Without the Rabbinate, I'll Thee Wed

In recent years, growing numbers of religiously observant couples have opted for so-called private weddings to bypass the long arm of the state's Rabbinate, whose overarching authority they reject.

The people who attended Yehiel and Tamar's wedding ceremony two and a half years ago thought they'd come to a typical wedding of a graduate of a hesder yeshiva (combining religious studies with military service ) and a graduate of a religious studies institute for women. The mesader kiddushin (officiating rabbi ) was a well-known yeshiva head, the band played Hasidic tunes, and everything was ostensibly done "according to the law of Moses and Israel," as declared in the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony.

Only a few of those in attendance knew that the first commitment the couple had undertaken together was not to set foot in any of the offices of the Israeli state Rabbinate. Instead, they had registered their marriage in an ultra-Orthodox institution that is not subject to Israeli law per se, but is still recognized by the state (as explained below ). They also signed a rather liberal agreement of mutual respect, based on halakha (religious law ), declaring the intention not to become entangled in the rabbinical court system in the event of aginut (a situation whereby a husband refuses to grant his wife a get, or bill of divorce ). By taking these steps, the couple believed, they helped to weaken the powers of the Orthodox establishment - to which they are adamantly opposed - and exercised their freedom of religion while abiding by halakha, to which they are committed.

rabbinate - Tomer Appelbaum - October 28 2011
Tomer Appelbaum

Yehiel, now 34, and Tamar, 28, chose one path among many to wed in accordance with Jewish law without involving the Chief Rabbinate or its local offices. Over the years there have been many secular as well as Haredi couples who have undergone so-called private weddings without a Rabbinate-approved person officiating. In recent years they have been joined by graduates of yeshivas and religious seminaries for women. These are primarily modern-Orthodox couples who are knowledgeable about halakha and believe they can observe its precepts as carefully as those given the authority to oversee its enforcement in daily life. Some of these people do not hesitate to take the halakha into their own hands, as it were, and fashion for themselves alternative ceremonies - within the sanctioned framework.

The protest of Orthodox individuals against the Rabbinate is similar to that of secular people - a phenomenon that is reflected, for example, in the (successful ) struggle by author Yoram Kaniuk to be officially recognized as an Israeli who has no religion. Each of these instances yanks yet another brick out of the same wall: that of the Rabbinate's aim to spread its power and auspices over all the Jews of Israel, as well as over those living elsewhere in the world.

In contrast to Yehiel and Tamar, most of the Orthodox couples that Haaretz spoke with who oppose that trend, refused to register their marriage with any religious body, so there are no data on the size of this group. The majority of them drew up a civil contract and registered at the National Insurance Institute as common-law spouses, a status that assures them nearly all the same rights as those granted to married couples, but absolves them of having to deal with the rabbinical court system should their relationship sour. If that does happen, they will prefer to untie their halakhic knot at some sort of alternative ceremony, which would not be formally reported to state authorities.

Many local couples are deciding to formalize their relationship in a financial-legal manner these days, regardless of the type of wedding they have, if any. The New Family human rights organization recently told Haaretz that some 4,000 civil union agreements were signed in 2010. Estimates are that several dozen Orthodox couples have chosen this option in recent years, while still holding wedding ceremonies according to halakha.

For his part, Rabbi Benjamin Lau of the Ramban Congregation in Jerusalem, refuses to officiate at such events out of respect for the state and its laws, but he says that "not a week goes by when I don't receive at least one request to hold a private ceremony without reporting it to the Rabbinate."

Says attorney Batia Kahana-Dror, the director of Mavoi Satum, an advocacy group for women whose husbands have refused to give them a divorce: "We are talking about a subversive phenomenon that keeps growing, on the part of people who are demanding social justice in the matter of religious services." This phenomenon stems, in her view, from the problem of women whose husbands don't give them a get, which has provoked observant Jews - such as herself - to despair of the rabbinical establishment and to call on others to formalize their marriages in other ways, while still holding a ceremony according to Jewish law.

"This issue in itself is worthy of splintering Orthodoxy, and in my estimation we are headed there," she says.

'Illegitimate offspring'

Israeli Jews are not able to register their marriage legally except through the Chief Rabbinate and its branches on local religious councils. The Rabbinate also determines which rabbis are authorized to officiate at weddings.

