn tzitzit — as Orthodox as it gets.

On the other hand, I spent 30 years in Israel’s most secular frameworks. Early on, I was often the most Orthodox combat pilot. I managed that mix pretty well.

So as a conservative Orthodox Jew, who really knows the secular world, I can be the person who provides some of the solutions [to heal the rift].

For 73 years, the battle over the status quo [that governs the Jewish nature of Israel], a battle primarily waged by the ultra-Orthodox, but not only them, has created a terrible outcome: the dilution of Israel’s Jewish identity — if you check back, you’ll find that Israel’s religious identity has been in constant decline, regarding Shabbat observance, halachic marriage, et al; and the more bitter the fight [to prevent this process], the greater the opposition, creating a snowball effect.

Most people would argue that the opposite process has played out…

No. When the State of Israel set out on its way, shops weren’t open on Shabbat and neither were places of entertainment. Now, both are. Nowadays, most shopping areas are open and [many] places of entertainment. On May 15, 1948, broadly speaking, places of entertainment were not open on Shabbat. The status quo provided that on Shabbat, everything is closed — shops, entertainment, everything.

Then we had the “Shabbat wars” of the mid-1980s — protests in Petah Tikva and Jerusalem; I remember joining the demonstrations in Jerusalem [against the opening of places of entertainment], even though my yeshiva high school, Nativ Meir in Bayit Vegan, frowned upon us joining.

Fewer and fewer Jews are getting married through the Chief Rabbinate.

The more there is an effort to coerce people, the more they run in the opposite direction. And the Supreme Court’s decisions on these issues are increasingly, let’s say, progressive.

Ultimately, it’s clear that Israel’s Jewish identity is being harmed.

The building of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in Jerualem. (Flash90)
Illustrative: The building of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in Jerusalem. (Flash90)

By contrast, where there isn’t coercion, there’s a strengthening [of Jewish identity]. More and more people are seeking to connect to Jewish tradition. We see it in the arts — art that connects to Jewish roots. In music, we see many artists choosing to give expression to their Judaism. We see a growth in secular and mixed secular-Orthodox pre-army academies, which focus considerable attention on Jewish identity.

I want to strengthen the state’s Jewish identity. We have established a safe refuge for the Jewish people. Now, we have to move to the next stage, building up the State of Israel’s Jewish identity. And I’m deliberately saying “Jewish identity” rather than “Orthodox identity.” I am Orthodox. I will, with God’s help, continue to observe the commandments. I’m talking about building the Jewish identity in the public sphere, and that has to be done together.

You don’t think it’s too late for that? You are reforming the process for the supervision of kashrut, for example. That’s not going to make secular people more likely to seek out a kosher restaurant…

There are still battles being fought over Shabbat in the public sphere, transportation on Shabbat; over the question of who is a Jew; over how to get married, how to formalize couples’ relationships… so many issues that are the subject of fierce battles. And I’m one of those who thinks they need to be resolved by agreement rather than in a fight.

It’s the extremists who dominate the debate these days — whether it’s among the Haredim on one side, or ultra-ultra-secularists on the other. When those extremes set the agenda, it creates these fights.

Rabbi Yaakov Medan and Professor Ruth Gavison, in Jerusalem on September 27, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

We need the 70 or 80 percent in between to sit down and talk — as [law professor and human rights expert Ruth] Gavison and [Modern Orthodox Rabbi Yaacov] Medan did [in formulating a “New Covenant” among Jews on matters of religion and state in Israel almost 20 years ago]. A leading rabbi and the law professor who established the Civil Rights Association said, let’s sit together and come as far toward each other as we can; they reached agreements.

I often say to my Orthodox friends, Are you crazy? Why did you let this slip away? If you had accepted Gavison-Medan 20 years ago, today there’d been no shopping on Shabbat, because that was in their agreement. But you didn’t accept it. You went to war over everything.

So, you want to bolster the state’s Jewish identity by eschewing coercion. But even more, it seems, you want to put an end to the internal Jewish “warfare.”

