The national-religious Tzohar rabbinical association announced on Thursday night that it has come to an agreement with the Chief Rabbinate, which will lift restrictions on rabbis associated with the organization from conducting weddings.

Tzohar, which provides a free-of charge wedding service targeted at non-religious Jews, temporarily closed its flagship program back in November in protest of constraints it said the rabbinate imposed, limiting its ability to function.

This move prompted an outburst of public and political anger aimed at the religious establishment, leading to an appeal to the High Court of Justice on behalf of Tzohar, as well as the initiation of legislation in the Knesset to remove one of the main bureaucratic obstacles to the organization’s operations.

Dialogue was however initiated between Tzohar and the rabbinate and, as reported by The Jerusalem Post last month, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav met in secret at Metzger’s home in May in order to reach a compromise deal on the issue.

The agreement announced on Thursday concerns the criteria that rabbis are required to fulfill to be granted permission to conduct weddings.

According to Rabbi Metzger’s spokesman, the rabbinate agreed to compromise on the criteria, and Tzohar promised in return to work toward having the High Court appeal withdrawn and the legislation stopped.

Rabbi Stav categorically denied this claim, telling the Post, “We were not requested, nor did we agree, to intervene in the current legislation proposed in favor of Tzohar.”

The rabbinate was extremely concerned about the legislation, which address a wider bureaucratic issue, claiming the proposals would lead to a situation in which ultra-Orthodox communities would no longer rely on the rabbinate marriage system – thereby splitting Orthodox Jewry in Israel into separate camps.

Rabbi Metzger said he was more concerned about the possibility that the proposed Knesset bills would pass – rather than with the possibility that the High Court appeal would be accepted – because “the previous criteria did not in any way discriminate against Tzohar rabbis.”

“I was more concerned that the Knesset legislation would lead to the problem of mamzerut [status of children born out of wedlock to a married woman] and the division of the Jewish people, so we were accommodating in order to rescue the situation,” he said.

A Tzohar spokesman denied that the organization was working to have the proposed legislation withdrawn. Rabbinate representatives were not available for comment on the agreement.

Until now, community rabbis and deans of yeshivot not officially employed by a local religious council needed permission from the council to conduct weddings.

Tzohar claimed that many rabbis affiliated with religious councils accept payment for marrying people, a practice not permitted by law, and that Tzohar rabbis were refused permission to marry couples who approached them because the religious councils were protecting this source of income.

The rabbinate strenuously denies these claims.

The Tzohar chairman called the agreement “an historic achievement,” and thanked Metzger for his “tireless work and cooperation leading to the agreement, and [Sephardi] Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who was responsive and encouraging the whole way.”

“This is a victory for reason and fairness,” Stav added.

“This agreement between Tzohar and the rabbinate opens a new page in [the] relationship between with the national-religious movement in general and Tzohar in particular.”

Metzger also thanked the Council of the Chief Rabbinate for supporting the dialogue and approving the new criteria.

According to the new criteria, communal rabbis will be required to: provide a certificate of ordination from the rabbinate; pass a test on the Jewish laws of marriage through the rabbinate; and be approved by three chief municipal rabbis, who serve as the head of communities of at least 30 families.

Tzohar established its wedding project in 1996, to reach out to secular Israelis who had negative experiences with the rabbinate, and provide them with the opportunity to have a rabbi more sympathetic to their level of religious observance marry them – without charge or expectation of any other kind of remuneration.

Despite the restrictions, Tzohar says that it has nevertheless managed to perform 3,000 weddings a year, approximately 20 percent of all secular weddings, according to the organization’s figures: “Through what we’ve achieved here, we will be able to draw the nation of Israel from all communities and sectors closer to the traditions of Israel – as we have been doing until now and will continue to do in the future.”

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