David Stav, a modern-Orthodox rabbi who heads the Tzohar organization of rabbis, speaks out very harshly against the possibility of non-Rabbinate-sanctioned private weddings: "The moment there is a rabbi who conducts such private ceremonies, I think it is proper to ban him and divest him of his rabbinic capacity. Personally, I would even report such a rabbi to the police, because a rabbi like that causes the proliferation of mamzerim [illegitimate offspring, in halakhic terms] and creates anarchy. I have personally been approached by five to 10 couples who asked for such weddings and I threw them out."

The Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction Law of 1953 states: "Matters of marriage and divorce of Jews in Israel who are citizens of the state or its residents will be under the sole jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts." The penal code states that anyone who arranges a marriage or divorce, "knowing that these are prohibited by law, or that one member of the couple is therein committing an offense, will be sentenced to six months in prison."

However, a wedding conducted according to the law of Moses and Israel does not technically require the involvement of the Rabbinate, nor even a rabbi. The requisite items are groom, bride, two witnesses, and agreement to follow a few fairly simple halakhic injunctions.

In January, Tomer Persico, a religious studies researcher, married his partner, Yael Yehieli, to the cheers of guests and readers of Lulaat Ha'el (God's Loop), his popular blog. The couple held an alternative egalitarian ceremony that they planned according to their own taste, but which was halakhically acceptable. To that end they consulted a well-known rabbi, the head of a yeshiva who is related to the bride. After the ceremony they registered as common-law spouses; they do not want to be registered as married in the Population Registry.

Persico subsequently wrote two posts on his blog, one of them headed "Love thy spouse and don't register at the Rabbinate." There he suggested: "Get married in winter or summer, in a garden or a banquet hall, in an Orthodox or same-sex ceremony - just don't share these important moments with that ugly establishment. The Rabbinate needs to be made irrelevant, at least until it is possible to legally get married (and divorced ) without it," Persico wrote.

His and Yehieli's actions stemmed from their objections to the Chief Rabbinate's conduct and regulations; for example, its "black list" of people who are barred from marrying, which includes new immigrants and converts.

"According to halakha we are clearly married, although according to our identity cards and to the state, we are both completely single," says Yehieli, who works at the organization Havaya (Being ), which helps organize alternative wedding ceremonies. She and her spouse are not afraid of the marriage ordinance, which stipulates that, "anyone who fails to register his marriage or divorce [with the Rabbinate] will be charged with an offense."

Yehieli: "We refused to register at the Rabbinate and had no intention of getting married in Cyprus. It is clear to us that Rabbinate registration is an obstacle. If they ever get divorced, people who wed in Cyprus will wind up in a rabbinical court and then they will really be in trouble. That's why we didn't do it. If, heaven forbid, we have to get divorced, we will do so in a Jewish ceremony - but not at the Rabbinate."

Persico calls for what he terms a social protest on issues of religion and state, but admits that, "in contrast to [the issue of the high cost of] cottage cheese, weddings are tied to people's identity, so this is much more difficult. A majority of the secular people in Israel have a vague supposition that Orthodoxy is Judaism and that the rabbis surely know what they're doing over there in Bnei Brak. Don't forget that they frightened the secular people by telling them they would have children who are mamzerim unless they got married at the Rabbinate ... The issue is always whether the kids will be mamzerim."

Orthodox Jews opting for alternative marriages are "a tiny minority today," Persico continues, "but it's clear to me that there's a future in it. After all, the Rabbinate is not getting any more enlightened, and in my opinion it is only a matter of time before its monopoly collapses. Obviously at some stage there will be a law permitting civil marriage. It's enough that 20 percent of the couples in Israel will not register as being married and that will happen."

Haredi bypass routes

Dr. Yonatan Ben Harosh, former chairman of the centrist-religious Ne'emanei Torah Vaavodah organization, officiated a few years ago at the wedding of his brother, who refused along with his girlfriend to go to the Chief Rabbinate. Ben Harosh, who serves as a member of the Bnei Akiva religious movement's leadership, declares that he "completely shares and supports private marriages carried out according to the law of Moses and Israel, and not through the rabbinical establishment, which today is unfortunately ruled by one extremist side. On the macro level, we need to ... reach an agreement on the various possibilities for marrying. In my mind, that would only strengthen Jewish identity and not push away people who feel that to get married they have to leave the country. That is what pushes them further away from Judaism and ultimately harms the Jewish identity of the country. I am interested in working against this as best I can."

