Dramatic Rise in Number of Israeli Jews Rejecting Rabbinate's Marriage Monopoly

Central Bureau of Statistics figures show a 29-percent increase in unmarried couples over two-year period.

A wedding at the Western Wall, 2015.
Emil Salman

In the latest sign of revolt against Israel’s stringent marriage laws, new government figures show a dramatic rise in the number of Jewish couples who are choosing to live together rather than legalize their status under the chuppah.

According to figures published this week by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of unmarried Jewish couples in Israel totaled 84,000 in 2014 – an increase of 29 percent from two years earlier. During this same period, the number of Jewish couples marrying in Israel fell by 6.5 percent. 

"Israel's official, state empowered religious establishment arouses disgust among Jewish Israeli couples considering marriage,” wrote Rabbi Uri Regev, the executive director of Hiddush – an organization that advocates for religious freedom in Israel – in an analysis of these statistics. “This is due to the needless tribulations many couples experience at the hands of the Rabbinate on their paths to marriage, and due to their fear of being required to conduct their divorces via the state rabbinical courts. Israel's Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical courts are Judaism's greatest enemy."

In Israel, Jewish couples who wish to have their marriages recognized by the state must be wed by rabbis approved by the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate, or alternatively, they can marry abroad. 

According to Be Free Israel, another religious advocacy organization, about one in five Jewish couples in Israel who marry today do not go through the Chief Rabbinate. Many of them hold a second ceremony outside the country in order to have their status legalized in Israel, but a growing number no longer bother even with that. This could explain the dramatic increase in the number of unmarried Jewish couples in the country.

"The irony," noted Regev, "is that the Chief Rabbinate is directly responsible for eroding the institution of family in Israel. Clearly, the Rabbinate's monopoly must be dissolved, as per the wishes of the majority of the Israeli public, which wants freedom of choice in marriage. Civil marriage must be instituted in Israel, and the weddings of all Jewish streams must be recognized by the State."

In response to a recent poll conducted by Hiddush, 80 percent of non-observant Jewish Israelis said they would not have had an Orthodox wedding were they given a choice. In addition, nearly half of Jewish Israelis questioned said they would marry outside the Chief Rabbinate if it were an option.

A new radio campaign launched this summer by Be Israel, in partnership with the Reform and Conservative movements, urged young Israeli couples planning to tie the knot to boycott the Chief Rabbinate.

Conservative rabbis officiate at about 200 to 300 weddings a year in Israel, and Reform rabbis at roughly another 1,000, according to figures provided by the movements. None of these weddings are recognized, though, by the Israeli Population Registry.