As the state of the Jewish people, as a Jewish and democratic state, we need to turn Judaism into a force for unifying the Jewish people. Today, to my sorrow, it’s a force for division. I consider Judaism to be a wonderful gift, and I am convinced that if we don’t impose its practical elements, people will choose [to come closer to Judaism].

I have no desire whatsoever to tell you what to do in your own home. I do think we need to discuss Judaism in the public sphere. I think that if the ultras at either extreme set the tone, that feeds conflict. We need the 70-80% in between to agree on the parameters of Shabbat observance [in the public sphere]; on arrangements for marriage and couples without imposing the Rabbinate upon them — there are proposals that rabbis have suggested.

What specific progress have you made so far, in the four months or so since the government took office?

I’ve been busy with the issue of kashrut. You’re talking to me literally two hours after the kashrut reforms were approved [as part of Israel’s new state budget].

‘There are 500,000 people in Israel who are of Jewish origin but not halachically Jewish. We should be trying to create a process and environment that encourages them to convert, halachically, and join the Jewish people’

Our next issue is conversion. As far as this coalition is concerned, the Supreme Court decision [requiring that non-Orthodox conversion be recognized for purposes of citizenship] will remain in force. But there are 500,000 people in Israel who are of Jewish origin but not halachically Jewish. We should not let this persist, and simply wait for those who are interested to come forward and then try to assist them in converting. No. We should be trying to create a process and environment that encourages them to convert, halachically, and join the Jewish people.

The best female member of my Air Force squadron is not halachically Jewish. Her mother is not Jewish; her grandmother isn’t; her grandfather is. She’s getting married soon; she’s completed her Air Force term and is going to be a doctor. She’ll be marrying an Israeli Jew, and her children will not be Jewish halachically.

I regard this as a kind of assimilation. And if we used to think of “mixed marriages” as something that happens in America, well, today, it happens in Israel. And it’s part of my life’s mission [to address this].

Why is it assimilation if she will be raising her family in Israel?

Because according to halacha, she is not Jewish. And their children, who will doubtless be wonderful Israelis in every respect, and brothers in arms, from a halachic perspective they will not be Jewish. And I feel an immense responsibility to try — I cannot compel her… When I speak to her, I ask her, Why don’t you convert? And she says, Because my friends tell me these horror stories about the conversion process.

That the rabbinate’s attitude is so hostile?

Yes. Exactly. It’s about the attitude. She says, Maybe if it were a normal process, I would go, listen, and move ahead.

So, how are you going to fix that?

It’s early days. But we are working to fashion a framework under which local city rabbis can set up conversion courts. They will follow halacha, but the attitude will be different. They will encourage people. Today, there are conversion courts that actively discourage sincere potential converts. Not all of the courts are like that, I should stress.

Is there any prospect of Israel’s chief rabbis going along with this?

I am trying to build a framework they will go along with.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef convene an emergency meeting against a new proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system, on June 3, 2018 (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate spokesperson)

And are they speaking to you?

[Ashkenazi chief] Rabbi Lau, yes — I have an ongoing dialogue with him. That doesn’t mean he agrees to everything. He opposes my kashrut reforms. But he knows that, in dialogue with me, he can exert an influence.

The Sephardi chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef — no. [DH writes: This is apparently for political reasons — a disconnect imposed by Arye Deri, the leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas. Yosef is the son of Shas’s founding spiritual patron, the late former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef] And kashrut is his department. Conversion is Lau’s department, so the dialogue is important. I hope I will be able to build a framework that he feels he can rely upon.

‘I am an Orthodox man. Judaism in Israel is mainly Orthodox. That’s a fact. So I don’t see a good reason why non-Orthodox streams of Judaism should have [disproportionate] influence’

And where do the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism fit into your vision — regarding conversion and everything else?

