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.
The reforms are the first change to the religious status quo since the new government, conspicuously free of Haredi parties, took office in March. The religious services ministry used to be a bastion of the very Haredi power that it is now cracking. It was previously controlled by the Shas party, and is now run by the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party and headed by party chairman Naftali Bennett.
“This was done in the spirit of the struggle over the state rabbinate that has been taken over by the ultra-Orthodox,” said Guy Ben-Porat, a Ben-Gurion University political scientist who has just published a book on state and religion in Israel. “Bennett is struggling to take it back.”
Some Orthodox rabbis are claiming that Bennett should have gone further, disciplining or removing intransigent registrars and not just sidelining them. Seth Farber, runs the organization ITIM, which lobbies for a modernized rabbinate. Farber said that the reform is a “positive step” but insists that couples should ultimately have the right to marry through their local rabbinate and shouldn’t have to go further afield.
Stern from the IDI believes it possible that the breaking of Haredi power over marriage may pave the way eventually for permission to Conservative and Reform rabbis to register marriages. “Once you pluralize a bit, you may think about a second stage of pluralizing,” he commented, saying that while the connection is not direct, psychologically the possibility for change has been opened up.
But the Reform and Conservative movements saw no such opportunity. The executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, told the Forward that he considered the reforms “irrelevant” as they simply realign power within Orthodoxy without giving hope to the cause of religious pluralism. He pointed out that they also offer no solution to thousands of people who are not halachically Jewish and are therefore unable to marry in Israel.
Kariv said that Bennett raised hopes during the election campaign that he would rethink the relationship between state and religion. “If this is the new face of Modern Orthodoxy, then I say it’s a real disappointment,” Kariv commented.
Ben-Porat said that the marriage reform actually weakens the cause of pluralism by making the Orthodox monopoly more acceptable in the eyes of the public, therefore increasing its life expectancy. “The aim of this reform is to keep the Orthodox monopoly alive,” he said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org