Religious Services Ministry Bans Alternative Wedding Ceremonies Performed by Tzohar Rabbis

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A group of religious Zionist rabbis and educators that performs Jewish weddings for an estimated 3,000 Israeli couples a year has announced that it will no longer be able to conduct the ceremonies because the Shas-affiliated religious services minister has decided the Tzohar organization is no longer allowed to register couples as married.

Tzohar has specialized in helping Jewish couples undergo religious ceremonies even if they feel alienated by the municipal rabbinate or don't want to pay the wedding fees that other rabbis often demand.

A wedding service carried out by Tzohar.Credit: Ronen Matana

Under Israeli law, couples who get married in the country are not recognized as married unless they undergo a religious ceremony. Rabbi Moshe Be'eri, Tzohar's executive director, said many more Jewish couples would get married in secular ceremonies abroad. Since those are recognized by Israeli law, a wedding in a popular destination like nearby Cyprus makes it easy for couples to avoid the inconvenience of going through the official rabbinate.

"For love of money and to attack Zionism, the Religious Services Ministry is willing to send Jews to get married in Cyprus instead of in accordance with halakha [Jewish law]," said Be'eri. "Every time I pleaded before the rabbinate or the Religious Services Ministry, I felt like someone going before the czar to protect his people, the people of Israel. But this time the czar is someone with a kippa."

Over the past two years, Tzohar has been registering most of the couples it marries with the rabbinate of Shoham or Gush Etzion, both of which are headed by rabbis affiliated with the organization, even though weddings are supposed to be registered at the city where at least one member of the couple lives.

Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi said he would not allow Tzohar to establish a "mini-rabbinate," though Ultra-Orthodox rabbinical courts have been registering couples as married and providing them with marriage certificates for decades, regardless of where the members of the couple live. The state rabbinate then rubber-stamps the Haredi marriages.

The Religious Services Ministry has allowed Tzohar to work in a similar manner for the past two years, when it provided couples with marriage certificates through the Shoham and Gush Etzion rabbinates.

But now Margi has decided that the Shoham rabbinate, which is headed by Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav, cannot provide more than 200 marriage certificates a year. A similar limit was set for Gush Etzion.

Be'eri said Tzohar will still provide marriage certificates for the hundreds of couples who have already gotten married through Tzohar but have not yet received their paperwork - and for those who have registered to be married through the organization and met with a Tzohar rabbi but have yet to tie the knot - though it is not yet clear how it will do so.

Other couples, however, will be left to fend for themselves.

"Today I called couples who already registered [but haven't met with a Tzohar rabbi] and we had to cancel them," said Be'eri. "Most of them told me, 'It's okay, we'll go get married in Cyprus."

Nissim Alkasalsi, an adviser to Margi, said the Shas minister was just heeding the law.

"Tzohar is demanding that the minister violate the law, which states that you can open a marriage file only when one member of the couple is a resident of that place," he said.

This isn't the first time Tzohar has run up against obstacles placed by the Chief Rabbinate and Religious Services Ministry, which have been imposing restrictions on the organization for the past seven years.

For instance, most of the 600 Orthodox rabbis who take part in Tzohar's flagship wedding project were found to be unfit to perform weddings in Israel, or were told they could perform weddings only for people to whom they had a connection in their capacity as local rabbis or yeshiva heads.

Tzohar says the ministry and the Chief Rabbinate fear that they will become increasingly irrelevant for Israelis who consider themselves secular and will lose money from fees charged for marriages through the rabbinate.

קראו כתבה שו בעברית: ניצחון לרבנות הראשית: מיזם החתונות של "צהר" ייסגר