I am an Orthodox man. Judaism in Israel is mainly Orthodox. That’s a fact. So I don’t see a good reason why non-Orthodox streams of Judaism should have [disproportionate] influence. What is due to them according to their proportion of the population, they will get. But I don’t think it’s right that they should have influence today over Jewish life in the State of Israel.

No place for a Reform or Conservative entity to oversee kashrut, even in an area where they do have demographic weight?

Because the State of Israel is Orthodox. And I will do whatever I can to ensure it stays that way. And today, kashrut standards are set by the Chief Rabbinate and three city rabbis.

And the same applies to conversion?

Even more so.

And what about the millions of Jews in the United States who are Reform or Conservative and who see Israel less and less as their state? You seem to have given up on them.

The Israeli government has the responsibility to ensure that American Jews — and in fact, all of world Jewry — have a relationship with Israel as their homeland and nation-state. While of course I welcome and encourage aliyah, I appreciate the importance and value of diverse Jewish communities around the world. I would like to see the State of Israel maintain a warm relationship with the Jewish world and support Diaspora Jewry’s ability to practice Jewish life fully and securely.

Well, if you want to encourage aliya: Most of them are not Orthodox. You’re looking to build a more openminded framework on matters of conversion, marriage etc., but not one that helps them, that reflects their Jewish worldview.

Reform and Conservative Jews are our brothers, they are Jews, we have to ensure that they are not moving away from us.

But they are moving away from us.

So we have to make an effort…

But what you are proposing will exacerbate the process. Take conversion, for example. There were various proposals under which non-Orthodox rabbis would play a role in the conversion process, with final authorization from an Orthodox rabbi, and so on.

To my sorrow, the conversion framework proposed by the [former justice minister Moshe] Nissim was not accepted. So it’s not relevant.

So how do you attract adherents of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, without giving them formal status here? Take the question of their status at the Western Wall…

Okay, let’s talk about the Western Wall. It’s terrible that the Western Wall is a focus of conflict. Terrible. In 2016, there was an arrangement for the Western Wall that was accepted by all the relevant players, including the ultra-Orthodox, including the rabbis. And then a very extremist group, not ultra-Orthodox, destroyed it.

One minor extremist was able to derail something that had been negotiated for years between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewish leaders? I suppose that’s because, if this group opposed the arrangement, the ultra-Orthodox felt they had to oppose it as well?

They opposed it, so the ultra-Orthodox had to fall into line. They couldn’t be more liberal than the knitted kippot [i.e., Modern Orthodox].

FILE: Minister Naftali Bennett unveils a temporary platform built for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in August 2013. (Ezra Landau/Flash90)

So now you can revive the Western Wall compromise? All the necessary votes are there. But nothing has moved.

Nobody has dealt with this yet. Really, we didn’t get to it yet. We need to look again at [reviving] that arrangement, which was widely agreed upon, and stop all these conflicts.

I’ll tell you the truth. When I started in this job, I decided not to touch the issue of the Western Wall. I saw it was a hot potato. I decided to deal with kashrut, conversion, burial…

Because those are not hot potato issues?!

Yes! …roles for women in the provision of religious services. But then, when I saw what happened on Tisha B’Av, when those extremists came in order to make trouble…

You realized you had to deal with it, to put it on the government agenda and…? 

To return, as far as is possible, to what was agreed in 2016.

Well, [much of] American Jewry will be very pleased.

[The freezing of that agreement] was a major breach [in our ties] with US Jews. [The Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors] was even in Israel [on the day that the cabinet voted to suspend the agreement].

They issued a statement canceling a planned dinner with Netanyahu.

Again, I’m an Orthodox Jew. I’d be happy if all of them were Orthodox, but not all dreams come true. So, to put an end to all this, let’s return to the arrangement that everyone agreed upon. Even the extremists recognize that there is no choice….

The rabbi of the Western Wall has no problem with it. I’m in constant contact with him. He won’t be an obstacle.

‘Kariv has also acted with a kind of violence’

Have you spoken to [Labor MK and Reform rabbi Gilad] Kariv about this?

