The High Court of Justice on Thursday rejected a petition by an Israeli couple kept in marital limbo for over three years after marrying in a private Orthodox Jewish ceremony without involving the country’s Chief Rabbinate.
The rabbinate has refused to list Noam Oren, 26, and his wife as married on the state registrar but also prohibited them from marrying anyone else. The couple wed in 2016. Both are religious Orthodox Jews.
The petition marked the first time a controversial amendment that bans alternative, “private” weddings outside the Chief Rabbinate was tested in Israel’s top court. Passed several years ago but unenforced in practice, it designates a possible punishment of up to two years in prison for couples who marry in such ceremonies and for rabbis who perform them.
In its ruling, the High Court said it has decided to intervene in the case after establishing the Chief Rabbinate was within its rights to dispute the alternative ceremony, which was conducted by a rabbi whom the state religious authorities do not authorize to officiate weddings.
The petition was lodged in March 2018 by the Mavoi Satum organization, an NGO that aids women who are refused a divorce by their husbands and also runs a program for alternative religious weddings, including that of Oren.
Speaking to The Times of Israel in 2018, as the petition was lodged, Oren said the reason he chose an alternative ceremony was that the rabbinate refuses to conduct weddings if they include a provision that would retroactively annul the marriage in the event one of the partners refuses to grant or accept a divorce, thus avoiding a problematic scenario that can prevent women from being able to remarry for many years.
Orthodox rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham, who teaches at Bar Ilan University’s Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies but isn’t authorized by the rabbinate to conduct marriages, presided over the couple’s 2016 ceremony.
The couple then had their wedding confirmed by a rabbinical court run by Orthodox rabbi Avraham Dov Levin, a former rabbinate official who joined Mavoi Satum’s alternative marriage program in 2016, after charging that the rabbinate was failing to adequately perform Judaism background checks.
But when the couple tried to register as married with authorities, the rabbinate rejected their request based on the legal amendment banning private weddings. To make matters worse, it ruled that the couple’s marital status was “in doubt,” since their marriage was carried out in accordance with Jewish law, meaning that they are banned from marrying others.
The only way offered by the rabbinate to release the couple from that deadlock was to perform a second wedding ceremony, without their prenuptial divorce safeguard and without the traditional blessings, by a rabbi recognized by the religious authority.
The Mavoi Satum petition to the High Court on Oren’s behalf sought to force the Chief Rabbinate to formalize its position on prenuptial agreements, and, the NGO had hoped, roll back the criminalization of officiating weddings outside the confines of the state authorities.
In a statement Thursday, after the court shot down the petition, attorney Batya Kahana-Dror was cautiously hopeful the High Court in the future would take such actions.
She said the justices, during the hearing in the case, voiced support for prenuptial agreements and appeared to adopt a legal opinion that officiators of non-rabbinate weddings cannot be jailed unless the wedding was kept a “secret,” all but rendering the criminalization amendment toothless.
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate oversees all personal status issues for Jews, including marriage and divorce, and does not recognize civil unions conducted in the country, or ceremonies performed by non-rabbinate officiators, though no such cases have resulted in jail time.
In July 2018, police briefly detained a Masorti rabbi, Dov Haiyun, in a predawn raid on his home over “illegal” weddings that he had conducted. After questioning, Haiyun was released, with his detention sparking a global outcry.