The Jerusalem Post
Kahana seeks to bridge gaps on religion-and-state issues
Religious services minister slams haredi detractors: Have you ever prayed during an ambush, soaked in rain, trembling with cold?
Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana (Yamina) pledged to heal religious tensions that have caused “deep division in Israeli society.” His approach to the ministry will not be the same as his predecessor’s, he said on Monday as he took office.
“Judaism needs to unite and connect us and remind us that we are one people,” Kahana said.
In a convivial atmosphere at the transition ceremony, former religious services minister Ya’akov Avitan (Shas) wished
Kahana success for the sake of “the Jewish people, the Torah of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.”
“I hope that you will work with understanding to preserve the Jewish identity of the state and protect the standing of the chief rabbis,” he said, a possible allusion to the concerns of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties and the Chief Rabbinate regarding the reforms the religious-Zionist Kahana is said to be preparing.
Kahana praised Avitan for his service over the course of just over a year. The ministry had been effectively run during the
coronavirus crisis under Avitan’s leadership, he said.
“Tensions over religion and
state have caused deep division in Israeli society,” Kahana said, adding that he intends to change it.
He might have been alluding to public displeasure and discontent with haredi control and operation of religious institutions, including the Religious Services Ministry.
“I want religion to be a force to unite us, and I want our ministry to heal the wounds that religion-and-state issues have caused,” Kahana said.
His goal in office was to “sanctify God’s name,” he said, adding that he and the ministry would be evaluated by that barometer.
This might have been a reference to the atmosphere of corruption that has beset the religious establishment in recent years, during which rabbis and officials have been indicted and convicted of various crimes, including a former chief rabbi.
Kahana, who on several occasions during the course of the election campaign had indicated the ministry he would most like to lead was the Religious Services Ministry, said this field was close to his heart during Monday’s ceremony.
Yamina has already set out the main reforms on religion-andstate issues that it would like to enact, including proposed reforms that Kahana played a central role in setting.
In particular, these include decentralizing authority over Jewish conversion to municipal chief rabbis to set up their own conversion courts; allowing independent kashrut authorities to provide kashrut supervision; and changing the selection committee for chief rabbis to allow the election, in 2023, of religious-Zionist rabbis to the role.
Of those plans, the changes to the conversion system are undoubtedly the most controversial and will be bitterly opposed by the haredi political parties and the Chief Rabbinate.
The latter have a conservative outlook on conversion and have concerns that decentralization will lead to lax standards for conversion.
Proponents of this change argue that more needs to be done to prevent Jewish intermarriage in Israel and that Halacha provides for different leniencies for conversion that moderate municipal chief rabbis can utilize to convert larger numbers of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish according to Halacha and avert higher rates of intermarriage.
Allowing competition in kashrut supervision is less controversial but will nevertheless be met with severe opposition from the haredi parties due to the patronage of the Chief Rabbinate that its monopoly over the market provides.
Changing the electoral body for selecting the chief rabbis should be relatively simple to achieve in the Knesset or through ministry regulations. But whether those changes can be preserved by the time of the 2023 elections for the positions, given the political challenges that face the new government, remains in doubt.
Other knotty problems lie before him as well, including the ongoing problems of corruption in local religious councils, which run religious services under the auspices of the ministry, the unlimited term limits of municipal chief rabbis and the failure to discipline those who violate ministry terms of behavior.
Kahana is a long-time friend of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The two met while serving in the elite IDF Sayeret Matkal unit during the 1990s.
After three and a half years in Sayeret Matkal, Kahana went on to serve in the IAF as a combat pilot flying F-16s in the Second Lebanon War and in several operations over Gaza, served as a squadron commander and obtained the rank of colonel, before ending his military service in 2018.
Kahana grew up in the religious-Zionist community, was a member of the Bnei Akiva youth movement and studied in the Netiv Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vagan neighborhood, which is part of the Bnei Akiva network of high schools and yeshivas.
He is religiously moderate and perhaps reflects the mainstream of the religious-Zionist community to a greater degree than more conservative politicians and rabbis who have taken the lead on religious issues for the community in the past.
Kahana is strongly committed to the ethos of combining a religious lifestyle with national and social responsibilities – an outlook that he asserted is an ideal, not a compromise, during a fiery speech in the Knesset on Sunday afternoon during the debate ahead of the confidence vote in the new government.
Addressing the bitter attack issued by haredi MKs against Bennett – when United Torah Judaism MK Ya’acov Litzman said, “He should take off his kippah; he is shaming it” – and the new government last week, Kahana slammed the haredi detractors.
“I ask those MKs, have you ever prayed the Amidah prayer during a [military] ambush, soaked in rain, trembling with cold?” he asked. “Were you strict about ritually washing your hands when you don’t have a sink and vessel next [to] the dining room as in a yeshiva?
“Have you worn tzitzit in training exercises when it is the least comfortable thing in the world? Have you prayed to God before going into battle?
“Who are you to teach us about fearing Heaven? Who are you to lecture us about sanctifying God’s name? You should be ashamed. Your behavior is the worst desecration of God’s name there could be.”
In a promise to the haredi public, Kahana vowed to “protect the Torah world,” meaning yeshiva funding, and “protect the Jewish character of the country.” •