Lawmakers to Push for End to Rabbinate Monopoly on Marriage in Israel

Move by Knesset members follows Haaretz report on growing number of Jewish couples marrying outside of Orthodox-sanctioned system

A civil ceremony at Kibbutz Dorot in southern Israel, May 2013.
גיל כהן-מגן

A bill that would eliminate sanctions against participants in Jewish Orthodox marriages in Israel performed outside the confines of the Chief Rabbinate will be submitted to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday.

Under the existing law, 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.)

MK Aliza Lavie, head of the Knesset Religion and State caucus, said that new findings on the growing number of Israelis who are opting for private ceremonies in order to avoid the Rabbinate prompted her to submit the legislation.

Similar proposed bills have been voted down in the past.

According to the survey’s findings, first published in Haaretz on Wednesday, at least 2,434 unrecognized Jewish marriage ceremonies were held in Israel outside the Rabbinate’s authority in 2017 – up 8 percent from the previous year. Among these were 150 Orthodox ceremonies conducted by 14 Orthodox rabbis.

Many Israelis cannot marry through the Rabbinate because one or both partners are not recognized as Jewish by the religious authorities. Same-sex marriages are also banned. Some couples also reject the Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and divorce issues in Israel, especially because they consider some Orthodox wedding traditions demeaning to women.

The study, officially published on Thursday, was conducted by Panim – the Israeli Judaism network, an association of dozens of Israeli nonprofits dedicated to promoting Jewish pluralism in the country. It represents the first attempt to quantify the scope of this phenomenon.

“The Rabbinate has turned its back on many Israelis who are sick of the establishment and are looking for alternatives,” said Lavie, a member of the opposition Yesh Atid party.

“This should be a wake-up call for the state,” she said. “If their extreme and rigid approach doesn’t change, we won’t need another study to know that the figures will continue growing.”

Lavie added the sanctions that apply to participants in Orthodox ceremonies outside the Rabbinate are a “stain on Israeli law.”

Responding to the Panim study, MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) requested that the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee hold an urgent hearing on legalizing Jewish wedding ceremonies held in Israel outside the Rabbinate. The findings of the report, she said, are “further proof that the Israeli public is sick of the Rabbinate and of religious coercion.”

She added that the growing numbers of Israeli couples that avoid the Rabbinate are engaging in “an important act of protest that proves, beyond anything, the gap between a public that desires freedom and a government that is controlled by the religious establishment.”

Chuck Davidson, an Orthodox rabbi who has performed most of the unofficial Orthodox marriages in Israel, said he officiated at approximately 100 in the last year alone.

“The phenomenon will continue to grow as more and more Israelis begin to understand that the Rabbinate has no monopoly on Judaism, nor on halakha,” he said, referring to Jewish religious law. “Its monopoly is largely in our heads as a mistaken perception.”

Many couples that wed unofficially in Israel later hold a civil ceremony abroad so they can then register as married in the country. (Israel has no civil marriage, but does recognize couples that wed in civil ceremonies abroad.)

The Panim study found that most Israelis who opted for private ceremonies were eligible to wed under the auspices of the Rabbinate – i.e., there was no question about their Jewishness – but chose not to.

It also found that most of these weddings included traditional Jewish rituals, like the breaking of a glass at the end of the ceremony.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of Itim (an organization that helps individuals navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy), said the findings were a sign that “the Jewish citizens of Israel are very interested in Judaism, particularly during life-cycle moments, but the Rabbinate is not providing the kind of Jewish experience that attracts them.”

He said his organization receives “a lot of calls” from Israelis who want to marry in an Orthodox ceremony – but “do not want to set foot near the Rabbinate.”

Couples married in such ceremonies do not register with the Rabbinate or hold their ceremonies with one of its certified representatives, as is required. Farber said that not all couples expressing an interest in private Orthodox ceremonies come from Orthodox homes.

Rabbi Uri Regev, the president and CEO of Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious freedom and equality in Israel, said a clear majority of Israelis oppose the Rabbinate’s monopoly.

“Our surveys show that more than two-thirds of Israelis support freedom of choice in marriage – and among secular Israelis, 82 percent say that if given the choice, they would not marry through the Rabbinate,” he said.

Be Free Israel (aka Israel Hofsheet), an organization that supports greater religious pluralism in the country, actively promotes marriages outside the Rabbinate through publicity campaigns and other services it offers. Inbar Oren, coordinator of the organization’s ceremonies department, said the thousands of Israeli couples choosing to wed outside the Rabbinate each year – whether in Israel or abroad – “are not a phenomenon and not a trend, but rather a reality.”

These couples who are fighting the system, she said, were “the embodiment of Israeli activism: Not willing to forfeit their rights or to forfeit their Judaism – and they will win.”

In addition to Orthodox rabbis, Conservative and Reform rabbis, as well as nonaffiliated officiants, conduct private wedding ceremonies in Israel.

Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, said the figures published in the Panim study “validate our sense of what is happening in the field for quite a long time.”

“More and more Israelis want to keep the Rabbinate out of their weddings and out of their lives,” he said. “They prefer to have an egalitarian, Jewish, halakhic ceremony – one that respects the bride and groom, without forcing upon them a form of Judaism they don’t believe in.”

Hess expressed optimism that “change is on the way.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said the study showed that the Israeli public is “voting with its feet.”

He added: “Our job is to translate these sentiments into a new political and legal reality, in which Israel joins all the other democracies in the world that allow for freedom of choice in marriage.”

The Religious Services Ministry and the Rabbinate did not respond to requests for comment on the Panim study.

The study was commissioned by the Israel Religious Expression Platform (iREP), an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America aimed at strengthening religious pluralism in Israel.