We haven’t gone into the details. We have discussed that it’s terrible that [the Western Wall] is a constant focus of conflict.

Incidentally, I think he’s been acting mistakenly as well. He complained that they acted violently against him. He’s also acted with a kind of violence — using his parliamentary immunity to do things.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv hands a Torah to Women of the Wall activists on October 7, 2021. (Gilad Kariv/Twitter)

You mean, Kariv bringing a Torah scroll to be used by the Women of the Wall in their monthly services?

Yes. At the Western Wall there are practices that have been followed since the establishment of the state. And he comes along, and uses his parliamentary immunity, to breach the status quo at the Western Wall. Without agreement. I’m in favor of doing things by agreement. Kariv is acting not by agreement, to forcibly breach the status quo.

I hope it passes off peacefully tomorrow. [Kariv held off from plans to bring a Torah scroll for the Women of the Wall on November 5, the day after this interview, after a plea from President Isaac Herzog, with Deri and other ultra-Orthodox MKs planning to protest at the Western Wall Plaza, and Netanyahu retweeting their plans to do so. Deri and the other ultra-Orthodox MKs then also canceled their plans. The monthly prayer session saw scuffles between ultra-Orthodox demonstrators and police, but not the feared more serious confrontations for which police were bracing until Kariv and the ultra-Orthodox MKs stepped back.]

Women of the Wall dance with a Torah Scroll during a Rosh Hodesh service in the Western Wall plaza in 2015 (Miriam Alster / Flash90)

Let’s turn to your plans for women to sit on local religious councils.

It’s not just [roles for] women on religious councils. Generally, the women’s Torah world is flourishing, certainly in the religious Zionist community. And I intend to give this my active support. [By ensuring roles for women] in women’s educational institutions. By building a framework by which women follow a study program that is equivalent to that for rabbinical training, although at the end they are designated not as “rabbis” but as something like “authorized,” or “learned.”

‘I am an Orthodox conservative. I don’t think a woman should hold the role of rabbi. But a woman who wants to give expression to her range of knowledge in halacha and Torah must be permitted to do so’

I’ve discussed this with all the women heading the relevant study programs; there are several batei midrash [study halls] that deal with this, utterly Orthodox institutions. They stress that they don’t want to take the place of rabbis. They say they want a place of their own.

I am an Orthodox conservative. I don’t think a woman should hold the role of rabbi. But a woman who wants to give expression to her range of knowledge in halacha and Torah must be permitted to do so.

So we’re building this framework now, in coordination with all the women’s batei midrash — to define this framework and the material to be studied. What interests a rabbi is not necessarily what interests the women’s Torah world. And so, if there is, for example, a public position that requires a rabbinical qualification, a female graduate of this course would also be eligible.

Students at a Beit Midrash for women, at the Oz veGaon nature preserve in Gush Etzion, on October 05, 2021. (Gershon Elinson/FLASH90)

There’s also an additional framework, for what are called “halachic advisers” (yoatzot halacha) Among the issues that rabbis study is family purity. Numerous women have learned this profession. I am assisting with this framework. I will ensure that a community that wants such an adviser will get the financial backing.

Experience has shown that when a woman is appointed to this position, she is inundated with questions and requests for assistance. It is of course easier for [women] to discuss the issues with a woman.

And then there is the matter of administrative positions over which I have authority — members of religious councils, including the chairs of religious councils. You can either be elected to chair a council, or the minister — me — can appoint the chair.

I’ve said I’ll no longer accept councils without female representation; I will encourage the election of women. And this week, I announced that I will reconsider the employment of all 90 current ministerial appointees and will seek to appoint as many women as possible…

And if some of these women become prominent, and say “I want to dance with the Torah scroll on Simchat Torah”?

That’s none of my business. That’s not for the minister of religious services. Every community should do what the rabbi permits. A woman can go out and buy a Torah scroll. Nothing to do with the minister of religious services.

