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Civil Marriages

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-10-22

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

The State of Israel has no provision for civil marriages, although it recognizes such marriages contracted abroad.

The former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Bakshi Doron, has had the guts to stand up against fifty years of religious politicking and advocate dismantling the system whereby all marriages in Israel have to take place under the auspices of the official Rabbinate.

He argued in favour of repealing the law on very practical grounds. A growing number of Israelis marry abroad in civil ceremonies. Hundreds of thousands of non-Jews have moved to Israel in recent years.  Most of them are technically classified as Jews by Israeli civil law, even though they are members of another faith or do not intend to convert to Orthodox Judaism.  Since they don’t meet the religious qualifications for the legally required Jewish marriage, such people can’t get married in Israel (except by a growing number of lawyers who offer very expensive, technically illegal services).

Rabbi Bakshi Doron said that the law increases antagonism towards Judaism because it is seen as coercive. Non-religious Israelis resent having to have a rabbi present at their weddings and often act in such an obviously disrespectful way as to make the whole thing a laughingstock. In addition, it makes a mockery of Judaism because it simply reinforces the legislative, ritualistic aspect of a state religion instead of associating it with spirituality.

I have always opposed the involvement of religion in party politics. It was argued once upon a time that Israel needed to be identified as a Jewish State rather than as a State for Jews. In the Declaration of Independence, religion figures only in the ambiguous call on the support of the 'Rock of Israel' (which Ben Gurion slyly argued meant 'the army'). But the religious parties argued for legislative powers to ensure the Jewish character of the State and, of course, to support their own political agenda. So Shabbat and Festivals were recognized as official State Days.  Fair enough.

But the observance of specific Sabbath laws was to be a matter for local government. Hence Haifa’s buses always ran on Shabbat, whereas Jerusalem’s did not. And religious councils were set up around the country to ensure or enforce religious laws where operative, including kashrut and a general ban on the trade in pork--except where there was a clear local demand or specific markets.

Indeed, several kibbutzim made nice profits in the pork trade and you could often see shops advertising in big letters NOT KOSHER or non-supervised restaurants offering ‘white meat’. Of course everyone argued--they always did, and still do.  Religious Jews were offended by any sign of pork, and secular Jews were offended by any sign of religiosity. In true Israeli fashion, both sides took up extreme positions on the assumption that the inevitable compromise would end up somewhere in the middle. All this, together with the State support for religious education, was part of the so-called Status Quo and tacit agreement on matters religious in a secular state.

But the issue of marriage was a crucial one.  It was argued that without it there would be no cohesion amongst the Jews of Israel and there would be fragmentation between those Jews could marry and those they couldn’t. This, along with the question of ‘Who is a Jew’, became contentious issues during the formative years of the State. As a result, in 1948 Ben Gurion agreed that marriage and divorce should be dictated by religious law, either Jewish, Muslim or Christian but not secular.

In the Diaspora there was no compulsion to marry religiously.  Many chose to do so, because religious ceremonies play an important part in Jewish cohesion and self- image. But Israel, it was argued by secular Zionists, did not need religious identification. Nevertheless political compromises won. Despite this, in practice, there has been no national cohesion at all.

In effect, there always have been in Israel, as elsewhere, two kinds of Jews—those whom religious Jews would marry and those they wouldn’t. In spite of the fact that State Marriage facilitates a national record of Jew marrying Jew, many religious communities keep their own records because they don’t trust the State’s. (Kibbutzim have tended to be free and easy with marriages and very often Jews coming from abroad might be Jewish according criteria the Orthodox would not accept.)

So what would be lost by having civil marriages? Nothing more than in England or the United States. You can get your civil certificate. But if you want a religious ceremony you have to satisfy whichever religious authority you want to have perform the ceremony. And as we know there are some  extreme sects which won’t even approve of marriage with other orthodox ones.

It is time to allow for civil ‘marriage’ in the loosest sense and call it ‘contractual partnership’ and allow any two human beings to contract it. Or if you prefer the other way round, call civil partnership ‘Marriage’ and religious Jews can call what they do ‘Kiddushin’ or ‘Chuppa’! This will then obviate the sort of antics the Protestant Churches are getting up to avoid same-sex partners getting married.

Imposing religion always creates a backlash. Religious authorities should have sufficient confidence in their own product not to need having it either enforced by others or imposed. This way more energy and money could be put into trying to persuade people to lead religious lives through education and marketing a desirable product. Knowingly imposing something unpopular is the sort of thing totalitarian dictators try to do. Of course no one is getting killed, but it represents a Medieval view of religion that is neither relevant nor desirable for religion’s own sake.

But I read now that the Church of England wants to bring back heresy trials to ensure all its clergymen are towing the party line. Sign of the times!

Shabbat Shalom

Jeremy