When reality TV meets the reality of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate

Israel’s ‘Married at First Sight’ features its first same-sex couple, dating show ‘New Love’ includes a woman whose mother isn’t Jewish; all are unable to wed in the Jewish state

Amy Spiro

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Guy (left) and Matan, the first gay couple to appear on Israel's 'Married at First Sight' reality show. (Denis Butnaru/Keshet)
Guy (left) and Matan, the first gay couple to appear on Israel's 'Married at First Sight' reality show. (Denis Butnaru/Keshet)

Two men got married on nationwide primetime TV in Israel on Saturday night.

The wedding wasn’t legally binding, but not only because gay marriage is not legal in the State of Israel. The ceremony of Guy and Matan was part of the popular Israeli version of the reality TV show “Married at First Sight,” where couples who are strangers to one another agree to wed on television.

While the weddings on the US version – and some but not all of the adaptations in other countries – are legally binding, Israel’s Keshet broadcaster from the beginning opted for a commitment ceremony instead. Understandably so, since there is no civil marriage in Israel, but only religious nuptials sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate – and obtaining a legal divorce comes with a host of concerns.

When the show first premiered in Israel in 2017, the Rabbinate scorned it as a “desecration of the sanctity of the supreme value of family life and marriage.” So while each couple kicks off their journey with a nominal “wedding” and the ceremony includes a rabbinic-like figure, a blessing over wine, stepping on a glass and reciting “If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem” – there is no handing over of a ring.

The primetime appearance of a gay couple on Israeli TV – on one of the most-watched shows in the country – was hailed by many as a step toward mainstream acceptance. But it also encapsulates a stark duality in Israeli culture.

In the US – where gay marriage has been legal nationwide since 2015 and in some states for a decade before that – “Married at First Sight” has never featured a gay couple over 14 seasons. In the UK – where gay marriage was legalized in 2014 – only last year did the show, in its sixth season, include a same-sex couple. The Australian version of the show, meanwhile, featured a gay couple several years before same-sex weddings were legalized in the country.

Gay couples take part in a mass same-sex wedding in Tel Aviv, June 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Israel, it seems, is both ahead of and behind the curve. The same week that national TV showed the homosexual couple getting hitched, a gay pride parade in Netivot was canceled after threats. While Doritos was subject to boycott calls after it featured a same-sex couple in an ad, openly gay TV personality Assi Azar hosts what seems like every reality show in Israel, and regularly appears together with his husband, Albert, in TV commercials.

Tel Aviv hosts a raucous and popular gay pride parade each year, but the Jerusalem march is more an expression of defiance than a celebration. Gay figures are prominent in Israeli culture and politics, but gay couples are unable to legally wed in the State of Israel, or even enter into a civil union. (Like other couples who cannot wed through the rabbinate, gay couples can wed abroad and then register their unions with the state).

While polls offer differing results on the Israeli public’s position on gay rights, most indicate that a majority backs weddings or civil unions for same-sex couples.

In the episode of “Married at First Sight” that aired Saturday evening, there was not all that much focus on the contestants’ sexual orientation. In fact, significantly more airtime was devoted – just a few episodes earlier – to the inclusion on the show of a woman who was a jaw-dropping size 44, also known as the average Israeli woman (but that’s for another column).

“Married at First Sight” isn’t the only Israeli dating show raising issues that butt against the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and divorce in Israel. “New Love,” currently airing on Reshet, has recently showcased other concerns about marriage equality in the Jewish state.

One of the four women featured on “New Love” is Elle, an immigrant from France whose father is Jewish but whose mother is not. Elle is one of approximately 450,000 Israelis who officially have “no religion” – mostly those who were granted citizenship under the Law of Return because of their Jewish ancestry, but who are not considered Jewish by the rabbinate. That figure is likely growing with the influx of Ukrainian refugees eligible for citizenship. All of those citizens, close to five percent of the population, are unable to marry at all within Israel.

Elle Adida, a French immigrant to Israel and participant on the dating show ‘New Love.’ (Screenshot/Reshet 13)

On the show, Elle described being made fun of at school in France for being Jewish, before moving to Israel and being made to feel, once again, that she does not quite belong.

“I have a strong belief in God… I really feel in my heart I am Jewish,” Elle said. “I love this religion… and I came to this country because I felt like it was my country.”

While Elle suggested that “maybe one day I will convert,” she noted that her religious status is “the elephant in the room, you can’t ignore it.” And when she was matched up with Matan, an Israeli from a traditional background, the issue of religion quickly rose to the forefront.

“As much as I want to ignore the Judaism issue, it’s a really, really important part for me,” said Matan, explaining his decision to ultimately leave the show, and Elle, over the issue. “It’s important that my partner be Jewish, because I’m Jewish and also because I want my children to be Jewish.”

The question of why the producers of the show would even consider matching up Elle with a man who dons tefillin each morning and keeps kosher is a valid one, and the unfortunate answer, of course, seems to be ratings.

Even on a show with no connection to dating – Reshet’s “The Next Restaurant,” which aired earlier this year – struggles with marriage and divorce in the rabbinate made an appearance. One of the contestants, Netta, revealed that for more than a year her now-ex-husband refused to grant her a get, a religious writ of divorce, leaving her chained in both Jewish law and the eyes of the state.

The question of the authenticity of so-called reality TV can be debated endlessly, and there’s no denying that much of it is scripted, heavily edited and far from “real.” Still, there’s no argument that utilizing the platform in this way – even if the ultimate goal is ratings – showcases and humanizes the Israelis who continue to strive against the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage.

Keshet likely wouldn’t have taken a gamble on including a same-sex couple on “Married at First Sight” if it thought enough people would boycott the show. The legal status quo in the country — though it shows no sign of changing anytime soon — appears out of step not just with the latest contestants on these dating shows, but also with most of their viewers.

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