‘Anything that breaches halacha — not on my watch’

My job is to regulate religious affairs. And I do not intend to stray from the halacha, from the Orthodox halacha, in any sphere where I have authority. I want to stress that.

Within the parameters of halacha, I greatly want to deploy women, especially in management roles, but also to strengthen the spiritual world.

This won’t evolve into something bigger?

Anything that breaches halacha — not on my watch.

Nonetheless, I think I’m bringing about significant change here — regarding kashrut, regarding the women’s Torah world. There are women’s organizations to whom the door of the minister was closed until today. Suddenly, they meet with the minister.

I stress, the heads of these women’s organizations come from the heart of Orthodoxy. They make clear, “We have no desire to replace the rabbi in his work. We are not here to become the female rabbi of the community.” That’s not the story. The State of Israel is Orthodox.

The ultra-Orthodox MKs’ open hostility to you is quite staggering. How are you going to bridge that divide?

These conflicts deeply distress me. If you look at how I’ve spoken about the ultra-Orthodox in the two years that I’ve been an MK, you’ll recognize that I’m their best friend in the Knesset.

In my heart and soul, I believe that the ultra-Orthodox are not a problem for the State of Israel but a solution to the problems of the State of Israel. When the ultra-Orthodox are fully part of the workforce, and then of the army, and in every part of society, they will give Israel a giant push forward.

UTJ leader Moshe Gafni (left), Shas leader Aryeh Deri and (standing) UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman hold a press conference at the Knesset, June 8, 2021, denouncing Prime Minister-designate Naftali Bennett and his “change government” colleagues. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I’m very optimistic about integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the state — not via coercion. Just as I oppose Orthodox coercion, I oppose secular coercion. Opposing separate-sex studies in university is dreadful. It’s trying to impose a way of life upon them that is not appropriate for them. If we stop trying to impose an over-liberal or permissive lifestyle on them, we’ll benefit.

There are not many examples of that kind of coercion. Usually, it’s their effort to impose…

First of all, you’re right. And, as you’ll note, I fight against that too. But there is a minority Supreme Court opinion — and we know that minority views in time can become the majority — that separate swimming in public baths is illegal. What? You’ll require the ultra-Orthodox to swim in mixed pools? What are you talking about?

Those for whom being progressive is a religion can take it to dangerous places, just like the extremists on the other side. I believe that if you allow separate-sex academic programs for the ultra-Orthodox, when they graduate they will go to work, and they’ll work in mixed workforces. If you don’t try to impose a core curriculum [in their schools], they’ll gradually learn a core curriculum, without coercion. That’s the key to integration.

Newly appointed Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana (Yamina) with outgoing Minister Yaakov Avitan (Shas), at a ceremony marking the transfer of authority at the ministry on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

How are you going to advance any of this, when their representatives in the Knesset will oppose everything you try to do?

You’re right about that, but there are ways.

We’ve just lowered the age at which you are exempt from the IDF draft. Why are their representatives opposed to this? Because they prefer to have them captive in a world where they cannot enter the workforce, and they’re afraid that if [ultra-Orthodox men] are exempt from the army at 21, they can start to study and they’ll start to open up to Israeli society. We lowered the age precisely so that they will integrate earlier.

An ultra-Orthodox man, at 24, is generally married with two or three children. That’s not the case at 21. At 24, as a family man, it’s already hard for you to invest in studies, but at the younger age, you can study and do something that fits your talents. There are so many such talented people that, because of the circumstances, find themselves working in jobs that don’t reflect their abilities.

And what do you plan in terms of [raising the number of] ultra-Orthodox men serving in the army?

First, it is worth doing, but nothing will be achieved through coercion. We’ve never forced a single ultra-Orthodox man to serve in the army. Stop trying to coerce.

So, as the prime minister says, it is not fair, but it is smart: It is not fair that they be exempt from military service at 21, but it is smart. Why is it smart? Because their younger brothers and their children will choose to serve in the army — because they’ll be part of Israeli society, because they’ll study and they’ll go to work, and they’ll work in tech.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men clash with Israeli police as they protest against the jailing of a yeshiva student who failed to comply with an army recruitment order, in Jerusalem on January 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I meet the ultra-Orthodox and they tell me that it’s terrible that they don’t know English, and that they’re unhappy that they didn’t serve in the army.

