Does Israel's Marriage Reform Mean the Wedding Fixers Are Out of Work?

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We took our seats in the rabbinate office, keeping a chaste distance between us and trying to look modest, as if we’d never so much as held hands. The rabbi in the black suit and hat meticulously looked over our files, proving that we were single, Jewish, and eligible to be married to each other in about six week’s time. Everything seemed to be in place. But he understood that we had a special request – to have a rabbi of our own choosing conduct our wedding ceremony. The officiant of our choice was in fact an ordained modern Orthodox rabbi (okay, we probably left out “modern”) and taught at a Jerusalem yeshiva of sorts – one this official knew nothing about. That was probably a good thing, because Pardes is actually “an open, co-ed and non-denominational Jewish learning community” according to its own definition, and had this rabbinate official ever stepped foot in the building and seen men and women studying together in the Beit Midrash, or met some of the openly LGBT students, he probably wouldn’t have liked what he saw.

The place: Jerusalem. The time: precisely five years ago. The dilemma: how to get married in a way that spoke to us.

Our agenda was actually a bit more ambitious than that. We not only wanted to receive permission to have the rabbi of our choice – and not one assigned by the rabbinate – officiate at the wedding, we were choosing that rabbi in part because he was willing to conduct the wedding alongside a female rabbi who was ordained by the Jewish Renewal movement. The fact that both rabbis were willing and enthusiastic about working together was a kind of cross-denominational triumph, breaking down stereotypes about the war within Judaism.

But we needed that permission from the rabbinate, which we were willing to deal with largely because we didn’t want to run off to Cyprus or some other country to get legally married after having the wedding of our choice.

That’s where the middleman came in – a fixer of sorts. For a fee of about $200, he could grease the wheel and get the rabbinate to issue a temporary permit for this rabbi at Pardes to be our officiant. We didn’t see any other route to have the wedding we wanted, so we paid.

About three weeks before the wedding, we sat down at the rabbinate again. We still didn’t know if the fixer would succeed in his job, and we were formulating plan B and C. But the official had good news for us – they had approved the rabbi of our choice. And by the way, did we want to buy this combination book and CD set by his own rabbi, for 80 shekels? He held up the package preaching an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. My husband-to-be quickly refused, holding back his irritation.

“Oh go on, you can have it,” the official said, offering it this time for free. He seemed genuinely baffled when my fiancé still refused. I felt a rush of fear. Maybe we should just go along and take it, to make sure the permit doesn’t get revoked at the last minute? Just pretend, I wanted to whisper.

But Israelis are tired of just going along and taking it, tired of pretending. For that reason, there has been a groundswell of outrage over the rabbinate’s control of personal status issues in Israel, marriage foremost among them. Trying to loosen the chains, the Knesset last week passed a bill that allows couples to get married in any one of the country’s 132 rabbinical councils. The idea was to give Israelis more choice, allowing them the ability to avoid certain local rabbinic councils that are famously uncooperative with converts and immigrants. It was, as Haaretz contributor Tomer Persico wrote, as if a “flash of light flickered in the darkness.” But had the law existed now, it still wouldn’t have helped people like us.

In fact, people like us – and in particular our friends in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements – could technically be sent to jail for two years. At the last minute, Habayit Hayehudi attached a rider to the bill on behalf of United Torah Judaism, making it illegal to conduct or get married in a private ceremony and not register it with the rabbinate. As Yair Ettinger explains in today’s Haaretz, what the ultra-Orthodox legislators had in mind was largely to prevent men from refusing to grant their estranged wives a get (a divorce document) and then remarrying privately – enabling polygamy. But in effect, it criminalizes wedding ceremonies not registered with the rabbinate, which includes more than a few of my friends in Israel.

“It passed because the Knesset members weren’t paying attention,” says Seth Farber, the founder of Itim, which helps people navigate the religious authorities’ bureaucracy in Israel. “Finally some progress was made in decentralizing the monopoly, so they criminalized people going outside the rabbinate. Criminalizing religious marriage? That’s totalitarian.”

The law probably won’t be widely enforced – I don’t expect my friends who’ve performed or participated in private religious nuptials to be arrested in the middle of the night. But the very fact of the law’s passage shows a kind of negligence on the part of leaders who were elected to fix a broken system. In addition to absurdity of the legislations itself, the so-called Tzohar law does next to nothing to end the Kafkaesque corruption in the rabbinate and the various religious councils. A country where people have to pay bribes and fixers in order to have the kind of wedding they want is a country in which couples are going to keep seeking to tie the knot otherwise and elsewhere – precisely what the rabbinate wants least. 

Israeli weddingCredit: Gil Cohen-Magen