Israelis, It Seems, Are More Conservative Than They Let On

Perhaps agreeing to get married shows that most Israelis are more conservative than they let on.

For many Israelis, getting an invitation to a wedding is about as thrilling as getting a traffic ticket. And not because they're cheap, lazy or misanthropes, but because of completely logical, deep-seated objections. After all, surrounding the couple under the wedding canopy during the ceremony are many guests who really don't want to be there. The couple is repeating words they really don't understand, promising each other things that are really impossible to promise.

We treat a wedding like a necessary evil, but actually it's a phenomenon that requires elucidation. How is it that in 2011, completely secular Jews still marry in religious ceremonies? It might be an ancient need for a rite of passage, but most young couples say they are marrying to establish a family. That sounds logical, but it's a strange claim, considering that there is no connection between how children come into the world and marriage.

Illustration of wedding
Avital Ashtal

In response, it's sometimes said that Jews must marry before they have children so their children will not be considered illegitimate. That claim evades the problem (after all, without marriage, there would be no illegitimate children or adultery as defined by courts of Orthodox Jewish law ). But even more, it's not true. An illegitimate child, a mamzer, is the child of a married woman fathered by a man other than her husband. According to Judaism, the child of an unmarried or divorced woman and a partner to whom she is not married is not illegitimate.

Think about it: The commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" is a central value in the Torah. In contrast, there is no commandment to marry. So if we don't marry to establish a family, maybe the wedding is a way to publicly celebrate our love? If only that were so. But in fact, weddings everywhere are only a celebration for a small group of family and friends; that is, only if the wedding is tiny in Israeli terms.

And maybe we get married because of the need to institutionalize the relationship? That could be, but all the data show that marriage doesn't deter the dissolution of the relationship any more than laws against smoking marijuana influence that. Marriage's economic and legal advantages also don't explain the race to the marriage canopy. Inheritance laws, national insurance and other laws in Israel today allow common-law couples to enjoy the same rights as those of married couples.

Why then do most secular couples in Israel decide to marry?

Perhaps agreeing to get married shows that most Israelis are more conservative than they let on, and that despite their protest against "religious coercion," they identify with the patriarchal values at the basis of the sale-and-purchase deal called marriage.

It might also be that the fervor to get married has to do with the ever-growing gap between the class to which most people belong and the class that rules over them. The Israeli wedding - in its current Hollywood model - is the only opportunity for most Israelis to fantasize for one day, just like the poor of Brazil who spend their hard-earned savings on carnival costumes.

It's also possible that people get married just because that's what is done. Some people who get married do so just so society will not remind them again and again that they are unconventional. That's understandable, but to them we will say that society develops thanks to those who are prepared to stand up for their unconventionality. Mazal Tov.