We have to build frameworks that enable them to fully maintain their way of life [while serving in the army], and to fully integrate into Israeli society.

Because I regard myself as being so supportive of them, I find it very sad that their politicians depict me as an enemy of Judaism.

Because you’re a threat to the politicians, but not to their community.

Exactly. They’ve been moved aside from the positions of power that they held for too many years. And they’re hysterical about it.

There are Modern Orthodox rabbis who disagree with my plans, but they attack the plans. The ultra-Orthodox politicians attack me. I’m Antiochus. I’m Gilad Kariv. I’m a Reform Jew.

How did it feel when they demonstrated outside your home with shrimp and calamari?

I found it amusing and ridiculous. It wasn’t organized by the ultra-Orthodox but by an extreme group called Hotam; there’s nobody to the right of them. They pay people money to curse me when I attend a memorial service for Rav Kook. They hold demonstrations outside my home with shrimp and calamari.

‘There was an ultra-Orthodox MK who denounced me in the Knesset: You’re a Reform Jew. I said to him afterward, You know that’s nonsense. He said, What can you do? That’s politics’

I can understand why the ultra-Orthodox see Reform Jews as a threat, as a challenge. But you are working within the halacha; you’re looking for solutions.

There was an ultra-Orthodox MK who denounced me in the Knesset: You’re a Reform Jew. I said to him afterward, You know that’s nonsense. He said, What can you do? That’s politics.

Anyone who witnessed the discussions we had on kashrut reform knows how much effort I made to ensure that the Rabbinate will be part of this, and again now that I am dealing with the issue of conversion.

MK Idit Silman, the coalition chair, pictured with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during voting in the Knesset on the state budget, November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

You shrug off the attacks on you, but it can’t be pleasant.

There’s a big difference between what Idit Silman [the Yamina MK and coalition whip] and Nir Orbach [Yamina MK] are going through, and what I go through. They are being battered for ostensibly not being right-wing enough. I’m being battered for ostensibly not being Orthodox enough. They displayed a lot of discomfort in the days before the coalition was established, so they became a focus. I was one of those pushing Naftali [Bennett] to establish this government.

I’m a pilot. I act decisively. From the moment I recognized that there was no chance of a right-wing government, I said, okay, let’s go, full speed ahead, for a unity government. And that was that. Nobody [from the right-wing] bothered me, apart from one bizarre demonstration at the moshav [during which crude insults were shouted]. It was pathetic.

The attacks on me are ultra-Orthodox attacks: I’m Antiochus, Haman the evil, Gilad Kariv. Religious Zionist rabbis may say things like Matan Kahana is wrong; Matan Kahana is a great guy but he’s acting incorrectly.

Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahane meets with leading Religious Zionist Rabbi Haim Druckman (Courtesy)

If Air Force veterans were demonstrating outside my home, that would affect me more. That’s my milieu.

You’re quite new to politics. You’ve not been through this before. But we’ve seen this before; we’ve seen where it can lead. It’s scary.

My wife is afraid. My wife has a doctorate in psychology. She says there’s always someone with a screw loose. And that when you are branded as a destroyer of religion, an enemy of Judaism, or a traitor, there’s always someone on the extreme who doesn’t understand [where the limits should be].

From within your milieu, are you asked, What are you doing in a coalition with Ra’am, how can you sit in a government with Nitzan Horowitz [of Meretz]?

Yes. It’s hard for a lot of people. It’s not natural for me either. In politics, you choose between possibilities. Of the possibilities after the fourth elections, we chose this one, and it was the right choice. I’m happy that Ra’am is part of the coalition; I’d much rather that theirs weren’t the crucial votes [i.e., that the coalition would have a majority without them]. I don’t like it that the coalition depends on them.

