The Religious Weight on Israeli Marriage

By Aaron Baron

During a Shas party election rally, Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, discussed how reform-converted Jews are forbidden from getting married to other Jews (as defined by religious law) in the state. Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

Introduction to the Chief Rabbinate

The Chief Rabbinate serves as the foremost rabbinic authority in Israel, yet the origins of the institution’s concept predate the Jewish state itself. The rabbinical position was established by the High Commissioner of the British Mandate of Palestine. The High Commissioner approved the appointment of an Ashkenazi and Sephardi Rabbi to the Orthodox Rabbinate position in 1921.

Much of the Chief Rabbinate’s current power is rooted in a decision made by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, in 1947. In the years prior to Israel’s independence, the leaders of different schools of Zionism disagreed on how religious the Jewish state should be. To avoid creating a divide along religious and secular lines, Ben-Gurion promised to give control of the marriage courts to the Chief Rabbinate, an organization that primarily represented the interests of the Datim (religiously observant Jews).

The Chief Rabbinate has extensive control over Israeli society. The Rabbinate adjudicates who qualifies as a Jew and recognizes or rejects marriages and divorces. The alarming power held by the Chief Rabbinate has proven to be a direct threat to the democratic character of Israel.

Marriage in Israel

In 1953, the Israeli Knesset passed the Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction Law, a piece of legislation that classified the marriage of Jews in Israel as “under the exclusive jurisdiction of Rabbinical Courts.” Under this framework, civil marriages are not permitted in Israel, and State-recognized Jewish marriages can only be approved if they are performed by an Orthodox Rabbi (who has been approved by the Chief Rabbinate). Today, Jews in Israel who hold a marriage ceremony outside of the Chief Rabbinate’s authority can risk a jail sentence of up to two years (although this is rarely enforced).

The marriage crisis in Israel has barred hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis from legally marrying. The Chief Rabbinate has denied marriage certificates to 13,000 Jews whose overseas conversions were rejected; 80,000 Kohanim (Jewish priests) who wish to marry converts or divorcees and are forbidden from doing so by Jewish law and 5,000 women that have been labeled as “untouchables” because of their past sexual history. An estimated 360,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union have been classified as “without religion” by the Rabbinate for not meeting the Rabbinate’s lofty standard for Judaism — despite being considered Jewish enough to be granted Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. These restrictions have made marriage difficult for far too many and are not supported by the Israeli populace.

The harsh marital laws imposed by the Chief Rabbinate are not reflective of Israeli society as a whole. The majority of Jews in Israel identify as Hiloni (secular) and a majority of Israelis oppose the strict process. A poll from May 2015 found that nearly 80% of secular Israeli Jews would prefer a non-Orthodox Jewish wedding. More crucially, 64% of all Israelis polled in 2014, a sample that included Orthodox respondents, believe that civil marriages should be made available in their state.

Israelis having their weddings in Larnaca, Cyprus to avoid the complications of getting married in Israel under the Chief Rabbinate. Photo: Reuters

Israel’s marital laws put the state’s non-Jewish and LGBTQ populations in a tough position as well. Aside from a few rare exceptions, interfaith marriages are not allowed to be conducted within the state. Additionally, the estimated 250,000 members of Israel’s LGBTQ community cannot have their marriages performed within Israel.

Israel’s reputation as a democracy is tarnished by the unjust power granted to the Rabbinate. Hidush, a non-profit organization advocating for freedom of religion for all Israeli citizens, has ranked Israel as the only democracy with marital laws that are on par with Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s claim that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East” is sullied by marital laws that limit interfaith, same-sex and even Jewish secular marriage.

Separation of Religion and State

The issues surrounding the Chief Rabbinate can not be easily solved through a separation of religion and state. For many Jews, the intertwined relationship between Judaism and democracy is essential to the state’s prosperity. A complete separation of religion and state is unrealistic and would violate the principles that Israel was founded upon. If the Jewish character of Israel is ignored, then Israel would merely be a state of Jews, rather than the Jewish state. A vast majority of Israeli Jews do not wish to see a complete separation of religion and state. In fact, 76% of Israeli Jews surveyed in 2016 believe that Israel can effectively function as both a Jewish state and a democracy.

Even if it were a good idea to separate religion and state, it would be nearly impossible. Loosening the grasp of the Chief Rabbinate has become increasingly unlikely as Israeli politicians desperately rely on the support of Orthodox voters in elections. A more plausible solution would involve the formation of religious institutions that represent more denominations of Judaism beyond the Chief Rabbinate.

Earlier this month, the Israeli High Court stripped the Chief Rabbinate of some of their powers regarding citizenship eligibility. Photo: Emil Salman

Law versus Reality

In spite of the strict religious guidelines set forth by the Chief Rabbinate, there are several legal loopholes used to bypass the power of Israel’s religious institutions. For example, many Israelis simply get married overseas — an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Israeli weddings are officiated in Cyprus each year. Upon returning to Israel, these newly wedded couples present their marriage certificate to the Ministry of the Interior and qualify for all of Israel’s marital benefits without having to get married under the Orthodox restrictions of the Chief Rabbinate. The extreme lengths that many Israelis have undergone speak volumes to the influence of the Chief Rabbinate.

Within the last decade, the Israeli Knesset has taken great strides to undermine the Chief Rabbinate’s authority. In 2010, the Israeli Knesset passed the Civil Union Law for Citizens with No Religious Affiliation. Under this law, a couple could form a state-recognized civil union if both parties are registered with the Ministry of the Interior as not belonging to any religion. The Civil Union Law has been utilized by secular couples who refuse to have an Orthodox wedding ceremony.

The reality in Israel is that the religious authority of the Chief Rabbinate can, and will, be compromised. The measures to circumvent Israel’s religious institutions, however, should not distract from the fundamental problems caused by the Chief Rabbinate. These loopholes should not excuse the stranglehold that the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbinical Courts have established over the personal matters of Israeli citizens.

Concluding Thoughts

The Chief Rabbinate and religious community in Israel will not turn the state into a complete theocracy, but if Israel wishes to maintain its democratic character, dramatic changes must be made. While it may be frightening, secular politicians must stand their ground against the minority interests of the state’s religious parties. Changing the Israeli frameworks that address the marriage process is no easy task, but politicians must ensure that Israel’s democratic values are upheld.

On March 1st, 2021, Israel’s High Court made a monumental decision to recognize non-Orthodox conversions under the Law of Return. The court found in favor of 12 petitioners who were denied Israeli citizenship in 2005 and 2006 since they converted through a non-Orthodox authority. The ruling is a tremendous step in diminishing the reach of the Chief Rabbinate.

To appease Israel’s religious population, the Chief Rabbinate will still hold power over some matters; but for the better of Israeli society, it should only pertain to situations involving Orthodox citizens. This proposal is easier said than done, and will likely be met with opposition from the state’s religious parties; but to be an egalitarian society, the religious influence in Israel must be addressed and lessened.

The Israel Journal at NYU is an explanatory journal dedicated to clearing up the conversation around Israel.