Regev Responds

Married to the Rabbinate

Israeli news series demonstrates the urgency and centrality of freedom of marriage to Israelis

Israel's Channel 10 News ran a four-part series about the issue of marriage in Israel and the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly over this basic right. The timing and content serve as a major boost for efforts for freedom of marriage.

Russian immigrants marry an informal marriage ceremony on Valentine's Dayon Dizengoff Square. The bride is not recognized in Israel as a Jew, so the couple can not marry in Israel officially. 04.08.2009. Photography: Miriam Alster, Flash 90Russian immigrants marry an informal marriage ceremony on Valentine's Dayon Dizengoff Square. The bride is not recognized in Israel as a Jew, so the couple can not marry in Israel officially. 04.08.2009. Photography: Miriam Alster, Flash 90

The urgency of freedom of marriage in Israel and support for it among the majority of Israelis were made crystal clear to the Israeli public with the recent airing of "Married to the Rabbinate," a Channel 10 news series on the issue.

Despite the natural media and political focus on the Gaza war, it was very telling that the station chose to air this four-part series, which presented the stranglehold of the Israeli Orthodox Chief Rabbinate on marriage and the public’s strong desire to break it.

We learn two important lessons through the airing of this series:

1. Even at time of war and great anxiety over security – the Israeli public is still looking at the larger picture in Israel; at social and other challenges. They are not willing to be consumed by the military and security concerns.

2. Freedom of marriage bears a great deal of significance to the Israeli public and media. There is a sense of serious urgency and wide support for drastic change and freedom of marriage for all.

This primetime Israeli news series exposed the wide scope of the problem of marriage in Israel, which simultaneously impacts all of Israeli society and affects Jews throughout the world.

A Widespread Problem

As Hiddush continuously emphasizes, there are hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who are denied the basic right of marriage in Israel, and many more who are denied the ability to celebrate their marriage according to their will and choice. These Israelis are considered Jewish by the Rabbinate, but are coerced into an Orthodox non-egalitarian ceremony, which is in sharp dissonance with their beliefs and lifestyle.

Over 300,000 immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who, because their father is Jewish and their mother is not, cannot marry at all. They are joined by all non-Orthodox (and many Orthodox) Jews-by-Choice whose Jewish status is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate and are similarly denied the basic right to legally create a family in Israel.

It is important to note that there is even a growing number of Orthodox couples who marry in a halachic, more egalitarian and creative manner, and therefore opt to marry outside the Rabbinate. This is, in part, to express their opposition to its monopolistic, outdated, control over marriage and, no less importantly, over divorce.

Clearly, there are important issues that the Israeli public is not ready to place on the back burner even at times of national unrest. In this case, freedom of marriage is that issue. The series strongly demonstrates that a majority of Israelis support civil marriage in Israel and would like to see equal recognition of non-Orthodox marriage ceremonies.

Getting the Facts Straight

One of the most commonly heard claims against freedom of marriage in Israel is that a civil framework for marriage and divorce in Israel will cause a rift within the Jewish people. Opponents to freedom of marriage threaten that the Jewish People will be divided between those who are halachically married and those who are not. They express the concern that it will bring about fears regarding illegitimacy and uncertainty as to the Jewish status of a growing segment of the Jewish People.

Opposition to the Chief Rabbinate is an expression of support by those who embrace Israel as a Jewish and democratic state...

However, one message that repeatedly came across in the series from a number of Orthodox activists and intellectuals interviewed is that there should be no real halachic fear of splitting the Jewish people through civil marriage.

The reasons why one might oppose introducing freedom of marriage are not grounded in Jewish law, but stem from the desire of some to ensure (and enforce) the Jewish character of the state by maintaining the Rabbinate's monopolistic authority and exclusive recognition of only Orthodox marriages for Jews.

Opposition to the Chief Rabbinate, as we now see, is far from being a secular response to religious authority. It is, rather, an expression of support by those who embrace Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, unwilling to allow Israel to deny the right of marriage to its citizens or force upon them a religious ritual that is objectionable to many.

World Jewry: The Crucial Component

The series concluded by focusing its lens on world Jewry as a partner to the struggle for freedom of marriage in Israel. In this segment, Susie Gelman, the President of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and North American Co-Chair of the 2013 General Assembly, rightly identified the issue of marriage in Israel as directly and adversely impacting on world Jewry.

When asked what she thought about the notion that Israelis wouldn't understand Diaspora Jewry's involvement in an internal issue, Gelman quickly pointed out, "That question is offensive...this is not an internal issue. It's an issue that can harm every Jewish person around the world since it's connected to the Jewish identity of all."

Both Gelman and Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli journalist and Senior Fellow at the influential Jewish People Policy Institute, noted the impact that the lack of freedom of marriage in Israel could have on future Israel-Diaspora relations.

Commenting on the negative impact of the serious restrictions on marriage in Israel, Rosner said, "The great danger is that the young generation of American Jews will say 'this country doesn't interest us anymore.' The real threat isn't the [need for] just a little more money, a few more tourists…you don't want to get to the point where they start saying 'we've given up on these guys. We're ending contact.' This threat is actually the threat where the gun is already sitting on the table."

The battle over freedom of marriage, therefore, cannot be seen as an internal Israeli issue but rather as one that threatens Jewish global unity and the future of solidarity with Israel as more and more members of the Diaspora Jewish community find themselves told by the State of Israel, against the will of most Israelis, that they are ineligible to legally marry in Israel even if they chose to make Aliyah.

Channel 10 has rightfully recognized the necessity to highlight the critical role of Diaspora Jewry in Israel’s future, understanding that one of the essential elements of ensuring such support is freedom of marriage for all Israelis. This series, and its airing even at a time of national distress for Israel, will help generate further public discourse on this important topic, dispel fears and prejudices, and convey to Israel’s policy makers that the time has come for change. If anything, it’s long overdue.

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