Do you want to see MK Moshe Gafni [and his United Torah Judaism party] join the coalition?

A coalition of 61 votes [in the 120-seat Knesset] is hard to maintain. Every member is a king. So it would be good to widen the coalition. Anybody who accepts the coalition’s guidelines should join, with pleasure.

The issues I’m trying to advance, on religion and state, can only be achieved in a government like this one.

‘There hasn’t been a minister of religious services like me for 73 years, and likely won’t be again for 73 years. When the ultra-Orthodox see what I’m doing in the ministry, they’ll never relinquish it again’

A government that is not dependent on the ultra-Orthodox.

Yes. And when more people from more liberal groups come to me, and urge me to speed up what I’m doing, I tell them to calm down, that there hasn’t been a minister of religious services like me for 73 years, and likely won’t be again for 73 years. When the ultra-Orthodox see what I’m doing in the Ministry of Religious Services, they’ll never relinquish it again.

And they’ll reverse everything you’re doing.

Considerable thought goes into doing things in a way that won’t be easily reversed. On kashrut reform, for instance, I believe that once private organizations are offering kashrut certification [in a few weeks], that will be irreversible.

These will be ultra-Orthodox organizations. Their kashrut authorities will be the prime beneficiaries. It will be a free market. Major factories will seek kashrut certification from the most stringent ultra-Orthodox authorities [so that their products will be acceptable to everyone]. Those authorities won’t let a subsequent ultra-Orthodox minister of religious services roll that back.

What are your plans for reform when it comes to marriages?

I’m not planning a reform there. The coalition agreements provide for [reforms in] kashrut and conversion. Anything else is dependent on the goodwill of the coalition partners.

Broadly, I believe in wide-ranging arrangements, not the salami method. I’m opposed to a situation where, say, Sharren Haskel [a New Hope MK] puts forward a bill for civil marriage in foreign embassies. Someone else brings a bill for civil marriage. And someone else for public transportation on Shabbat. Someone else, a bill relating to conversions, to Shabbat commerce, and so on.

I say, no. I say, stop, and take a holistic look — define the problems facing Israeli society when it comes to religion and state, and solve them via compromise from both sides. I think salami tactics only harm the Orthodox community. I don’t want that.

I believe that Israel’s Jewish identity is important. I think that the nature of Shabbat in the public sphere is important. I prefer as little coercion as possible, but I still think Shabbat must look different from a weekday in the State of Israel.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv conducts a Reform wedding ceremony near the Knesset, March 18, 2013 (Flash90)

And so to the issue of marriage. I’ve said this in the past, and I’ll repeat it: In the Israel of 2021, we must also allow people to formalize their couplehood outside the Chief Rabbinate. That’s a revolutionary sentence. No previous minister of religious services has uttered it. It has triggered shockwaves.

But in the same breath I say: I am opposed to civil marriage. I believe that the concept of marriage, the sacred connection between a man and a woman, in the State of Israel, must remain in the province of halachic Judaism.

I’m not going to tell you my favored solution. Rabbis have offered various solutions.

‘In the Israel of 2021, we must also allow people to formalize their couplehood outside the Chief Rabbinate. That’s a revolutionary sentence. No previous minister of religious services has uttered it. It has triggered shockwaves’

What bothers my Air Force squadron colleagues? They say to me, I risk my life three times a day for the State of Israel. But I have to fly to Las Vegas or Cyprus to get married? And I say, What if, rather than flying to Cyprus, you can register [your marriage] at the Cyprus Embassy in Israel? Is that so terrible?

That’s a solution to the issue of civil registration. But what of the issue of hostility to the Rabbinate — people who are interested in a religious, halachic marriage, but want nothing to do with the Rabbinate?

Halachic marriage has particular implications when it comes to divorce. In the Gavison-Medan understandings, Rabbi Medan took several steps toward Gavison regarding alternative marriages, and Ruth Gavison said that dissolving a marriage could only be via the Rabbinate. So a situation in which people have halachic marriages outside the Rabbinate is the worst situation of all, halachically.

