The Real Obstacle to Marriage Equality in Israel

Seeing my first Israeli wedding confirmed how much the struggle for religious equality here is rooted in politics.

My best friend from childhood made aliyah after high scool and at long last, met a wonderful Israeli woman to marry. Never mind the fact that I am a pulpit rabbi and he called me to tell me that the wedding date was being set for the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Months ago, even with all of the anxiety surrounding the holidays, I decided there was no way I was going to miss this special simcha.

However, a few days before the wedding that I received an email that in some ways created more anxiety than my advance Rosh Hashanah preparation. The email was from my friend asking me to honor him by signing his ketubah. In America, I would have been ecstatic about the opportunity. But as a shomer shabbat Conservative rabbi coming to Israel, where the rabbinate has exclusive control of religious affairs, I became immediately apprehensive about how my signing the ketubah would play out. If I signed my title, “Rabbi,” on the ketubah, would the chief rabbinate look into my background and invalidate the ceremony?

The groom and his family were supportive and said that I should absolutely sign with my title. However, I soon decided that as the ultimate mitzvah of a Jewish wedding was to misameyach hechatan ve hakalah (to rejoice with the bride and groom), and not to cause them stress, that I would sign the ketubah without the title.

That said, when I arrived at the ceremony, from a professional standpoint I was pleasantly surprised. The wedding itself and the reception were as joyous as I expected them to be. But it was the rabbi who made the difference as a guest at the ceremony. When I arrived, the groom's father introduced me to the officiating rabbi, who seemed to immediately grasp the situation. And contrary to what I had assumed, he did not seem at all concerned that I was signing the ketubah, let alone that I would be listing my profession as "rabbi" on the document. He invited me up to the chuppah by my title, "HaRav Dorsch," to witness the ceremony. We had a good time trading notes after afterward. His treating me with the utmost collegial respect made the wedding all the more special for me as a guest.

By all accounts, my Israeli colleague did a terrific job. However, I couldn't help but think that had I been allowed to legally officiate at my friend's wedding, which, as Conservative rabbi, I am not allowed to doin Israel, I might have brought much simcha to the happy couple. Our ceremonies had no discernible difference, and this included the contemporary custom of both the bride and the groom exchanging wedding rings, which I have noted is a Jewish legal sticking point for many American Orthodox rabbis, but apparently isn't in Israel (in this ceremony, just as in my ceremonies, the bride gave the ring as a gift to the groom).

Seeing my first Israeli wedding run by a member of the rabbinate confirmed for me just how much of the struggle for religious equality in Israel is rooted in politics rather than actual matters of religious doctrine. I now understand that the rabbinate, which at one point may have been a state institution designed to meet Israelis’ religious needs, has devolved into a union with a monopoly dedicated toward the financial welfare of its members.

There is nothing wrong with belonging to a union. In the United States, I also belong to a union called the Rabbinical Assembly. But if someone chooses not to utilize my services for religious, ideological, or otherwise differences, they have many other options.

Unfortunately, Israelis are not given that luxury because of the monopoly. Data even suggests that marriage ceremonies are increasingly failing as an institution because of the rabbinate’s desire to behave as a union rather than an adaptable institution. In 2011, 10 percent of Israelis chose to marry abroad, with a large number doing so because the rabbinate’s inflexibility has made it impossible for them to get married at home.

As a response to this concern, one would expect that the state would strive to remove all barriers to meet the diverse needs of Israelis who wish to marry.  The Orthodox rabbi did a wonderful job at my friend's ceremony and brought much joy to the happy couple on the eve of the Jewish New Year. But in choosing to function as a labor union rather than an institution, the rabbinate as a whole does not serve Israelis well generally.

The rabbinate ought to lose its monopoly, and if it continues to act as a labor union rather than an adaptable institution, should move its seat from the Great Synagogue to the office of the Histadrut labor federation down the street.

Rabbi Daniel Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.

Alex Levac
Alex Levac