On Monday, Oct.
28, the Knesset passed a piece of important and groundbreaking legislation
permitting couples, soon to be married, to register for marriage with the
Rabbinate of any municipality of their choosing in Israel.
What might at
first seem like a trivial change in the law is actually an important move that
mitigates the Haredi control of the Rabbinic establishment. Heretofore, couples
seeking to get married could register only with the Rabbinate of the town or
municipality in which they lived. That meant that in too many cases they
had access only to a Haredi-controlled marriage registration process. This
new legislation makes it possible for couples getting married to identify
rabbis in towns other than those in which they live who are not Haredim and who
will be more responsive to the specific needs of their situation.
The law is
called “The Tzohar Law” after the Modern Orthodox Rabbinic organization
Tzohar, which for years has advocated for better Rabbinic services for all and
a more compassionate and embracing Rabbinic establishment that would attract
people to Judaism rather than alienate them.
Until now, Israelis
registering for marriage were tied to the local Rabbinate, which in too many
cases exploited that dependence either through Rabbis who wielded undue
influence over newlywed couples or through strict constructionist Rabbis who
refused to register or wed couples whose Jewishness they questioned, such as
those who have gone through the army’s Giur, or conversion program. Among
those who suffered most were immigrants or children of immigrants from the
former Soviet Union. Often they had to endure obstacles on the way to
marriage because of missing documentation attesting to their Jewishness. In
many cases, although conversion was authorized by the Chief Rabbinate, a local
rabbi could refuse to marry a couple if he did not approve of the
conversion. The new legislation enables couples to register with the
Rabbinate of their choice. It is expected that they will seek out the
Modern Orthodox Rabbinates and Rabbis.
The law passed
its third reading in the Knesset by a vast majority of 57 to 14. It will
allow all Israelis to marry in whichever rabbinic jurisdiction they choose. It
is expected that this new law will foster something akin to competition among
the Rabbinates for the hearts and minds of their “clients,” thus making religious
services somewhat more accessible and helpful.
part of the new law is the creation of a nation-wide database of conversions
and marriage registration, enabling streamlined service at the Rabbinates as
they access information before issuing a marriage license. It is believed that
better religious services and a streamlined computer system for the local
Rabbinates will lower the number of young Israelis opting to get married abroad
(usually in Cyprus). These so-called Cyprus weddings are civil and recognized
by Israeli authorities, and serve to bypass the often rigid rabbinic system.
quoted Rabbi Uri Regev, a Reform Rabbi and director of Hiddush, a group
advocating an end to the Orthodox Rabbinic monopoly in Israel’s state
Rabbinate, as saying that “The law won’t help more than the 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.”
On the other
side of the aisle, the ultra-orthodox parties were vehemently opposed to this
law, saying that it will force rabbis to marry out-of-town couples whom they do
not know and may make them wed couples who are not Halachically Jewish or may
not get married according to the Halacha.
The passage of
this law is indebted to the recent elections for the Chief Rabbinate, strange
as that may sound. The election of two Haredi and Haredi-controlled
rabbis, the son of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the son of Rabbi Yisrael
Meir Lau, was the occasion for much upset and disappointment. The modern
Orthodox Zionist candidate, Rabbi Stav, was defeated. The Chief Rabbinate
remains in the control of the Haredim.
However, at the
time, astute political observers made an interesting observation. The very
fact that the Chief Rabbinate remained in Haredi control could serve to
energize many different segments of Israeli society that have a common interest
in limiting Haredi control. These segments, including the Modern Orthodox
and the secular and the Conservative and the Reform, all want to see a
limitation in the power of the Haredi controlled Chief Rabbinate. This
marriage reform law is the result of that. Or, to put it another way as
Lenin said, “Sometimes things can’t get better until they get worse.” The
realization that the Chief Rabbinate continued to be controlled by the Haredim
has created a situation in which more and more thinking is being given as to
how to limit its power in the context of the Israeli political system.
Ofer Bavly is the
director general of the JUF Israel office.
Written in collaboration
with Rabbi Yehiel Poupko.