A growing number of Jewish couples are choosing to wed in Israel outside the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate, knowing full well that their marriages will not be recognized by the state, according to a soon-to-be-published study obtained by Haaretz.

The study, conducted by Panim – the Israeli Judaism Network, found that at least 2,434 Jewish marriage ceremonies were held in Israel outside the Rabbinate’s authority in 2017 – up 8 percent from the previous year. 

Panim is an association of dozens of Israeli nonprofits dedicated to promoting Jewish pluralism in the country. Its study represents the first attempt to quantify the scope of this phenomenon.

The estimate was based on dozens of interviews with organizations active in promoting marriage outside the Rabbinate, as well as with many wedding officiants. 

No official figure exists for the number of marriages performed in Israel outside the Rabbinate, because couples who wed in such ceremonies cannot register as married with the Population Registry at the Interior Ministry. Couples who wed in civil ceremonies abroad, however, are allowed to register as married upon their return.

The report notes that Israel is the only country in the Western world that does not permit civil marriage.

The ceremonies in question were conducted by Conservative, Reform and, in some cases, even Orthodox rabbis, as well as by nonaffiliated wedding officiants. The couples married in these ceremonies did not register with the Rabbinate or hold their ceremonies with one of its certified representatives, as is required. 

The findings provide further evidence of the growing contempt in Israel toward the Rabbinate and the power it wields, even within Orthodox circles.

Many Israeli couples also circumvent the Rabbinate by marrying in civil ceremonies abroad and then registering themselves as married upon their return to the country. This trend is even more widespread and dates back even further. 

Many couples who wed unofficially in Israel later hold a civil ceremony abroad so that they can then register as married in the country.

The study found that most Israelis who opted for these private ceremonies were eligible to wed under the auspices of the Rabbinate – i.e., there was no question about their Jewishness – but chose not to.

The Panim study was commissioned by the Israel Religious Expression Platform (iREP), an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America aimed at strengthening religious pluralism in Israel. The study was led by Hagit Hacohen Wolf, director of the Sapir Center for Jewish Education and Culture.

Israeli couples who want to avoid the Rabbinate are increasingly opting to hold their ceremonies in Israel rather than overseas, according to Panim CEO Michal Berman. “They want to have their families present and save the money involved in traveling abroad for the ceremony,” she said.

Another advantage of holding a private ceremony in Israel is that if the couple does not follow up with a ceremony abroad in order to register as married in Israel, in the event of divorce they can avoid the Rabbinate. By contrast, Israeli couples who wed abroad in civil ceremonies and then register as married upon their return – as many do – are required to go through the Rabbinate if they get divorced.

The Rabbinate controls all matters of marriage and divorce among Jews in Israel. 

Jewish couples are required to register at the Rabbinate’s offices before marrying and, in many cases, are required to provide proof that they are Jewish according to halakha (Jewish religious law) during this registration process. (According to halakha, a Jew is someone born to a Jewish mother or converted by an Orthodox rabbinical court approved by the Rabbinate.)

An estimated 400,000 Israelis – mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their offspring – cannot marry in the country because they don’t qualify as Jewish based on the Rabbinate definition.

“The State of Israel has created an absurd situation in which the basic right to marry is withheld from hundreds of thousands of its citizens,” said Berman. “While the Rabbinate engages in tiny cosmetic adjustments, Israelis are voting with their feet and choosing to hold their own egalitarian and dignified Jewish weddings.” 

A key phenomenon highlighted in the study is the growing number of Orthodox rabbis officiating at weddings not sanctioned by the Rabbinate.

Officiating at such ceremonies is against the law for Orthodox rabbis and they could face two years in jail if convicted. To date, though, no Orthodox rabbis have been charged or convicted for officiating at such weddings.

The findings show that 150 such weddings were performed in Israel last year, by 14 Orthodox rabbis. 

According to the study, most couples holding private wedding ceremonies in Israel – 55 percent – are secular Jews opposed to the institution of the Rabbinate and what it represents. Their share in the total number is growing: According to the findings, these Israelis live mainly in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, where a corresponding drop has been registered in recent years in the number of couples registering to marry at local offices of the Rabbinate.

One-third of these couples are Russian speakers who cannot marry in the country because they are not considered halakhically Jewish. Some 8 percent are gay couples, who also cannot marry in Israel, while 4 percent are individuals who appear on a blacklist of “unmarriageables” kept by the Rabbinate. This list refers to individuals who are recognized as Jewish by the Population Registry but who are prohibited from marrying in Israel for various reasons. These include mamzerim (the offspring of relationships forbidden by Jewish law), individuals suspected of still being married and divorced couples who have resumed living together. 

In the past, the study notes, most secular Israeli couples marrying outside the Rabbinate were driven by “ideological passion” and wanted to make a political statement. In recent years, though, these couples tend to view their decision more as a reflection of personal style and values.

The study found that even among secular Israelis, most of the ceremonies include classic Jewish wedding rituals such as the traditional blessings and the breaking of a glass at the end. They tend to be far more egalitarian, however, than their Orthodox counterparts. 

Russian speakers who marry outside the Rabbinate, the study found, show a preference for Orthodox-style ceremonies – going so far as to request that the officiating rabbi have a beard. 

“It seems that the main reason for this is their perception of the wedding ceremony as ratification of their Jewishness and their (status as) equal citizens in the state and society,” the study notes.

Among gay couples, the number choosing to hold private ceremonies in Israel has remained steady in recent years, the study notes. Most Israeli gay couples prefer to marry abroad or to hold small, intimate ceremonies in Israel that, in most cases, do not find their way into the data.

The number of weddings performed outside of the Rabbinate in Israel is probably much higher than the estimate provided in the study, its authors believe, because it was impossible for them to include every single ceremony in their tally. 

“The research provides a database and a comparative benchmark for future studies,” said Jotam Brom, the lead author. “But it is important to note that there are dozens of wedding officiants active in Israel who were not included in the study. Moreover, an unknown number of couples choose to marry without a professional officiant, and we did not try to reach out to them through this study,” he added.

The study notes that the increase in the number of Israeli couples boycotting the Rabbinate has been accompanied by a corresponding drop in the number of marriages registered through it. 

According to figures from the Religious Services Ministry that are cited in the report, 36,205 Jewish couples married in Israel in 2017 through the Rabbinate – a drop of 4 percent from the previous year.