While only the Chief Rabbinate is formally authorized to register Jews for marriage in the country, as said, there are exceptions to the rule in ultra-Orthodox communities. The badatzim (literally, "courts of justice" ) of the Eda Haredit, of the Belz sect, of Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib Landa, and She'arit Yisrael - all are recognized by the state when it comes to the delicate work of registering marriages. In these cases, the Rabbinate relies on registrars appointed by the community in question, who are not civil servants, to verify the single status and Jewish affiliation of the couple to ensure that the marriage does not involve a married woman, a spouse who is not Jewish, a cohen (associated with the priestly class ) with a divorcee, and so on. The Badatz Eda Haredit and Badatz Bnei Brak of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz are recognized also for granting divorces.

All the abovementioned courts are private bodies not associated with the state's official institutions, and not obligated by the law, but the system still relies on them. Many thousands of Haredim avail themselves of these institutions every year - marrying and divorcing - without coming into any contact with the state system, which receives reports retroactively and ratifies their new personal status.

The above-mentioned Yehiel is a graduate of the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Alon Shvut, and he and his partner Tamar chose to exploit the Haredi privilege of registering for marriage in accordance with the dictates of their conscience - in other words, without coming into contact with the Chief Rabbinate - although they are not ultra-Orthodox. Their abhorrence of the Rabbinate is so great, he notes, that he and his wife, who were raised on the values of Zionism and respect for the state, preferred to approach an anti-Zionist Haredi body to get married and also, paradoxically, to receive recognition from the state afterward.

An activist in pluralistic religious movements, Yehiel says: "I saw it as my duty in my personal life as well not to take the easy way out and register at the Rabbinate. This comes from a sense of alienation toward an institution that is growing farther away from what it was supposed to be."

He and Tamar initially contemplated getting married in a private Orthodox ceremony, like the Persicos did, but then someone suggested that they approach a badatz as an act that is one of protest but also allows full civil recognition by the state as a married couple. The couple discovered a surprisingly simple and remarkably user-friendly procedure; to be sure things would go smoothly, they armed themselves with a letter from a recognized rabbi who knew them and is also known in ultra-Orthodox circles.

Yehiel: "The rabbi attested to our being Jews and single, and thus eligible to marry, and said that as far as he was concerned we were credible. We came with the letter, and from there everything went very quickly. I admit that we were dressed up a little as Haredim ... I had ritual fringes hanging outside and with a white shirt and black pants, and my wife came in long sleeves and a skirt of the proper length."

Yehiel says that once the file was opened at the badatz office, they discovered that the whole process was also economical: The fee at the Eda Haredit was, to the best of his recollection, around NIS 150 - about a quarter of the fee for opening a marriage file at the Rabbinate.

When they were filling out the forms, Yehiel's bride was asked which rebbetzin would be guiding her in preparation for the wedding on matters of family purity, as is required, and she said Rivka Lovitz. Lovitz is not a bridal counselor, but rather an attorney well known in Orthodox circles, who battles militantly against Haredi judges in rabbinical courts.

Says Yehiel, "they are so out of the loop [at the badatz] that they weren't familiar with the name, and simply wrote it down. Then they asked which rabbi would be marrying us, and we said truthfully, Rabbi Yehuda Amital [head of the Har Etzion yeshiva, who has since died, and was known for his moderate religious and political views]. But that didn't mean anything to them either, they just wrote it down.

"I don't have the abhorrence of Haredim that perhaps characterizes friends of mine in the pluralistic organizations, and the question of people's Zionism is not the only parameter in my eyes. Our groups are in the midst of a big battle over religious services in Israel, and the Chief Rabbinate is the primary means of control that is threatening us. It and the rabbinical courts are controlled by the Haredi political parties, and our tendency is to fight that, not the Haredim per se. A lot of ultra-Orthodox people would agree with this. I welcome the growing number of private rabbinical courts, like Badatz Eda Haredit. We need to break the monopoly ... Not to let the situation get out of hand and allow anyone who wants to open a rabbinical court to do so, but rather to establish agreed-upon criteria."