So, again, I don’t want to define solutions here. If we go into a room and discuss, with goodwill, we’ll find solutions. Not me. Rabbis. There was an Israeli chief rabbi, Rabbi [Eliyahu] Bakshi-Doron, who felt that, from a halachic standpoint, non-Orthodox couples should have civil marriages, to avoid complications. But I want to stress: I don’t support civil marriage. The ultra-Orthodox want to label me Reform. I am not Reform.

The prime minister just got back from the Glasgow climate change conference, full of enthusiasm for protecting the environment. We’ll never get more cars off the road if there is no adequate public transportation on Shabbat.

In the Gavison-Medan understandings, there’s a chapter on public transportation on Shabbat. A leading rabbi and a champion of freedom managed to reach agreement on the issue. The whole advantage of their covenant was that it was comprehensive, with compromises from both sides on this and that element, producing a whole. And when they published it, they both said: Take it or leave it. There’s nothing in between.

That’s why I don’t want to sketch out for you possible partial solutions for the future. Twenty years ago, a leading Religious Zionist rabbi, the head of one of the flagship yeshivot, sat down and was able to produce parameters that included compromises from both sides. That’s the message.

A political question: Yamina is in trouble. There was a certain expectation that its standing in the polls would improve now that its leader is prime minister. But its support is not rising.

We are aware of the situation, but we’re very calm. We knew that for the first four or so months after establishing the coalition, the big challenge would be the one we’re overcoming right now [passing the budget] to ensure stability for this government for at least the next two years. And I can assure you that, insofar as it depends on Yamina, we will do everything to transfer power to Yair Lapid in two years, precisely as set out in the [coalition] agreement.

‘We can’t let the extremists of both sides determine how the majority wants to live. And the majority wants to live in mutual respect; wants Shabbat to have a special nature in the State of Israel; and wants maximal freedom in its way of life’

We have been focused on that mission [of passing the budget]. And we face a well-oiled, toxic Likud machine, pumping out lies from A to Z. On everything from the allegation that we spend money on cats rather than soldiers; that we give money to Hamas, when in fact we’ve stopped their flow of money to Hamas; it’s endless.

I’m convinced that as time passes, the motivation to pump out these toxic lies will greatly diminish, because they’ll recognize [that the coalition is stable]. And the public will see we are truly acting in its interests, making the right decisions, acting responsibly, and constituting a statesmanlike alternative, seeking to unify, in contrast to the trolling of a number of Likud MKs. I’m convinced that people will appreciate this, and ultimately vote for us.

And you intend to stay in this job for the next four years?

Four years for sure. I’ve got a great deal to do. I see this not only as the ministry of religious services, but as the ministry for religion and state. I told the prime minister last week, we’ll deal with kashrut and conversion. But if we in this government can’t find agreed-upon solutions to the other issues of dispute, that will be a huge missed opportunity. This is a one-time opportunity. I don’t know when there’ll ever be another one.

We can’t let the extremists of both sides determine how the majority wants to live. And the majority wants to live in mutual respect; wants Shabbat to have a special nature in the State of Israel; and wants maximal freedom in its way of life.

And finally, how is it that you served both in Sayeret Matkal and as a pilot? After you completed Sayeret Matkal, why did you need to climb that second summit?

Matan Kahana (right) in the IDF’s Sayeret Matkal unit, alongside Naftali Bennett (Avichai Socher)

My dream from childhood was to be in Sayeret Matkal. And then, it was time to apply for the various elite IDF units, and I was accepted into pilots’ training. That wasn’t my plan at all. So I said no to pilots’ training. I went to Sayeret Matkal; I was there for three and a half years. I realized my dream. And shortly before it was time to complete my service, that bug returned: Maybe I should do pilots’ training; I had been accepted in the past.

So when all my friends went to Bakum [the IDF’s processing center] to complete their discharge, I re-enlisted, and started all over again.

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