Israel Chips Away at Orthodox Monopoly on Marriage

Are Rabbinate Reforms First Step to More Pluralism?

We Do: Israeli bride Yulia Tagil and her groom, Stas Granin, hold an alternative wedding ceremony at a public square in Tel Aviv to  protest Orthodox control over marriage. Proposed reforms would allow a more flexible approach.
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We Do: Israeli bride Yulia Tagil and her groom, Stas Granin, hold an alternative wedding ceremony at a public square in Tel Aviv to protest Orthodox control over marriage. Proposed reforms would allow a more flexible approach.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published May 26, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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The Israeli government has taken a major step in its effort to weaken Haredi control over marriages within the country’s mainstream population.

Under a landmark reform, announced by the Ministry of Religious Services on May 19, local marriage registrars affiliated with the government-sponsored Chief Rabbinate will no longer have an exclusive monopoly over registering the marriages of couples living in their area. The new law will create a free market of registrars. Couples blocked from registering their marriages by Haredi registrars that seek to impose ultra-Orthodox standards may simply look for more flexible registrars elsewhere in the country.

The reform is the most significant change to the marriage system in decades.

There is no civil marriage in Israel, so Jewish couples must register with the state rabbinate. But rabbinate representatives in some locales refuse licenses based on their strict standards in religious law — and couples are at their mercy as they are currently required to go to their local registrar.

There are Haredi registrars who won’t accept applicants’ Jewish credentials without documentation on their ancestors, even if this means extensive family research involving travel. And some refuse marriage applications for which one or both applicants are converts out of a mistrust of conversion procedures — even though the conversions are actually supervised by the very rabbinate that employs them.

The religious services ministry has promised to pull the rug out from under recalcitrant registrars by mid-June, bringing their local monopoly to an end.

The reform has been discussed in the Knesset for years as a possible legislative measure, without any decisive action. The religious services ministry’s announcement that it can and will make the change without legislation — and so soon — thus came as a surprise. It stole the thunder from David Stav, a candidate in this summer’s election for chief rabbi, whose platform includes making this change.

Experts predict that rabbinates forced to compete for couples — and their registration fees — will become friendlier and relax their demands. “It might be the beginning of a competition — and this time not competition as to who can be harsher and more frum, but who can attract more couples,” said Yedidia Stern, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute and an expert on the rabbinate.

Idit Druyan, spokeswoman for deputy religious services minister Eli Ben Dahan, told the Forward that registrars “will have to improve the way they are treating people,” admitting that treatment is “problematic” in many cases.

As well as changing marriage procedures, the government also aims to reduce cronyism by canceling the requirement that the managing directors of local religious councils can be chosen only from among serving council members. The members are almost always men, and no woman has ever headed a religious council. Following reform, anybody with the appropriate managerial skills will be able to submit a tender, and it is expected that the male monopoly will end.


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