Ministers Uphold Jail Term for Jewish Weddings Performed Outside Rabbinate

Brides, grooms and officiating rabbis who wish to circumvent Israel's chief religious authority remain outlaws after proposed amendment to marriage reform is struck down.

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A Jewish wedding ceremony, or chuppah, performed by a rabbi belonging to Tzohar, a religious Zionist group seeking to facilitate religious weddings for all Jewish couples.
A Jewish wedding ceremony, or chuppah, performed by a rabbi belonging to Tzohar, a religious Zionist group seeking to facilitate religious weddings for all Jewish couples.Credit: Nir Keidar

Couples who marry in a Jewish ceremony without registering with the Chief Rabbinate - and the rabbis who perform the ceremony - remain criminals potentially facing a two year prison sentence, after the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted down Sunday an amendment to a controversial law that making the “chuppah” the exclusive domain of the rabbinate.

MK Aliza Lavie of the Yesh Atid party had proposed an amendment to the law which would have eliminated the two-year prison term to standing regulations regarding marriage - but her proposal was struck down by a majority of ministers.

Last year, when the controversial “Tzohar Law” reforming the process of marriage registration was devised, a last-minute clause was slipped in harshly penalizing those who marry outside the Chief Rabbinate. The new law stipulated that both the couple getting married and the officiating rabbi will also be subject to two years’ imprisonment. Under the new law, any Israeli Jew who marries outside the Chief Rabbinate and anyone who performs such a ceremony - including Reform and Conservative rabbis and those who offer various alternative ceremonies - can receive punishment of two years in prison.

The vote on Sunday was, Lavie said, “an attempt to restore sanity” to a law that she called “crazy and surreal.” The law and the failure to amend it on Sunday, she said, “has created an absurd situation with no relation to a changing reality. An increasing number of young people are choosing to have a religious ceremony without the involvement of the rabbinate. Instead of addressing this, the rabbinate is threatening them with imprisonment.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM Advocacy Center, which helped Lavie draft the proposed amendment, attributed its defeat to the shadow of the current coalition crisis and specifically the bitter rivalry between Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Given the current tensions between them, he said, any move proposed by a Yesh Atid member was “probably doomed.”

Still, he said “The present law is an outrage. I am disappointed that the cabinet couldn’t look beyond petty politics in order to rectify this law which is disproportionately severe and ludicrous. Israel is now among a few select countries where it is a criminal act to perform a chuppah.”

Farber said ITIM will now seek litigation to protect rabbis and couples who seek to be married outside the rabbinate. While he noted that no rabbis or couples who have done so have yet been prosecuted, he is concerned that as long as the law remains on the books, it could happen.

“We gave them a strategy to get rid of this thing,” he said, “but the politics just weren’t on our side. Given the animosity between Netanyahu and Lapid, I’m not sure there was anything we could have done that would have made a difference.”

Yesh Atid members Lapid and Jacob Perry were reportedly the only two cabinet members who supported the bill. All of the other cabinet members sided with Netanyahu against it. Abstaining from the vote were Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the Hatnuah Party, and Likud’s Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat.

Standing behind the law was the Habayit Hayehudi party, whose Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Eli Ben-Dahan was responsible for the legislation a year ago. At the time, Ben-Dahan defended it by saying that it was prompted by concern for women who are refused a get (a religious divorce) by preventing their husbands from having secret, bigamous relationships, for example marrying a second woman in a private, unofficial wedding ceremony, in accordance with the halakha (Jewish religious law) without granting his first wife a Jewish divorce.

But Lavie and many others believe it is a way to strike out against the growing phenomenon of young couples who are designing their own Jewish religious ceremony - Reform, Conservative or Orthodox - in Israel, and then legally marrying abroad and the rabbis who accommodate them.

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