At least two Israeli Orthodox rabbis have begun performing wedding ceremonies for Israeli Jews outside the official framework of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, knowingly breaking the law, in an expression of opposition to the intertwining of religion and state and in protest at the rabbinate’s coercive and conservative approach.

Even though the weddings are performed in strict accordance with Jewish religious law — halacha — the rabbis and the couples are breaching Israeli law and could all face up to two years in prison for their “crime,” Israel’s Channel 2 reported on Saturday night.

Israeli law mandates that life-cycle events — birth, marriage, divorce and death — are handled under the monopoly of the Orthodox rabbinate. That monopoly is bitterly opposed by the leaderships of non-Orthodox Judaism and many in the Orthodox world, but has been maintained over the decades at the insistence of Orthodox political parties and with the consent of the non-Orthodox parties.

In a news feature on what it called a growing trend of such marriages, the TV report interviewed the two rabbis — Charles (Chuck) Davidson and Elli Fischer — and a third rabbi, Dr. Michael Abraham, who also performs halachic divorces outside the rabbinate framework.

Abraham called the rabbinate “damaging, somewhat corrupt and monopolistic.” Asked who would safeguard Judaism if every rabbi set up his own marriage or divorce authority, Abraham said the Israeli rabbinate was “the last institution” capable of protecting Judaism, and that the faith had managed fine for centuries without it and would hopefully do so again soon.

Rabbi Elli Fischer, who performs halachic marriage ceremonies outside the framework of the Israeli Rabbinate (Channel 2 screenshot)

Rabbi Elli Fischer, who performs halachic marriage ceremonies outside the framework of the Israeli Rabbinate (Channel 2 screenshot)

Davidson was filmed together with a young Israeli Jewish couple, Michal and Naftali Segev, whose marriage he recently performed. The couple said they had considered getting married abroad among other options because they were not prepared to deal with the Israeli Rabbinate. They said they knew they were breaking the law. They did so because, Michal Segev said, the cause of separating religion from state was “worth fighting for.”

Davidson (who like Fischer blogs for The Times of Israel) said with a smile that if, in a worst case, “I’ll go to jail,” he would ask to spend his days in a prison kollel — full-time Jewish study facility.

Fischer, who said he received his Orthodox rabbinical ordination 13 years ago, said that the couples who ask him to marry them outside the rabbinate framework “mostly do so as an act of protest against the Rabbinate of Israel.” But for him, said Fischer, performing the weddings “is an act of protest against the government of Israel” for allowing the rabbinate’s monopoly over life-cycle events.

Fischer stressed that the weddings he performs are no less halachically stringent than those authorized by the rabbinate.

Davidson said that the issue of the rabbinate’s monopoly had become increasingly untenable; it had “reached the bottom,” he said.

In recent days, the government rolled back reforms intended to ease conversions to Judaism that were passed by the last Knesset, and the latest in a relentless series of disputes erupted between streams of Judaism when Israel’s religious affairs minister and a second Knesset member launched verbal attacks on non-Orthodox Jews.

Ultimately, said Davidson, “the people of Israel will decide what Judaism is.”