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 firstname.lastname@example.org