Knesset passes ‘revolutionary’ marriage registration reform

Ultra-Orthodox MKs fail to block ‘Tzohar law,’ which will allow Israeli couples to choose which rabbi registers their wedding

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Illustrative photo of a couple posing before their wedding, March 2012. (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a couple posing before their wedding, March 2012. (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

In a show of force, the coalition on Monday pushed through a major reform in marriage registration that could weaken the influence of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic establishment on the personal status of many Israelis.

The so-called Tzohar law, named for an organization of Orthodox rabbis that seeks to streamline and improve rabbinic services, will allow Israeli Jews to register their marriage outside the city or town in which they live, and choose their rabbi or marriage registrar.

Many Israelis experience as unpleasant the marriage registration process, during which stringent Orthodox rabbis often require that they produce extensive documentation proving their union is not proscribed under Jewish law. Such unions include a marriage between a Jew and non-Jew, and between a kohen (or member of the priestly caste) and a divorcee.

The bill, which passed in the Knesset by an overwhelming majority, 56-13, Monday evening, will allow Israelis to marry in any rabbinic jurisdiction they desire, enabling them to select towns whose rabbis are more lenient or inclusive than their ultra-Orthodox counterparts.

“The revolution in religious services has begun!” Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home party), who also serves as religious affairs minister, proclaimed in a statement moments after the bill passed into law.

“As with competition in any other field, the ‘captive’ consumer public will be freed,” Bennett said. “Competition will bring improved service, as any marriage registrar who does not become more efficient and provide the best and most welcoming service won’t remain in the rabbinic ‘market.'”

The bill also establishes a new computerized database for marriage registration and conversion, to enable rabbinic registrars in all 60 Israeli registration offices to keep track of applicants.

By allowing Israelis to register in any rabbinic jurisdiction they wish, the law will “break the monopoly of the rabbis,” a Knesset official familiar with the bill told The Times of Israel.

The Tzohar organization itself praised the bill’s passage.

“Implementation of the law will end the suffering of many converts who were converted by the Chief Rabbinate but are not recognized as Jewish by some municipal rabbis,” read a statement from the organization.

“The competition between marriage registrars will bring greater efficiency to the system, and to the ‘battle’ over young couples,” said Tzohar’s chairman, Rabbi David Stav. “This is healthy competition that will change the treatment of those getting married in the State of Israel, and will lead to fewer Israelis opting to marry overseas.”

But some Israeli supporters of marriage liberalization remained skeptical despite the passage of the law.

“The law won’t help more than 300,000 immigrants who are defined [under Israeli law] as ‘without religion.’ It also won’t help Reform and Conservative converts who are recognized as Jews by the state, but not by the rabbinate,” noted Rabbi Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi and director of Hiddush, a group advocating an end to the Orthodox monopoly in Israel’s state rabbinate.

The law “is a positive development,” Regev conceded in a statement Monday night, but insisted “its benefit will be limited… in the face of the real disease: the Orthodox monopoly on marriage and divorce in Israel. The path to solving the problem is the establishment of marriage freedom, including civil marriage, and Reform and Conservative marriage.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, one of the proponents of the bill in the last Knesset, praised its passage. “There’s no doubt this is a real change, long overdue, in the rabbinic establishment and in marriage services, [which will be] halachic and welcoming, for the secular and traditional populations,” he said. “I belief it’s only the beginning of a revolution that the Jewish people desperately needs.”

While activists argued that the law did not go far enough, Haredi parties argued bitterly against its passage in the plenum debate Monday evening.

MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) warned “there will be tragedies” if municipal rabbis marry couples “they don’t know.”

Gafni argued that marriage registrars who don’t know the couples being married might accidentally allow a marriage forbidden under Jewish law.

“Nowhere else in government do you allow people to go to any office in any part of the country,” Gafni charged. “This is about reform? You’re religious?” he said, turning to members of the Jewish Home party. “You’re an embarrassment to religion.”

MK Uri Makleb (Shas) charged that one of the bill’s key proponents, Knesset Law Committee Chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu) was “trying to hide behind [the pretense at reforming] the registration procedure. It’s not what this law is about. Marriage registration is the easiest process of all. There are 60 marriage registration offices in Israel. There’s no problem of accessibility to marriage registrars.”

Instead, Makleb charged, “the law is meant to weaken the position of rabbis and marriage registrars, to harm our ability to verify marriage eligibility, to hurt Judaism. The real victims will be people who don’t know, who trust you that they’re marrying according to the Law of Moses and Israel, and can’t depend on you that they’re married [according to Jewish law].”

For all their arguments — which included three rounds of three speeches that delayed the vote by about an hour — the Haredi MKs faced a skeptical Knesset.

One MK who supports the measure noted that the Haredi complaint amounted to a charge that some official state rabbis and marriage registrars were not qualified to marry Israeli Jews. “Then fire them,” he said. “If state rabbis aren’t qualified to do their jobs, fire them.”

In May, Bennett recalled that when he had registered to wed in 1999, “the rabbi who received us attempted to convince us to vote for a particular party.” Today, he said, he wants to make religious services more accessible and thereby help the general public view Judaism more positively.

“There can be no competition in Judaism,” Bennett said. “But there can be competition for religious services, and we are making history.”

The law was supported by nearly all coalition parliamentarians — the exceptions are a handful of members of Jewish Home belonging to the Tekuma party — and many left-wing opposition MKs.

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