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Rabbinate opposes marriage liberalization plan, but to no avail

Deputy religious affairs minister ‘saddened’ that state’s highest rabbinic body opposes new scheme that is set to become law

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

A meeting of the Chief Rabbinate Council in August (photo credit: via Facebook)
A meeting of the Chief Rabbinate Council in August (photo credit: via Facebook)

For many Israelis, the municipal rabbinate, where they must marry and divorce, is one of the least palatable of Israelis institutions.

The rabbinic offices in many regional councils and municipalities are run by rabbis who usually share little in common religiously with residents of their towns. They are appointed by a central bureaucracy headquartered in Jerusalem, and face no meaningful oversight by the very residents over whose marriages and religious services they are in charge.

Some groups, including immigrants and converts, have been especially vulnerable to certain local rabbis’ restrictive interpretation of Jewish law or distrust of other rabbinic authorities.

In an effort to change that reality, and to institute a buyer’s market for religious services that would pressure municipal rabbis to be more responsive to the needs of residents, several Knesset and governmental initiatives are looking to remove the restriction that forces Israelis to register their marriage only in their own local rabbinic office. Some local rabbis, such a Shoham’s Rabbi David Stav, are more accepting of Orthodox conversions done abroad or in the IDF, for example, and are known for their efforts to make the rabbinate more user-friendly and responsive to residents.

But at a closed-door meeting this week, the Chief Rabbinate Council, the highest governing body of the state rabbinate, rejected a government plan to create a national marriage registration system that will allow Jewish Israelis to turn to any municipal rabbi anywhere in the country to register their marriage.

“The marriage registration system must accommodate the demands of halacha [Jewish law] when it comes to issues that arise [from the reform], together with offering maximum consideration for access to [marriage] licenses for marrying couples,” the council said in a statement after the meeting.

The council’s decision will not stop the plan, which has the support of Deputy Minister for Religious Affairs Eli Ben Dahan (Jewish Home) and can legally be implemented with a simple order from the Religious Affairs Ministry’s director-general’s office.

The plan also has widespread support across the political spectrum in the Knesset, including from Jewish Home, Labor, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu MKs, and particularly MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu), the powerful chair of the Knesset Law Committee.

Eli Ben Dahan in 2010 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Eli Ben Dahan in 2010 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

A bill expected to become law in the coming Knesset session, which begins in October, would make the proposed national registration system the law of the land, preventing future governments from easily canceling the plan.

“This morning, I presented to the Chief Rabbinate Council a computerized system that would enable opening up [marriage] registration as part of a revolution in religious services,” Ben Dahan (Jewish Home) wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday.

Unfortunately, he added, the council took the “sad” decision “to come out against the opening up of marriage registration areas.”

“I’m saddened that the Chief Rabbinate decided to oppose a step the Israeli public needs and wants,” Ben Dahan wrote. “The decision even goes against the support the previous chief rabbis gave [to the measure] on the condition that we implement the very computer system I presented [on Wednesday].”

The system, Ben Dahan concluded, “would help the rabbis, both in terms of Jewish law and in terms of their ability to check information” about a couple applying for a marriage license.

According to sources familiar with the Wednesday meeting, some members of the Chief Rabbinate Council, an opaque body that includes the two serving chief rabbis and several other prominent, mostly haredi rabbis, insisted the new computer system faced resistance from local rabbis.

Ben Dahan discounted the claim, noting that many local rabbis were brought in to the Religious Affairs Ministry to give comments on the computer system in recent months as it was being developed.

The computer program will launch as a controlled pilot on Sunday, and is expected to be deployed nationwide within weeks, a ministry official told The Times of Israel Thursday.

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