Who's Afraid of Civil Marriage in Israel?

The argument that civil marriage will promote a rift in the Jewish people is a lie. So why do the religious parties really oppose such legislation?

Avi Garfinkel
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Women dressed as brides in support of civil marriage bill.
Women dressed as brides in support of civil marriage bill.Credit: Emil Salman
Avi Garfinkel

On Sunday a civil union bill, which would enable civil marriages in the country, was submitted to the Knesset, for the ninth time. There is seemingly no reason why the proposed legislation submitted by Yesh Atid Knesset member Aliza Lavie should not pass. Everyone knows that Israel is the only democracy that does not permit civil marriage in the country, and nearly everyone, including many religious people, understand that the situation is insufferable.

Hundreds of thousands of people, including “mamzerim” (a category of certain illegitimate children under Jewish religious law), those barred the right to marry, same-sex couples, and even those who have fallen in love with someone of another religion can’t get married within the borders of the State of Israel. That involves the denial of a basic freedom and does serious damage to the principle of equality.

It is nearly certain, however, that this bill too will be rejected, in part on the false argument that if Jews in Israel get married without the rabbinate as intermediary, other Jews would not be able to marry their descendants, thereby creating a rift in the Jewish people. “Civil union initiatives are seeking to split the Jewish people into two! It simply will not happen!” declared former Habayit Hayehudi MK Yoni Chetboun in October 2013 while explaining his opposition to one such piece of legislation.

In fact even some secular Israelis are impressed by this argument and are prepared to forgo some of their freedoms and compromise their values so long as the unity of the people is not harmed. But contrary to the statements of those who have been threatening us, civil unions would in no way promote a schism among the people. Believe it or not it represents the position of Jewish religious law, halakha.

Late Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled on the issue at the Tel Aviv regional rabbinical court in 1973. The case involved a couple who had married in Romania in a civil ceremony and had a son. They were later divorced and the wife then remarried and again divorced. She sought to return to her previous husband, but Jewish religious law, which is binding in Israel on matters of marriage and divorce between Jews, does not allow a divorced woman who had been married to another man to return to her first husband. Rabbi Yosef therefore considered the validity of the woman’s first marriage, the civil marriage in Romania. He referred to a long list of rulings according to which civil marriage did not in any way constitute a marriage, in the Jewish religious sense. He ruled: “Since the [civil] marriage is void in and of itself, the ‘get’ [Jewish religious divorce] is also meaningless;” therefore there is nothing barring the marriage of the woman and her first husband.

Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky of the Rabbinical Court of Appeals, also ruled: “Civil marriage performed out of choice and free will [in a manner other than Jewish tradition], despite the ability of the couple to duly marry according to religious law, is considered marriage that is contrary to halakha. Therefore, in such an instance, there is no need for a ‘get’ [a Jewish religious bill of divorce] to be provided by the husband to the wife.”

In other words, according to Rabbis Yosef and Dichovsky, anyone whose parents were married in a civil ceremony can marry a Jewish spouse in a religious ceremony, even at the rabbinate, without running afoul of halakha. Therefore, the concern that civil marriage will bring about a split in the Jewish people is baseless.

And from a practical standpoint as well, opposition to civil unions is insignificant. In 2011, at total of 8,995 Israelis, about 11 percent of all the couples who married that year, wed in civil ceremonies abroad. And then there is that huge number of people who choose not to get married at all, living as common law couples. The number of people who would marry at the rabbinate only because they had no other option inside Israel is shrinking. The only beneficiaries of the current situation are travel agents who sell airlines tickets to Cyprus and other destinations where Israelis can get married in civil ceremonies.

Opposition to civil unions is baseless both from the standpoint of halakha and practically speaking and involves more than a little hypocrisy. The ultra-Orthodox community already keeps separate marriage registries or lists than those kept by the Chief Rabbinate, and in practice, they would never marry into secular families. In other words, the split in the Jewish people that they warn against is already here and has been for some time. The hypocrisy is also apparent from the fact that it is actually the most sectoral and tribal political parties, those that only look after their own voting publics, that dare speak in the name of unity and the good of the nation when it is convenient for them.

As with a lot of other subjects, extraneous political circumstances are what have allowed a minority to force its will on the majority and infringe on human rights. But the circumstances are just circumstances, even if they have prevailed for decades. And the moment the circumstances change, this injustice, which is not based on halakha or truth or logic or justice, will also vanish from the country.

The writer heads the writing center at Jerusalem's Shalem College.

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