Ultra-Orthodox Council May Abolish Discriminatory Wedding Officiation Rules

Reform will significantly expand the ability of Tzohar rabbis to perform weddings.

Tzohar, an organization of moderate religious Zionist rabbis, may be racking up a second major achievement in less than a week: In a reform backed by Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, discriminatory rules that now prevent many rabbis who are not ultra-Orthodox from performing marriages could soon be abolished.

The reform falls short of Tzohar's original demand, which was to allow all qualified rabbis to marry anyone, anywhere in Israel. Nevertheless, it will significantly expand the ability of Tzohar rabbis to perform weddings.

The new reform may be brought to a vote by the Chief Rabbinical Council as early as today, despite opposition by some of the council's Haredi members.

Currently, the rabbinate's rules on performing marriages are very restrictive. A community rabbi can only marry people who live in his own community, while a yeshiva rabbi can officiate at weddings solely for his own students. The only exceptions to this rule are for certain prominent Haredi rabbis who have obtained the status of admor (an acronym for "our master, teacher and rabbi" ). These rabbis included leaders of particular Haredi communities, or certain rabbis who head kollel yeshivot, where ultra-Orthodox married men study full-time. So only members of these very specific groups could marry any couple, anywhere in the country.

Under the new rules, the group of rabbis who are given carte blanche to officiate at all Israeli weddings would be broadened to include the heads of several types of religious Zionist institutions: hesder yeshivot that combine Torah study with army service, mechinot where Orthodox men study before they enter the army, and yeshiva high schools for either boys or girls. Like their Haredi counterparts, these rabbis will still need to obtain official certification from the rabbinate. In order to get this they must have served a minimum number of years in their position, and must produce recommendations from other rabbis.

The proposed new rules, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, were worked out in talks between Metzger, Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav and Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, a member of the Chief Rabbinical Council. Metzger reportedly agreed to back them under threat of a petition to the High Court of Justice. The petition, brought by 18 students from Sha'arei Mishpat College, posed far more radical demands. They had wanted anyone ordained as a rabbi by the rabbinate, or anyone who heads any recognized Orthodox community in Israel, to be entitled to officiate at any Israeli wedding. Still, the revised rules would eliminate some of the discrimination against non-Haredi rabbis.

Metzger began talks with Tzohar after officials from the state prosecution told him a few weeks ago that there is no way to defend some of the existing rules in court, since they are clearly biased toward Haredi rabbis. Although Tzohar was not party to the petition, Metzger was hopeful that an agreement with the organization would be enough to avoid a court battle. In fact, while the court was supposed to have heard the petition on Wednesday, the parties agreed to postpone the hearing until July. The petitioners' lawyer, Dr. Aviad Hacohen, said that "in light of the new criteria, we'll wait to see whether real change takes place on the ground, and based on that, we'll consider our next steps."

Earlier this week, the Knesset approved a bill in first reading that would eliminate another main barrier Tzohar rabbis face: the rule that marriages can be registered only by the local rabbinate, which in most towns is controlled by Haredim.