Israel Jewish Marriage Law Relaxes Orthodox Grip a Bit

Allows Couples To Shop for More Liberal Rabbis

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.
getty images
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.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published October 31, 2013, issue of November 08, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In a landmark vote, the Knesset has allowed Israeli Jewish couples to do what their American counterparts have long done: Shop for a rabbi.

The Knesset vote marked the first tangible gain for secular Israel since the country’s ultra-Orthodox parties were frozen out of the government after the last election. But the new law still leaves the rabbinate’s jurisdiction over marriage in place, disappointing advocates of civil marriage.

“It’s still a rabbinate monopoly,” said Tamar Zandberg, a lawmaker with the left-wing Meretz party, which supports the creation of a civil marriage option in Israel. “The whole point is to create an alternative to the rabbinate.”

Others, however, were unalloyed in their approval, given the law’s expected practical impact.

“This breakthrough is a historical victory for the future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” said Rabbi David Stav, president of the Modern Orthodox rabbinical alliance Tzohar, which lobbied for the reform.

The law was approved by the Knesset October 28. It allows, for the first time, Israelis to register their marriages with any local rabbinate in the country rather than being restricted to the rabbinate that has jurisdiction over where they live. The local rabbinates, though all funded by the government, vary widely in their policies on accepting converts and Jewish immigrants. Most are under the control of strict Haredi rabbis who refuse to register many would-be marriage partners. But some are overseen by relative liberals, to whom these stymied couples can now turn.

This is expected to create a kind of free market of registrars amid what has been an ongoing battle within Israel’s state rabbinate between hard-line Haredim, who control some cities, and more liberal Modern-Orthodox rabbis who control others. Marriage licenses have been their main weapons for fighting each other. Until now, a local rabbi effectively had a captive market in his area, and thereby retained his power within the rabbinate.

Couples blocked from registering their marriages by Haredi registrars that seek to impose ultra-Orthodox standards may now simply seek out more flexible registrars elsewhere in the country.

Up to now, the hard-liners have often rejected applications from converts, because they consider Israel’s conversion process too lax. Sometimes they tell applicants who were born Jewish that they need to bring genealogical research to prove their faith. They also treat with suspicion letters that American Jews bring from their rabbis in the United States attesting to their Jewishness. In recent months, local rabbinates have reportedly rejected letters vouching for the Jewishness of couples even from some Orthodox rabbis, among them the prominent leader Avi Weiss of New York.

The liberals have embraced converts, accepted letters from rabbis in the United States and helped Jewish-born applicants who need to prove their Jewishness to do so.

At one of the most hard-line local rabbinates, Ashkelon, the marriage registrar Avraham Sagis professed “concern” that the law will lead to a slipping of standards by diverting couples toward lax rabbinates. He told the Forward that he is worried that in these rabbinates, registrars fail to perform all the “checks that are required by Halacha and by law.”

But proponents of the reform believe that even strict rabbinates like Ashkelon will end up relaxing their standards as a result of the new law. Stav, who lobbied for the reform, claims that this will happen as a result of economic considerations: If strict rabbinates lose couples, it also loses the $150 fees that are required for marriage license registration and are important income. Rabbis will relax their standards in a bid to protect their income, he predicts.

A spokesman for Yisrael Beiteinu, which initiated the law, said that his party “has kept its promise to its voters that it will reform the sometimes extremely trying and problematic process of marriage registration in Israel.”

The law had the backing of Naftali Bennett and Eli Ben-Dahan, who are respectively the Jewish Home party’s, religious affairs minister and deputy minister. “Bennett and Ben-Dahan said they would bring a revolution in religious services, and this is part of the revolution,” Pinchas Wolf, spokesman for their party, told the Forward.

If either of the centrist parties in the coalition gets its way, this will be just the start of liberalization in Israeli partnerships. The day after the marriage reform law passed, Yesh Atid presented a bill to institute “civil unions” that would allow any two residents of Israel to formalize their partnership in front of the state’s representatives. The other centrist party, Hatnuah, announced that it, too, will be submitting a “civil union” bill, but it did not release details.

At the moment, Israel recognizes only religious marriages. Yesh Atid’s “civil unions” would allow people who don’t want a religious marriage, or who aren’t eligible for one, to receive the same recognition as marriage by Israeli law in all respects. It is intended as a solution for, among others, same-sex couples, couples of mixed faith or no faith, and Jewish couples who aren’t eligible for a rabbinate marriage because of restrictions, such as the halachic prohibition against a Cohen marrying a divorcee.

Reform and Conservative couples in Israel, who currently must obtain an Orthodox marriage, would be able to cut out the Orthodox rabbinate. Under the civil union proposals, they could simply hold a non-Orthodox marriage ceremony.

Ruth Calderon, the Yesh Atid lawmaker behind the party’s proposal, told the Forward, “It’s all the privileges of being a couple, but it’s not marriage.” She added, “We don’t want to challenge or get into any kind of war with the rabbinate.”

The intellectual as well as political objection to the current status quo on marriage is mounting. A few hours before Yesh Atid presented its legislation, the former Israeli Supreme Court chief justice Aharon Barak released an excerpt from his forthcoming book, saying that the government policy on marriage, even after the new law change, “violates the constitutional right to marry.” He argues, “The present law does not only violate the constitutional derived right to marriage, but it also often violates the derived right to freedom of conscience and freedom from religion.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.