A bill that would have eliminated sanctions against participants in marriages performed outside the confines of the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate was defeated in the Knesset on Wednesday.
Under the existing law, passed in 2013, couples that wed in such ceremonies and the individuals who officiate at them could face a two-year jail term for not registering with the Rabbinate.
To date, nobody has ever been convicted under this law, but several months ago, a prominent Conservative rabbi from Haifa was detained for officiating at such a wedding. Rabbi Dov Haiyun, of Moriah Congregation, was woken up at 5.30 AM and taken in for questioning by the Israeli police after a complaint was filed against him by the local rabbinical court.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit subsequently instructed the police to suspend their investigation. Haiyun’s detention sparked outrage in the Jewish world.
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The sanctions apply to all weddings performed in abidance with halakha, or Jewish religious law, but outside the confines of the Rabbinate. That would include marriages performed by Conservative rabbis as well as Orthodox rabbis who are not approved by the Rabbinate. Since these marriages are performed in abidance with halakha, they are binding from the perspective of the Rabbinate. By contrast, couples who wed in ceremonies that are not halakhic are not considered by the Rabbinate to be married.
The bill defeated on Wednesday was submitted by opposition lawmaker Aliza Lavie, who heads the religion and state caucus in the Knesset. It was just seven votes short of passing a first reading. Members of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which quit the coalition last week, voted in favor of the bill.
Following the vote, Lavie called the existing sanctions a “stain on the Israeli Knesset.”
Referring to those members of the Knesset who voted against her bill, she said: “The police arrest a rabbi in the middle of the night as though he were a common criminal. Two years in jail? Shame on you!”
Yizhar Hess, director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, said in response: “Once again, we see Knesset members falling in line with the political interests of the Orthodox establishment in Israel. Marriage and divorce are personal matters. How long will we be forced to live in a country where citizens are prohibited from marrying according to their conscience and way of life?”
Couples in Israel who wed outside the Rabbinate are not considered married, unless they go through another civil ceremony abroad and register as such.
ITIM, an organization that helps individuals challenged by Israel’s religious bureaucracy, said in response that “coalition politics have trumped the public good.”
“Regretfully, Knesset members were unable to overcome political considerations and end this absurd in which a person can be arrested in the Jewish state for performing a mitzvah,” the organization said in a statement. “The defeat of this bill is yet another step in the strengthening of the Rabbinate’s monopoly on the Jewish lifestyle of citizens of this state."