“The Sound of Jubilation?” On The Reality of Marriage in Israel

Ethics & social issues By Inbar Bluzer Shalem 11th Nov 2012

21st-century Israeli law only permits marriage between two people of the same religion who marry in a religious ceremony. This denies at least half a million Israeli citizens the right to wed. The following article explores and examines the Israeli reality surrounding this issue, and investigates the status of Masorti weddings in Israel.  It will take a brief look at the past, as well as explore some thoughts about the future.

On The Only Option for Getting Married in Israel

In 1947, Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, reached a political agreement with the religious parties that was entitled the Status Quo agreement. Under the terms of this agreement, personal status issues – including marriage – would continue to be under the sole jurisdiction of Israel’s religious authorities. This law was originally instated in Palestine’s Ottoman Period (1516-1917) and remained unaltered during the British Mandate.

Ben Gurion wrote the agreement in an attempt to enlist the support of the Orthodox parties for the United Nations’ partition plan and the creation of Israel.  These parties had expressed concern over the secular nature of the emerging Zionist state.

Since 1947, Israel’s population has gone through many dramatic changes. Demographically speaking, the population of the state has increased tenfold, with much of the growth a direct result of  mass immigration from Europe and North Africa. In the 1990s, one million new immigrants from Russia and 56,000 Ethiopians joined Israel’s six million citizens. The shift is also evident in the state’s value system. Today, 71% of Israeli citizens define themselves as non-religious. A growing group among the Jewish population define themselves as ‘traditional’, what they call masorti  (with a small m) or Reform. The political system in Israel allows minority Orthodox religious parties to retain huge political power and thus, in spite of these changes, the law regarding marriage is kept as it was laid down in 1947, with no modifications whatsoever.

It reads as follows:

“Matters pertaining to marriage and divorce of Jews in Israel, [whether they are] citizens or residents,  will be under the sole jurisdiction of the Rabbinical Bet Din” … “Jews’ marriage and divorce will be performed in Israel according to the laws of the Torah.”

For the Jewish community in Israel, the sole religious authority authorised to perform wedding and divorce ceremonies is the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. For other recognized religions (Christianity, Islam, Druze) there are parallel authorities who are the sole authorities permitted to perform wedding and divorce ceremonies for their communities.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is controlled exclusively by the Orthodox, dominated almost exclusively by the ultra-Orthodox in fact, with only a small number of modern-Orthodox employees.

The decision as to who is Jewish for the purposes of marriage is made according to a strict, Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. According to these rules, for example, a Cohen cannot wed a divorcee or a convert.  Similarly, a Jew who converted under the auspices of the Masorti or Reform movements either in Israel or in the diaspora cannot be wed in a Jewish ceremony in Israel.

Because in Israel only same-religion couples can be wed, a Jew who has converted through Masorti or Reform – and whose conversion is thus not recognized by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel – cannot get married within the borders of the State.

Many other Israeli Jews, regardless of the fact that both they and their parents are Jews by birth and upstanding citizens of the state, find themselves battling with the Rabbinate in order to marry. They are required to produce certificates verifying that they are both Jewish and single. In addition, they must bring two witnesses apiece (men only, of course) who can testify to their unmarried status. In order to prove their Jewishness, they must bring their parents’ Ketuba, their parents’ birth certificates and other forms of evidence. Frequently, the parents are also brought in to verify information.  The couple have to receive “guidance” on how to lead an “appropriate” married life; in other words, how to establish an Orthodox Jewish home. This includes a view of women’s status in society which differs wildly from most Israelis’ values. In addition, the woman is expected to immerse herself in a mikveh in the presence of a Female attendant.   Many women find this process very invasive.

