Vote against alternative Jewish weddings roils Diaspora

A two-year sentence for those performing or participating in illegal ceremonies is upheld in a committee vote

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Rabbi Seth Farber, right, officiating at a wedding (photo - courtesy)
Rabbi Seth Farber, right, officiating at a wedding (photo - courtesy)

Before entering politics, Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid famously performed dozens of alternative secular wedding ceremonies outside the auspices of the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate, the only official Israeli body authorized to sanction and register Jewish marriages.

In a 2005 Ynet article, Lapid said, “On a basic level, there is no real need for a rabbi or anything else in a Jewish wedding. According to Jewish law, it can be held with two witnesses. You need to put a ring on the fingers, and the couple blesses one another. You just need someone to oversee the ceremony.”

It is therefore unsurprising that a proposed — and on Sunday, rejected — amendment to a year-old law allowing for the imprisonment of individuals who perform these “illegal weddings” was put forth through Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, also a former journalist and a noted activist on feminist issues.

On the grounds of freedom of religion and privacy, Lavie proposed rescinding the law, which states, “Whoever neglects to register his marriage or a marriage he performed for others is subject to a two-year jail sentence.”

“We’ve gone crazy! We should be dealing with the trend using other methods, not Dark Ages sanctions,” said Lavie on Sunday after her proposal was voted down in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

Dr. Aliza Lavie (photo credit: courtesy)
Aliza Lavie (photo credit: courtesy)

The law was a last-minute addition to the Tzohar Law, which came into effect in January 2014. The contentious law makes marriage registration a competitive market in which couples can choose where to marry. In a country where some city rabbinates are considered potentially more stringent, this bill is of vast importance for immigrants who may have difficulty proving their Jewish lineage.

Interestingly, there is a growing trend among Modern Orthodox but egalitarian Israelis to marry outside the rabbinate as a form of civil disobedience.

Alongside Lavie, also requesting the law’s rescinding on Sunday were two Israeli organizations, Itim, which helps immigrants navigate Israeli rabbinical bureaucracy, and Mevoi Satum, which works to protect agunot, the Jewish category of “anchored women” whose husbands will not grant them a religious divorce.

In a passionate op-ed for The Times of Israel, Itim head Rabbi Seth Farber wrote, “I wonder how we got to a situation where we need to punish people for getting married with a chuppah. I’m not sure if there is another country in the world besides Israel that would put me in jail for performing a marriage ceremony without getting it approved first.”

The need for civil or alternative religious marriages in Israel is a hot topic among American Jews and a central issue for pro-Israel activism and lobbying.

Various estimates state there are already some 7,000 such alternative Israeli weddings a year. And there is widespread support for them.

Hiddush, an organization that fights for religious freedom and equality, conducted a 2014 poll that found 66 percent of Israeli Jews and 74% of non-Haredi Israeli Jews support recognition of civil marriage and non-Orthodox marriages. Additionally, more than 67% of Israeli Jews support joint efforts between Israel and world Jewry for freedom of marriage in Israel.

World Jewry is listening. Haaretz reported last week that the year-old Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (J-REC) met “to begin planning a strategy with the goal of bringing pressure to bear on Israeli officials so that in time, the Chief Rabbinate will no longer have sole control over matters of personal status, like marriage, divorce and conversion.”

J-REC joins the Jewish Federations of North America’s newly launched Israel Religious Expressions Platform (iRep) in bringing together a broad swath of cross-denominational organizations.

According to Hiddush, “supporting efforts for freedom of religion in Israel is one of the most pro-Israel activities that world Jewry can take part in.”

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