More and More Orthodox Israelis Are Ditching the Rabbinate, Study Shows

Nearly 50% rise in Orthodox Israelis marrying outside of Rabbinate, most weddings conducted by Orthodox rabbis not recognized by state authority, Panim says, calling it a push against religious coercion

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The number of Orthodox Israeli couples choosing to marry in private ceremonies outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate grew dramatically last year, according to a soon-to-be-published study.

The study, conducted by Panim: The Israeli Judaism Network, found that at least 222 such ceremonies were held in Israel in 2018, compared with 150 the previous year — an increase of nearly 50 percent. Most of the weddings were conducted by Orthodox rabbis not recognized by the Rabbinate.

No official figure exists for the number of marriages performed in Israel outside the state authority, because couples who wed in such ceremonies cannot register as married at the Interior Ministry’s Population Registry. Couples who wed in civil ceremonies abroad, however, are allowed to register as married upon their return.

Panim is an association of dozens of Israeli nonprofits dedicated to promoting Jewish pluralism in the country. This is the second year it has attempted to calculate the number of Jewish marriages taking place in Israel outside of the Rabbinate.

Its latest study was based on interviews with 52 well-known wedding officiators in Israel, many of them affiliated with the Conservative and Reform movements. It also conducted 15 interviews with organizations active in promoting Jewish pluralism and religious freedom in the country, most prominently Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel).

In its report, the organization noted that its tally does not take into account couples married by family members and friends as it has no access to these numbers. As a result, the actual number of Jewish couples married outside the Rabbinate is probably much higher than the estimate listed in the study, which is expected to be published in the coming days.

Non-Orthodox Israeli couples have been boycotting the Rabbinate for years. In recent years, however, growing numbers are opting to hold their ceremonies in Israel rather than travel abroad. This would suggest they are less concerned about whether they are officially recognized as married by the state. Orthodox Israelis have only recently become part of this trend, which is seen as evidence that contempt for the Rabbinate and the power it wields is spreading beyond the obvious circles.

It is illegal for rabbis in Israel to perform traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies outside the confines of the Rabbinate. If caught and convicted, they could face up to two years in prison. Last year, a prominent Conservative rabbi in Haifa was questioned by the police for performing one-such ceremony, but was quickly released following widespread criticism of the move. No rabbi has yet to be jailed for violating the law.

The Panim study found that at least 2,610 private Jewish wedding ceremonies were held outside the auspices of the Rabbinate in 2018, an increase of 7 percent from the previous year. That followed an 8 percent increase in 2017.

The rise was accompanied by a drop in the number of Israelis marrying through the Rabbinate. The number of marriages officiated by representatives of the Rabbinate in 2018 totaled 35,163 — a drop of 3 percent from the previous year. This follows a 4 percent drop in 2017. The study noted that this downturn was even more significant than the numbers themselves indicated, as the Jewish population had grown 5 percent during that period.

An estimated 7,000 Israeli couples last year married in civil ceremonies held abroad.

Panim Executive Director Jotam Brom noted that the growing number of Israelis shunning the Rabbinate was part of a larger trend. “It may not be at the top of the public agenda, but this push against religious coercion was definitely at the heart of the recent election campaign,” he said, referring to Israel’s do-over election in September. “We believe and are convinced that greater religious freedom and less coercion will only strengthen the Jewish and democratic character of the state. It’s high time we tried it,” he added.

Jotam BromCredit: Netanel Tevel

The study found that more than half the couples (56 percent) who married in private ceremonies in 2018 were eligible to marry through the Rabbinate — meaning there was no question about their Jewish credentials. Another 31 percent were Russian speakers who cannot legally marry in Israel because they are not considered Jewish according to halakha. According to Jewish religious law, a Jew is someone born to a Jewish mother or converted by an Orthodox rabbinical court approved by the Rabbinate.

Another 7 percent were gay couples and 6 percent belonged to a category known in the Rabbinate as “not marriageable” (mainly the offspring of relationships forbidden by Jewish law). This breakdown was very similar to the previous year.

Based on interviews with the wedding officiators, the study found that most of the couples marrying in private ceremonies in recent years chose this path not as an act of protest — as had been common in the past — but because of their personal values and lifestyles. Despite their decision to distance themselves from the Rabbinate, most of the couples opted for weddings that incorporated classic Jewish elements, including getting married under a chuppah and breaking a glass at the end of the ceremony. They tended to be more egalitarian than traditional Orthodox ceremonies, though, with the brides assuming a more prominent role.

The study found a slight increase in the number of private ceremonies performed by women last year (11 percent of the total, compared with 9.8 percent the previous year).

This year’s study was conducted in collaboration with media information firm Ifat, which analyzed references to private wedding ceremonies in both the Israeli media and on social media over the past two years. Based on this analysis, it concluded that acceptance of marriage performed outside the Rabbinate has been growing.

The report was funded by the Israel Religious Expression Platform (iRep), a coalition of North American Jewish Federations and foundations, an initiative that supports Israelis who advocate for religious freedom in Israel.

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