The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court
The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court Photo by Moti Milrod
Text size
Yuval Tebol
Ethiopians have it worst when it comes to trying to get married in Israel. Photo by Yuval Tebol

In his bureaucratic language, the state comptroller describes the institution of Jewish marriage in Israel as a culture of nepotism lacking any policy or work methodology. He also notes the state is deficient in service, particularly when it comes to people who don’t have connections. But even among the common folk who want to be married under Jewish law, there’s a hierarchy: Immigrants and converts come up against particular difficulties. The ones who have the worst time of all are people of Ethiopian origin.

The state comptroller examined various aspects of Jewish marriage in Israel, an action done here by 37,000 couples per year on average. The official agencies involved are the religious councils, the Chief Rabbinate, the Religious Services Ministry and the rabbinical courts. He looked at the registration process and the level of service to citizens; the appointment of marriage registrars and bridal teachers; the policy of rabbis who, when they conduct weddings, ask illegally for payment from the couple; the registration of Ethiopian couples for marriage; the clarification of Jewish status for the purpose of marriage; and the management of the list of people who may not marry in a Jewish ceremony.

The most widespread phenomenon regarding marriage registrations is that many of the 130 councils in Israel make their own rules, violating existing instructions of the Religious Services Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate. For example, according to the procedures, when a convert to Judaism wishes to marry, the marriage registrar needs only a conversion certificate. In practice, the religious councils place additional obstacles before converts. In a questionnaire circulated among religious councils, nine responded that they were unwilling to register converts for marriage even if the converts showed a conversion certificate as required. Another nine councils answered that they did not follow the procedure — for example, when they referred the candidate to a different rabbinate. On the other hand, in some cases the lack of policy can work in favor of the spouse-to-be — for example, the de facto recognition of private marriage registrars.

The earliest date one can register to marry is 90 days before the wedding. When one of the spouses is an immigrant, his or her Jewish status must be clarified first before a rabbinical court. The comptroller found that the length of time from the moment the marriage file is opened to the final approval often can be more than 90 days. The average length of time it takes to get the rabbinical court’s consent is 41 days, but the record is 571 days. On average, the time it takes for a clarification of Jewish status to come back with a negative or other answer is 134 days.

Members of the Ethiopian community are treated the worst, according to the report. For example, explanatory material in Amharic exists in only one religious council in Israel, in Jerusalem. Worse still, the state comptroller found that “several times over the past decade, some of the religious councils have not followed the explicit instructions published by the Chief Rabbinate and the [Religious Services Ministry], which are to register members of the Ethiopian community in the region where they live.”

The religious councils of cities such as Ramle and Petah Tikva send the young couples to the office of the chief rabbi of Ethiopian Jews or to councils in other areas in the country that are known to accept them. “This behavior offends human dignity, perpetuates discrimination and violates the principle of equality, which is one of the fundamentals of Israeli law and requires that registration for marriage be done in an equal manner for every Jew,” the state comptroller writes.

As for the chief rabbi for Ethiopian Jews, the state comptroller found severe irregularities there, such as charging marriage fees for couples who came to register with him between 2006 and 2008 — money that then disappeared. The rabbi explained that the money was spent on his office. It was also found that “in 2008 and 2009, the rabbi held several dozen wedding ceremonies for couples from the Ethiopian community in his office in exchange for an additional fee of NIS 300. No receipts for this payment were found in the aforesaid couples’ files.”

As part of the wedding preparations, brides must take classes. Some of the religious councils violate the Chief Rabbinate’s guidelines, which state that brides “who come to register for marriage must not be forced to take classes that go beyond the basic guidance required to prepare the bride for a proper Jewish wedding ceremony.” Only 32 religious councils have bridal teachers, while the rest of the councils refer the brides to institutes that offer the service for payment.

The Chief Rabbinate has not set standards that the bridal teachers must meet, and although many women have taken courses to become bridal teachers, no tests have been administered to certify them since 2007. The comptroller notes that these same 32 religious councils employ 43 bridal teachers, 19 of whom are the wives of marriage registrars in those same councils and departments of religious services.

Family connections also benefit rabbis who seek permits to conduct wedding ceremonies. While the Chief Rabbinate has clear rules as to who may or may not conduct a wedding ceremony, the state comptroller found that in many cases, permits were given to rabbis who did not meet the criteria. The state comptroller wrote that the Chief Rabbinate must “behave with extreme caution when considering the requests of rabbis with personal or family connections at the Chief Rabbinate or in the political system, and make appropriate rules as necessary to prevent conflicts of interest.”

Members of the Ethiopian community have special status when it comes to rabbis. The state comptroller found that the Chief Rabbinate’s marriage committee “also permitted rabbis from the Ethiopian community to conduct wedding ceremonies. But the permission was limited in that they may conduct wedding ceremonies only for members of the Ethiopian community.” The Chief Rabbinate appointed nine people to clarify Jewish status among members of the Ethiopian community, civil servants in every way who also have the authority to determine whether the couple is Jewish according to religious law and may be registered for marriage. But the workers themselves, who are Ethiopian immigrants, have encountered difficulties. Only a quarter of the religious councils said they would trust them, and 43 percent said they would trust only the chief rabbi for Ethiopian Jews.

Another chapter was devoted to people denied permission to marry for various reasons such as mamzerut (in Jewish law, the children of a married woman and a man other than her husband, or incestuous unions may not marry other Jews), the lack of a religious divorce, or the fact that the man was a kohen (a descendant of the ancient priestly family) living with a divorced woman. The state comptroller noted that while information about people denied permission to marry was not being transferred to the authorities as it was supposed to be, it was reaching other places where it did not belong. In March 2011, there were 4,865 men and women on the list, and in August 2012, the list contained 5,397 names, the state comptroller wrote.

The attorney general gives only the rabbinical courts the authority to keep the information on people who are not permitted to marry. He determined that the Religious Services Ministry and the marriage registrars must refrain from collecting information about people who never came to them to register for marriage, including their relatives. Yet “dozens of cases were found in which the rabbinical courts instructed the director of the rabbinical courts to include relatives of the person involved on the list — relatives who had nothing to do with the procedure and who had not been registered for marriage at all.”

The state comptroller notes: “The administrator added the names to the list, in violation of the attorney general’s orders, without ordering the start of a separate procedure to clarify the status of the aforesaid relatives.” During this period, the director of the rabbinical courts was Eli Ben-Dahan, who today is the deputy religious services minister and a Knesset member of Habayit Hayehudi. “The State Comptroller’s Office comments that by deciding to add names to the list of people denied permission to marry without telling them or giving them an opportunity to appeal the decision, the director of the rabbinical courts severely violated their basic rights. Such decisions violate the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, the laws of natural justice and the attorney general’s orders.”

A probe of the Jerusalem religious council in 2001 also found that “it kept a separate list in its offices that contained the personal information of everyone who registered for marriage, together with information about those denied permission to marry, in violation of the attorney general’s orders. It also turned out that this information was written on an index card that was available to religious council employees, and the information on that card is not protected as the information that appears on the list of those denied permission to marry is protected.”