Orthodox couple appeals to High Court after Rabbinate puts them in marital limbo

Noam Oren and his wife married in a religious ceremony, but authorities refuse to recognize it due to their insistence on protecting each other from potential divorce refusal

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Noam Oren (L) and his wife on their wedding day on August 16, 2016. (Yarin Taranos/courtesy)
Noam Oren (L) and his wife on their wedding day on August 16, 2016. (Yarin Taranos/courtesy)

An Israeli couple who got married in an Orthodox Jewish wedding but without involving the country’s Chief Rabbinate appealed to the High Court of Justice on Monday, after the Rabbinate refused to list the couple as married but also prohibited them from marrying anyone else, effectively putting them in limbo.

It is the first time a controversial legal article will be tested in Israel’s top court. Passed several years ago, the amendment to the law bans alternative, “private” weddings and designates a possible punishment of up to two years in prison for couples who marry in such ceremonies and for rabbis who perform them.

Noam Oren, 24, married his wife, who preferred not to publish her name, in 2016. Both are religious Orthodox Jews.

They didn’t marry, however, through the Chief Rabbinate, which is enshrined by Israeli law as the sole body responsible for registering Jewish marriage status in the country.

They had their wedding organized, instead, by Mavoi Satum, an NGO which aids women who are refused a divorce by their husbands and also runs a program for alternative religious weddings, without the Rabbinate being involved.

Oren said the reason he chose an alternative marriage was that the Rabbinate refuses to conduct weddings that include a provision that would retroactively annul the marriage ceremony in the event one of the partners refuses to grant or accept a divorce, thus avoiding the problematic scenario which can prevent women from being able to remarry for many years.

Noam Oren’s wedding August 16, 2016. (Yarin Taranos/courtesy)

“As an Orthodox Jew, Judaism is important to me,” he told The Times Of Israel on Thursday. “Today, the Rabbinate is causing Israeli citizens to loathe Judaism due to its aggressive, strict policy that doesn’t enable people to have a chuppah [Jewish wedding ceremony] in which all steps are taken to prevent the opportunity of the woman getting harmed if the relationship dissolves.”

Oren added that as an ideological liberal, “I believe the state’s involvement in religious life should be as minimal as possible, since that is in the citizens’ private realm. Any harm done in that sphere is a serious and unjustified violation of their freedom.”

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 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 claiming 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 limbo was to perform a second wedding ceremony, without the divorce provision and traditional blessings, by a rabbi recognized by the religious authority.

The building of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in Jerualem. (Flash90)
The building of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in Jerusalem. (Flash90)

The couple refused due to the demand that the divorce provision be taken out.

On Monday, the couple took the matter to Israel’s top court. Together with Mavoi Satum, they appealed to the High Court of Justice against the Rabbinate’s religious courts and against the Interior Ministry for refusing to list the Orens as married.

The appeal also demands that the legal amendment criminalizing alternative marriages and setting a punishment of up to two years in jail be annulled, since it is “blatantly unconstitutional, disproportionate and harms the liberty and dignity of Israeli citizens.”

Rabbi Michael Avraham said on Thursday that he had discussed the matter with lawyers and discovered that the language of the amendment which is designed to ban alternative marriages doesn’t actually say that, and that it in fact only requires couples who marry outside the Rabbinate to register as a married couple afterward, which the couple did.

Lawyer Batya Kahana-Dror is head of Mavoi Satum, an organization that largely deals with agunot — women whose husbands refuse to give them a get. (courtesy)

“But of course they didn’t accept it, so I obviously support the appeal to the High Court,” he said.

Speaking with The Times of Israel on Thursday, Avraham accused the Chief Rabbinate of pushing thousands of couples to marry without being able to register their marriage anywhere, thereby creating a “big problem” since nobody can know their marital status with certainty.

Avraham slammed the Rabbinate, saying that “instead of creating order in marriage in Israel, it is creating chaos.” The Rabbinate should be shuttered, he contended, because “it is a harmful organization. I support any motion that could cause damage to it.”

Batya Kahana-Dror, the couple’s attorney and director of Mavoi Satum, said in a statement that the appeal “is relevant to hundreds of thousands of citizens prohibited from marrying, in Israel or at all.”

It also has a direct impact on “all those seeking to protect themselves from situations of divorce refusal by getting married with a prenuptial agreement, with the current system not only preventing that — but even hurting couples attempting it,” she said.

“This appeal is part of a civil revolution in the field of marriage,” Kahana-Dror concluded. “I hope the High Court will recognize the basic right of every citizen to marry in freedom and with safeguards.”

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