Knesset Passes Marriage Reform Bill, in Blow to Chief Rabbis

Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger

Israeli Jews seeking to get married will now be able to shop around for the municipal religious council that suits them best, rather than be forced to register their marriage in one of the partners' cities of residence.

The change in marriage registration became official Monday with the passage of the so-called Tzohar Law, delivering a major blow to Israel's two chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, who adamantly opposed the bill. Fifty-seven MKs voted in favor of the law, which formalizes a practice that is already prevalent in most of Israel's religious councils, and 14 ultra-Orthodox MKs voted against it. There was one abstention.

In addition to formalizing couples' right to register their marriage with the religious council of their choice, the law also strengthens the rabbinate's monopoly on Jewish weddings by making it a criminal offense to conduct private wedding ceremonies in which the couple does not register the marriage, even if it meets all the standards of Orthodox weddings. Until now, the rabbinate's only recourse was to discipline the rabbis involved or remove them from the list of rabbis authorized to marry Jewish couples. Now they can be held culpable for violating the law.

The head of Itim, an advocacy group that helps Israelis navigate the religious bureaucracy, said on Monday it will help some Israeli couples who might otherwise have a hard time getting married in the country, but fails to adequately address the underlying problems.

“The good thing is that it stimulates competition, which always brings about changes," said Itim's Rabbi Seth Farber. "If one council is open at night and attracts people, other councils will follow suit. If bridal counselors know there is competition, they may stop telling women that they will get cancer if they don’t go to the mikveh every month."

But granting individuals the right to choose a religious council that is open after work or, more significantly, one that recognizes conversions to Judaism, is really just "a bypass procedure," said Farber. "Instead of dealing with a rabbinate such as the one in Rishon Letzion, which is hostile to converts and doesn’t register them despite regulations, people are directed to find alternative locations. Instead of uprooting this phenomenon, the issue is evaded. The burden is shifted to the registering couple.”

The law echoes a workaround reached in 2010, when Itim filed a High Court of Justice petition against the Chief Rabbinate, the minister of religious affairs and four municipal rabbis who refused to register converts who wanted to get married, even though the state recognizes them as Jews and they lived in the cities where they attempted to register their marriage. An arrangement was reached allowing residents of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Rishon Letzion and Rehovot who had converted to Judaism to register their marriages in other cities.

A similar approach is used by Tzohar, a religious Zionist group that helps facilitate religious weddings for all Jewish couples. Tzohar, which reported that 1,500 couples were married through the organization last year, had been unofficially registering marriages without regard to the couple's place of residence until Shas tried to stop the practice in 2011. That created a backlash that ultimately led to an upgrade in Tzohar's status, authorizing it to register Jewish marriages.

Several private ultra-Orthodox institutions were authorized many years ago to register couples not on a regional basis, in collaboration with the Chief Rabbinate, and most religious councils already register couples without reference to place of residence, catering to residents of other cities as well as their own in part because marriage registration is a source of income.

The Tzohar Law essentially gives these existing practices the gloss of Knesset approval. The rabbinate continues to control marriage and divorce for the Jewish majority in Israel, which has no civil marriage and does not recognize non-Orthodox marriages conducted in the country. (Muslim and Christian religious authorities are responsible for marriage and divorce rituals for adherents of their religions.)

The Knesset’s State Control Committee discovered recently that 67 percent of religious councils, excluding those associated with ultra-Orthodox rabbinical courts or with Tzohar, already register couples regardless of their place of residence.

This is enabled mainly by the chaotic conditions prevalent in these councils, especially with regard to marriage registration. Earlier this year, the state comptroller found that most of the 130-plus religious councils in Israel disregard directives issued by the Religious Services Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate. This is often to the detriment of the registrants, who may have to submit to higher fees or stricter rules on religious counseling for brides. Other times this works in their favor, for instance, with more lenient adherence to requirements requiring that the applicants' Jewish origins be ascertained.

All the same, the country's chief rabbis opposed the Tzohar Law and called on the Knesset to vote it down. Rabbis of various cities also voiced their objections.

The law was sponsored by Habayit Hayehudi, though rabbis from the party's Tekumah faction opposed it and demanded that Eli Ben Dahan, the deputy religious services minister and their representative in the party, not vote for it. 

A couple gets married under the chuppa in Tel Aviv, 2009.Credit: Alex Livac
Israel's two chief rabbis: Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, left, and Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi and Uriel Koby / Wikicommons