The system of religious marriage and divorce in Israel constitutes a commercial industry that sustains itself through exclusion, discrimination and commercialization of family life. The bureaucracy at its center is a misogynist and greedy arrangement that profits not only from marriages but also from the religious-status investigations, divorce proceedings, alimony hearings and custody battles under its jurisdiction. At its heart is a business model that keeps Jewish citizens a “captive audience.” With marriage via other streams of Judaism being criminalized, the Rabbinate’s monopoly over family life ensures it entrenched power and a healthy income. I propose that couples of all faiths, genders and status take back the authority over their union from a corrupt religious system and live as common-law spouses instead.
The economic rationale behind the religious control of the system of marriage and divorce is compelling, and the former is no less lucrative than the latter. Do not underestimate the religion industry’s economic power, nor the role of economic considerations in the Rabbinate’s decisions within marriage and divorce proceedings.
In many places around the world, there is no fee for registering a marriage. In Israel, not only does the couple pay for registration; they also bear a host of other bureaucratic costs. I estimate that marriage registration alone generates revenues of NIS 24 million every year. When the rabbi who performs the marriage ceremony requests an additional donation for his services, costs can rise by thousands of shekels.
An integral part of the Rabbinate’s business model depends on religious-status investigations. The citizens of Israel should not have to pay an institution to verify the religious credentials of couples who request marriage licenses. The fact that the subject of the demeaning inquiry is also required to pay for it suggests that financial considerations are at play.
The system is structured so that a fee is paid for each procedure or document required. The longer the marriage registration, divorce, religious-status investigation or custody battle drags on, and the more procedures and documents that are required, the greater the rabbinical courts’ income.
Fees paid to rabbinical courts for divorce proceedings fund a vast mechanism of officials, including administrators, clerks, judges, and scribes, and amount to NIS 15 to 20 million a year. The 120 state-employed rabbis in dozens of cities and neighborhoods in Israel earn salaries of up to NIS 30,000 a month. Nationwide, last year the state paid out NIS 342 million for their salaries, with another NIS 100 million paid by local authorities. In 2012, after a raise in rabbis’ salaries, the religious services budget will reach NIS 1.1 billion, which comprises 0.4 percent of the state budget.
Such an astronomical investment could be justified if used to provide citizens with services that are necessary, equal and available to all. Yet the Rabbinate has proved to be a discriminatory, self-serving monopoly power that a cynic might suspect operates more for financial gain than religious conviction. In its current form, the rabbinical establishment and all it represents distances us greatly from the original values of Judaism.
Because marriages performed by individuals other than rabbis authorized by the Rabbinate are illegal, secular Jews and adherents of egalitarian streams of Judaism can’t choose officiating rabbis who fit their belief system. Instead, they must choose between a religious marriage that contradicts their convictions, having a religious ceremony that answers their spiritual needs but is not recognized by law, or living as a common-law couple without a marriage certificate. That is a deep violation of religious freedom and human rights.
Ironically, many observant Jews don’t even recognize the religious authority of the Rabbinate. A growing number of Haredim and modern Orthodox choose not to marry through the Rabbinate and hold independent marriage ceremonies conducted by rabbis from their own institutions. Perhaps this is because people of faith realize that Judaism is not the property of the Rabbinate but a tradition and system of belief that belongs to all. For people who seek a religious framework for family life, the Rabbinate is not integral. Judaism is.
I propose “privatizing” marriage in Israel, not in the capitalist sense of letting a corporation profit from government responsibilities, but by restoring civil liberties and privacy to the individual. Those Jews who choose religious marriage should be able to marry with a rabbi of any Jewish stream. Those who wish to subject themselves to the authority of the rabbinate can be free to do so. Those who wish to have a civil marriage even to marry someone of a different faith should be able to marry in Israel in a non-religious framework. And those who wish to remain independent of government or religious authority can choose common-law partnership, something that is recognized by Judaism. Thanks to amendments to over 20 Israeli laws, common-law couples enjoy virtual legal equality to legally married couples in nearly every sphere of life.
Common-law partnership makes the couple, and not the government or religious establishment, the authority in family life. It empowers individuals to take control over the most personal sphere of life by removing government or religious intervention in family life. Common-law partnership makes the couple the master of their own destiny.
Irit Rosenblum is a lawyer and the executive director of the New Family organization.