Justice Minister Tzipi Livni declared a civil revolution with the opening of the Knesset’s winter session.
In Israel of 2013, the right to civil marriage is a political quagmire, and issues that the western world forgot centuries ago, such authorizing clerics of different streams of the same faith to perform marriages, are considered radical and even destructive by many in Israel.
Israel is still the only democracy in the world without civil marriage. There is only one legal way to marry in Israel, and hundreds of thousands of loyal citizens do not fit the narrow definition of couples eligible to marry in their own country. The archaic institution of the agunah literally chains women whose husband’s fate is unknown, or more commonly, who withhold a divorce to extort a better settlement, and “bastardizes” any children she has with another man.
The biblical Halitza ceremony of a childless widow ritually removing her brother-in-law’s shoes is still required to exempt them from the obligation of Levirate marriage.
These ancient customs still oblige Israeli Jews, so when one brave minister declares her intention to free the family from the chains of religion, it is no surprise that her initiative is welcomed by many.
The legislation proposed by Livni would allow citizens to choose an authorized rabbi that best reflects their perspective by receiving religious services at any location, instead of just their local rabbinate. The proposed law would promote competition between local rabbinates and encourage stricter rabbis to moderate their policies.
Each municipal or regional council chief rabbi would be able to hold his own conversion court. Restaurant owners and food producers would be able to get their kosher certifications at any rabbinate, regardless of where their businesses were located.
Livni also advocates prenuptial agreements, including the Agreement for Mutual Respect, which would minimize occurrences of women being involuntarily bound to their marriage. Livni also wishes to require that 40 percent of council members that elect municipal rabbis be women.
The changes proposed by Minister Livni are inarguably smart and positive changes that would benefit many. Yet, these new laws would only improve the experience of some with the religious establishment.
They would not free citizens from the obligation to marry religiously, nor authorize rabbis from non-Orthodox streams to perform marriages, nor enable interfaith unions to unite, nor allow gay marriage, nor permit those who can’t document Jewish heritage to wed, nor change the status of those forbidden to marry on religious grounds.
The revolution declared by the Minister Livni originates from a bold desire to free the family from the shackles of religion. But reforming the religious establishment is not enough. The institution of marriage itself is the problem.
Around the world, marriage has become a source of power and an instrument of government control. In the 18th century, civil marriage became a secular alternative to religious marriage for those who preferred government to religious authority. For two centuries, civil and religious marriage co-existed as parallel, overlapping authorities.
Yet, I assert that the institution of civil marriage is the antithesis of individualism. Civil marriage is simply a secular version of religious marriage, with the state replacing the religious institution as the authority.
Because civil marriage negates individualism, I argue that individuals should choose common-law partnership over legal marriage.
I propose “privatizing” marriage, not in the capitalist sense of letting a corporation profit from government responsibilities, but by restoring civil liberties taken from the individual and appropriated by the government.
Common-law partnership offers privacy and autonomy in a world of increasing intrusion and regulation. Imagine if citizens had to obtain a license from the state to learn to read. We would claim our freedom to education had been infringed. So why should we obtain a license from the state to have our life partnership recognized? Isn’t that a violation of freedom of conscience?
The truth is there is no real need to marry, religiously in Israel, or civilly abroad. Israeli law recognizes the status of common law couple and equates those rights to those of married couples. Common- law partnership makes the couple, and not the government or religious institution, the authority in family life. Common-law partnerships have their own independent authority and validity. Their legitimacy is distinct from religious or civil marriage, whose authority is drawn from an external source, the state or religious institution.
Common-law partnership empowers individuals to take control over the most personal sphere of life by removing government or religious intervention in family life. It makes the couple the master of their own destiny.
Common-law marriage is the expression of autonomy in family relations. It is a declaration of partnership. It renounces the need for the approval of state or religious institution to live our lives.
We choose the partners with whom we live and wish to start a family. Common-law partners simply report their decision to the state and do not ask for the state’s permission or approval.
Just as a person does not receive state permission to work in a particular place, neither should we need approval to live with a particular spouse. This relationship is intimate, the most personal and private. It is unclear how we allowed this country to infringe on our privacy so profoundly.
So how do common-law couples get status and rights equal to married couples? New Family Organization offers two adult partners of any gender, religion or nationality that meet the legal definition of common- law spouses in Israel Domestic Union Cards.
Domestic Union Cards are picture identification cards that entitle couples to legal status and rights equal to married couples on the basis of a legal affidavit that its holders are common-law spouses.
They serve as legal proof of couples’ status as common- law spouses in most institutions in Israel and many abroad. Domestic Union Cards provide an egalitarian alternative to religious marriage.
When the validity of the relationship is internal and the couple only reports its existence to the authorities without asking permission from the government to wed, the relationship is more genuine, natural and intimate.
This powerful conceptual change empowers and validates the relationship from within and not by external forces. It is the essence of freedom itself.
Once that understanding is reached, and the demand for freedom in family life is voiced, family life can become our private domain and individual prerogative.
This is our opportunity to ask Minister Livni, the Israeli government, and the State of Israel, to return our family relationships to our own consciences.
Livni – the real revolution will occur when we there is no need for civil marriage laws, when the individual can choose his or her spouse and live without the approval of the state or religion!
The author is an attorney at law, an expert on human rights and the law of biological continuity, founder and executive director of New Family Organization.