This matter is further complicated when one of the sides wishing to get married is not considered one hundred percent ‘kosher.’ There are literally hundreds of thousands of Israelis who fall into this category and the mountain of personal stories affected by this rule grows yearly:  one member of the couple is an FSU immigrant whose parents have no documents (the Communist authorities did not permit religious marriages); a female convert – who converted through the Orthodox authorities – and a man who has no proof that he is not a Cohen; inter-faith marriages; single-sex marriages and, of course, 300,000 FSU immigrants who are considered Jewish according to the Law of Return (in other words, they receive automatic citizenship in Israel, will pay taxes and may be drafted into the army) but are not considered Jewish according to halacha. Since it is clear that they do not belong to any other faith, they are defined by the Israeli Rabbinate as being without a religion even if that isn’t how they self-identify.  As such, the Rabbinate gives them the status of ’unsuitable for marriage’. In other words, they are unsuitable for marriage of any kind within the borders of the State of Israel.  Add to these categories the thousands of people in Israel who have no interest whatsoever in undergoing the Rabbinate’s marriage process because they consider themselves secular, because the Orthodox wedding ceremony does not reflect their own religious world view, or because they simply don’t connect to the ceremony which they believe to be archaic and un-egalitarian. There are also those who oppose Israeli Rabbinate marriage because of their awareness of the institution’s unjustified – in their opinion – political influence.  These citizens are unwilling to cooperate with the Rabbinate, since cooperation would only increase the Rabbinate’s power.

The Path of Non-Rabbinate Marriage

Following public protest, the Israeli government understood that it could not remain apathetic to the thousands of people stripped of their rights by the Rabbinate. However, due to powerful Orthodox opposition, they could not overturn the Status Quo agreement.  As such, they found a way to circumvent the law: the State of Israel would accept any civil marriage carried out outside the borders of the country. These people could then register as married with the Interior Ministry, even if they weren’t registered with the Rabbinate, and thus receive the same rights and be subject to the same obligations as any other married citizen.

In the last two years, in the wake of a high court ruling, the State of Israel has also begun to register same-sex couples who have wedded abroad. Today, more than 10% of Israelis getting married choose a civil ceremony abroad – and that number is steadily rising. Some of these people get married in an alternative ceremony in Israel, with non-Orthodox rabbis, or in a completely secular ceremony and then go on to travel abroad in order to carry out a civil marriage. Obviously, this is only a very partial solution to the situation in Israel; only those in a relatively high socio-economic bracket can finance a trip of this nature in order to realise their right to get married.

The children of civil marriages are also a sensitive issue. According to Israeli law, children of a woman who the Rabbinate recognizes as halachically Jewish can marry through the Rabbinate regardless of how their parents got married.  That said, the Rabbinate does not recognize non-Orthodox conversions whether they were undertaken in Israel or in the Diaspora, and as such the children of Masorti or Reform conversions would not be allowed to marry, even though they are eligible for Israeli citizenship.

In parallel to those who choose to get married outside of the jurisdiction of the Rabbinate, there  is also a steadily increasing number of people who choose common-law marriage (in Hebrew, yeduim b’tzibur  or ‘known in public’, a halachic term used to describe a couple known to be living together who are not married).  These couples choose not to tie their relationship down within the institution of marriage. The organization “Mishpacha Hadasha” www.newfamily.org.il, established in 1998, advocates for equal recognition of all couples who choose not to get married through the Rabbinate, by means of a certificate of common-law marriage.

And what does the future hold for us? It is widely recognized that as long as the electoral system and the structure of Israel’s government remain unchanged, the Rabbinate will continue to hold on to its strength. Against this fact, it is predicted that the distance between the public and the Orthodox institution of marriage will grow in such a way that the public will vote with their feet, continually wearing down the strength of the Israeli Rabbinate and the wider institution of marriage. This in turn will cause the phenomenon of progressive weddings to expand.

The more that aspiring voices are heard and organizations for change gain strength, the faster we will see change happen. Campaigning by pluralistic Jewish communities in the diaspora will also speed up the process.

“I will not quieten, for my country has changed its face” states the song Ein Li Eretz Acheret (I Have No Other Land).  We continue to pray and work for the necessary change that will enable each and every citizen of the State of Israel to realize their right to marry according to their own beliefs.

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