No property acquisition

One trait that clearly typifies Orthodox Jews who marry in private ceremonies, as well as those who officiate at them, is their profound respect for and ability to act in line with halakhic precepts. In some cases their knowledge is tainted with a measure of audacity that is obviously unacceptable to most rabbis, when it comes to altering certain traditions - mainly those that touch on the status of women. Some of these people are called "post-Orthodox."

Prof. Noam Zohar, an expert on the philosophy of halakha at Bar-Ilan University, was also ordained as an Orthodox rabbi (though he does not serve as one in practice ). Some 25 couples have consulted with him over the years, he says, regarding private wedding ceremonies done in the spirit of Jewish law; he married about half of them himself, though he is not authorized by the Rabbinate to officiate.

One of the brides he advised is his student, Dr. Irit Koren, who recently published a book on alternative religious rituals entitled "Harei Ata Mehudash Li" (Magnes Press ). (The title, "You Are Hereby Renewed unto Me," is a play on the words uttered by the groom to the bride in a traditional wedding: "Harei at mekudeshet li," meaning "You are sanctified to me" ).

Precisely because of his strict approach to halakha, Zohar says he explicitly asks couples not to follow the procedures in the standard ceremony, which include kinyan (literally, "acquisition" of the bride, who traditionally accepts something of nominal value from the groom ) during the kiddushin (sanctification ) phase of the wedding. Zohar explains that he has adopted the approach of the late Rabbi Meir Simcha Feldblum, a onetime head of the Talmud department at Yeshiva University in New York and a professor at Bar-Ilan University, which favors a religious ceremony that does not involve kinyan through kiddushin, and supports a different but halakhically acceptable way of formalizing a monogamous relationship, called "derekh kiddushin" ("in the manner of kiddushin" ) by Feldblum. Thus, in Zohar's ceremony, the groom says "Harei at meyuhedet li" ("You are special to me" ) - instead of "mekudeshet li," because of the connotations of acquiring property in the latter.

"From a halakhic standpoint, I was convinced by Rabbi Prof. Feldblum's arguments that it is a perfectly kosher thing to maintain a monogamous relationship without kinyan and kiddushin," Zohar explains. "I would not suggest to any man, and certainly not to any woman, to formalize today a relationship that contains kinyan and kiddushin, because of the manner in which the implications of this are interpreted today in a majority of rabbinical courts. Kinyan kiddushin creates a potential trap for the wife, and therefore there are quite a lot of women who have been denied a get."

Undoing the bond

Amit Gvaryahu and Yedida Koren, Talmud students, dug deep into the literature of halakha to create a ceremony that does not involve kinyan. Instead, there is an exchange of binding documents (shtarot ) which stipulate a series of conditions, one of which is to avoid using the services of the Chief Rabbinate at any time. A no-less-important condition - to which mainstream rabbis vehemently object - in effect prevents a situation of aginut for either spouse, and it too is based on a halakhic source: If the couple does not live together for 18 consecutive months, the bonds of marriage may be undone in a relatively simple procedure.

"This is a provisional marriage," Gvaryahu explains. "In other words, when a certain condition no longer exists, it cannot be said that we are still married. It's like a catch-22, a bomb built into the mechanism. You need to think [in advance] about all the possibilities.

"The Rabbinate is not a body that represents us," he adds. "We do not belong to their religious sect. It is run by people who are not acceptable to us, and we do not believe they have real integrity."

Gvaryahu's criticism is also aimed at the halakha itself, and at the way in which it is being applied at present: "Kiddushin is an institution that ... [can be seen to be] immoral for every man, and particularly every woman. If a man should fall ill and become a vegetable - there is nothing to do. There won't be anyone to release his wife. With all due respect, the institute of kiddushin is very problematic, and demands rethinking."

In response to an inquiry from Haaretz, Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, who also serves as president of the Rabbinical High Court, said that the Chief Rabbinate "is adamantly opposed to private marriages and also to private divorces. If someone does such a thing, he does so under his own responsibility. We do not recognize it. We declare kval am ve'edah [in full view of the nation and the community] that it causes grave prohibitions and confusion among the public, and ... we will not recognize these people under any circumstances."

A story about divorces undertaken outside the Rabbinate will be published next week.