rabbinate - Archive: Ouria Tadmor / Jini - October 22 2010
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, center, at a conference in 2008. Photo by Archive: Ouria Tadmor / Jini
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For Israel's entire existence, the secular population has had to unwillingly accommodate the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly on matters relating to personal status. Many people have resented having to wed in a religious ceremony, without which the Interior Ministry will not recognize a marriage. Even Israelis who bypass this burdensome procedure and arrange a civil ceremony abroad find that if they seek a divorce, the state will not recognize it unless it is carried out by that same rabbinical establishment they had tried to avoid.

This outrageous situation has been especially onerous for anyone not considered Jewish under Jewish religious law, halakha, including hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, but also people born here who detest the compulsion. Recent years have seen the rabbinate's trend toward a more ultra-Orthodox and extreme application of halakha. This creates a great deal of hardship for the population as a whole. It also intensifies the clash between the country's citizens and the rabbinical establishment, and limits many young people's ability to exercise their fundamental right to establish a family.

The impression may be that only the silent secular public has been suffering from this poor combination of religion and state and that only this community must resort to steps circumventing the system, such as common-law marriage and a marriage ceremony in Cyprus. But it turns out that much of the national religious community is fed up too. For lack of any other recourse, they resort to steps such as private wedding ceremonies.

Such efforts to bypass the system reflect real distress, which raises a question: If most of the population is suffering from the dictatorship of halakhic bureaucrats who provide services that the ultra-Orthodox community does not use, who outside the religious parties still needs the rabbinate?

From every vantage point - social, civil and economic - it would be better to transfer the rabbinate's powers to local authorities that would serve the people based on the community's needs. Also, the Knesset must change the law and provide civil marriage to everyone, in addition to religious marriage. Israeli society has come out, albeit very politely, against religious coercion. The government must decide what is more important to it, its alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties or the people's welfare.