'If getting married according to Jewish law was made into a criminal act in any other country, we would fight it as anti-Semitism'

In Ottoman holdover, Israel doubles down on marriage restrictions

Knesset upholds 2-year jail term for Jewish couples who don’t choose an approved rabbi to conduct their weddings

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Illustrative wedding photo. (JTA)
Illustrative wedding photo. (JTA)

There are criminals sitting in the Israeli Knesset: legislators who have either performed weddings outside the state’s religious authority, or who have personally been married in such ceremonies.

The Jewish state is one of the few places in the world where it is illegal — with a potential jail term of two years — for Jewish couples to marry as they wish.

This was confirmed on Wednesday when a proposed law amendment which would decriminalize marriages performed outside the auspices of the Israeli chief rabbinate was shot down in a 32-25 vote in the Knesset.

Calling the existing law “scandalous,” Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, who proposed the amendment, said it “opens a door so that tomorrow the state can jail anyone who won’t go to the mikveh [ritual bath], or who won’t have their sons undergo a brit milah [circumcision].”

Lavie’s proposed law would maintain the criminal aspect of weddings performed without registering the marriage. However, instead of a jail term, the couples — and those who perform their weddings — would face a fine.

This is the second time Lavie has brought the law to the Knesset. In conversation with The Times of Israel on Thursday, Lavie said that ahead of her new attempt to pass the proposal Wednesday she asked former Religious Affairs deputy minister Eli Ben-Dahan (Jewish Home) for an appropriate figure. According to Lavie, he named NIS 500,000 (about $130,000) — an obviously disproportionate sum.

Yesh Atid Knesset member Aliza Lavie (Facebook)
Yesh Atid Knesset member Aliza Lavie (Facebook)

Lavie wrote the law amendment alongside the Itim and Mavoi Satum groups, which both aid individuals in navigating the Israeli religious establishment.

“It is sad that petty party politics prevents justice from being served. The Knesset has sponsored anti-religious legislation,” said Seth Farber, the head of Itim.

Although the prohibition on marriages performed outside of the rabbinate stems from Ottoman law, the criminalization of the act was only introduced two years ago as a last-minute addition to the Tzohar Law. The contentious Tzohar Law, which came into effect in January 2014, allows couples to choose in which town’s rabbinate to register for marriage — essentially creating a competitive market and a means to avoid stringent religious bureaucracy.

But some couples are creating an even wider market in that they completely bypass the state religious establishment entirely and, rather than leaving the country to be married abroad, conduct their own private religious weddings in Israel. There is a growing number of Modern Orthodox Jews who are finding rabbis within their communities willing to perform halachic ceremonies according to Jewish law — with the understanding that the couples will sign prenuptial agreements and obtain the proper religious writ of divorce, or get, if they decide to separate in the future.

A spokesman for religious and state watchdog Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality said the NGO has not tracked numbers, but it estimates some 2-3% of the Israeli population fall into this category. Likewise, according to head of Hiddush Rabbi Uri Regev, “All the polling consistently show that two-thirds of the Israeli public supports marriage freedom and supports doing away with the state empowered Orthodox monopoly.”

In a 2013 global freedom of marriage project, Hiddush ranked Israel on a par with Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the fundamentalist Islamic states. It was the only Western democracy in the world to receive this ranking, due to its restrictions on marriage.

Rabbi Chuck Davidson is one of a handful of Orthodox clergy publicly performing unsanctioned halachic marriages. (courtesy)
Rabbi Chuck Davidson is one of a handful of Orthodox clergy publicly performing unsanctioned halachic marriages. (courtesy)

Rabbi Chuck Davidson is an Orthodox rabbi who on a weekly basis performs these “illegal” weddings, which are conducted according to Jewish law. Davidson said most of his couples are secular and told The Times of Israel on Thursday that this grassroots effort is likely the only way to make a real change in Israeli society.

Davidson said he is unsurprised that Lavie’s law did not pass on Wednesday.

“It’s another failed attempt to fix issues of religion and state through the Knesset and/or the Supreme Court. The only way to resolve these conundrums is through grassroots efforts and mass civil disobedience,” said Davidson. “The entire rabbinic establishment is paralyzed.”

What is ironic is that those who attempt to circumvent the establishment by marrying through other means may find themselves embroiled in even more complicated religious bureaucracy if they one day separate from their spouses.

According to a recent Hiddush survey, 64% of Israeli Jews are unaware that the thousands of Jewish couples who marry in civil ceremonies overseas are still required by Israeli law to get divorced through the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinical Courts.

‘The entire rabbinic establishment is paralyzed’

“This tremendous level of ignorance may explain in part why the battle for marriage/divorce freedom, supported by the majority of Israeli Jews, has not taken up a more assertive mode. Clearly it helps Israeli politicians, from both right and left, forming Israel’s government coalitions, to sell off the public’s core civil rights of marriage and divorce freedom to the ultra-Orthodox political parties,” said Regev.

Indeed, according to Lavie, several MKs approached her prior to Wednesday’s vote to express their personal support. However, when it came time to push the button, they were forced to vote according to faction discipline — against her bill.

For many freedom of religion activists, today’s political reality approaches the absurd.

“If getting married halachically was made into a criminal act in any other country, we would fight it as anti-Semitism. But here in Israel, where absolute power has absolutely corrupted, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of young couples are forced to break the law in order to practice Judaism,” said Itim’s Farber.

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