Read the Fine Print

Marriage Reform Law Could Land Bride, Groom and Rabbi in Jail for Two Years

New legislation expands existing clause barring ceremonies outside the Rabbinate, rendering hundreds of thousands of Israelis potential criminals.

Family law in Israel is a bit like Frankenstein, constructed in a patch-like manner, limb by limb, with a law here and a High Court ruling there. Before one realizes it, the impressive legal entity we are faced with is an entire body. The facts speak for themselves – ever-increasing numbers of Israel’s Jewish citizens opt to wed outside the rabbinical framework. While running for the chief rabbi’s office, Rabbi David Stav warned that one third of secular couples today find other ways of getting married. The subsequent election of two conservative chief rabbis will presumably strengthen this growing trend.

Last week, a flash of light flickered in the darkness. A law calling for the expansion of registration zones and easing up on restrictions was passed by the Knesset, and every citizen will now be able to choose the religious council in which his marriage will take place. Theoretically, this will allow one to find more tolerant officials, such as ones who won’t insist on the bride producing a note confirming her dipping in a mikve. This is a positive development, making things easier, but it doesn’t really solve the problem. We are still bound by law to get married exclusively by Orthodox rabbis. We can console ourselves with the hope that we might find a nice rabbi.

However, this wasn’t the only change to the law that was enacted last week. In addition to increasing the number of registration offices, there was a change to the clause which penalizes those who marry outside the Chief Rabbinate. While the original law stated that anyone "who does not register a marriage or divorce at the Rabbinate will be charged according to the amendments to clause 99 of the Ottoman criminal code," the new amendment stipulates that in addition to the couple getting married the officiating rabbi will also be charged. Instead of the breezy reference to the old Ottoman law, the new legislation stipulates that both husband and wife and the rabbi performing the ceremony will be subject to two years’ imprisonment.

Don’t rub your eyes in amazement. You read it correctly. Anyone who dares to get married outside the official framework of the Rabbinate will end up in jail for two years. It should be noted that the law in its previous form was never enforced, and couples marrying outside the fold were not prosecuted. However, there is no valid reason for turning hundreds of thousands of Israelis into criminals.

One should remember that among those who wed outside the Rabbinate there are many who do so for lack of choice. There are currently more than 300,000 people in Israel, mainly veteran immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are not considered Jews according to Orthodox Jewish law, preventing them from marrying within the rabbinical framework. The new law adds to this injustice. The fact that they cannot marry in their own country is scandalous enough. Now, if they hold a ceremony not through the Rabbinate, which in any case will not be recognized by the state, they are breaking the law and are liable to be imprisoned for two years. Maybe they have to stay single forever.

In addition to this group, other people who are ineligible for marriage by Orthodox Jewish law, such as ‘bastards’ born out of wedlock (mamzerim), divorcees, Cohanim, will all become fugitive criminals if they try and arrange a chuppa (wedding canopy) for themselves, after being rejected by the state. Israel is the only democracy in the world in which family law is subject to a religion. It is now taking a fundamentalist step forward by joining the small number of states in which transgression against a religious law is punished by a jail sentence. Indeed, a light unto the nations!

The process is as clear as it is pitiful. In its attempts to maintain an orthodox monopoly in the public sphere, the state of Israel must run faster and faster just to stay in one place. The ancient phobia directed at assimilation and bastards is creating ugly hybrids of religious law and bureaucracy, monsters of religious coercion roughly put together, presenting an ugly visage. There is nothing like the threat of imprisonment that emphasizes the bankruptcy of the Chief Rabbinate in its values and image, no better sign of its impending collapse.

After I got married three years ago I joined a group that arranges civil, secular wedding ceremonies as part of the ‘Havaya’ organization. I wanted to join the effort to establish an alternative to marriage within the Rabbinate for two Israeli populations: those hundreds of thousands who are forbidden from getting married in their country, and those hundreds of thousands who are permitted to but for whom the last thing they wish for is a ceremony conducted by an Orthodox rabbi who doesn’t share their values.

I’ve conducted several ceremonies since then, which I obviously did not register at the Rabbinate. I and my friends will continue with this sacred work, from now on specifically challenging this law, which uses the power of the state for religious coercion, and which stands in contrast to democratic principles.

The writer is a researcher of contemporary religions at Tel Aviv University.

Gil Cohen-Magen