A marriage registration reform bill that would allow couples to register for marriage in the jurisdiction of their choice – regardless of where they reside – passed its first reading in the Knesset late Monday night.

MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) proposed the bill, while MK Faina Kirschenbaum’s (Yisrael Beytenu) separate bill addressing similar issues was passed concurrently.

The two pieces of legislation have been nicknamed the “Tzohar Bills,” because they are largely designed to allow the national-religious Tzohar rabbinical association to register couples for marriage without being subject to restrictions placed on it by the Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Services.

Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav expressed his thanks to the MKs who voted in favor of the bill and particularly Schneller and Kirschenbaum. He added that the organization will do what is required to expedite the passage of the bill through its second and third readings.

Schneller’s bill passed 25-8 and Kirschenbaum’s 28-8. The eight opposing MKs were all members of the ultra- Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties.

MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) voiced his opposition to the bills during the debate and introduced a vote of no confidence in the government over the legislation, which was nevertheless defeated.

Schneller began working on his bill in 2009 and it passed its preliminary reading in February 2011.

Sources within the rabbinate previously told The Jerusalem Post that Schneller’s law was preferable, as he consulted with the Chief Rabbinical Council and the chief rabbis on the details of the law and worked together with them to solve the problem, whereas the rabbinate considered Kirschenbaum’s law to be superficial, a claim her office denied.

The issue was put at the top of the public agenda when Tzohar closed down its marriage service program in November in protest of the Ministry for Religious Services’ restrictions.

According to the ministry, a couple must register for marriage in the place of residence of either the bride or the groom. Tzohar claims that the rabbinate and the ministry imposed restrictions on its ability to function in order to protect the revenue rabbinate- affiliated rabbis obtain for conducting wedding ceremonies.

The rabbinate denies that its rabbis take any form of remuneration for performing weddings, a practice which is illegal.

Kirschenbaum’s bill was also designed to circumvent the phenomenon of local rabbinates refusing to register those who converted under Orthodox auspices in the IDF.

Many ultra-Orthodox rabbis consider the IDF conversion system to be unreliable and are therefore unwilling to allow those converts to marry in a Jewish ceremony in Israel.

The Tzohar law would also establish a computerized database for the rabbinate’s use to store a categorical record of all marriages and divorces as well as the marital status of anyone requesting to register for marriage.

The database, proposed by Schneller, will help address chief rabbinate concerns that the registration process will no longer be reliable as a result of permitting couples to register outside their city of residence, the MK said.

Labeling the bill “revolutionary,” Schneller said the legislation represented “a breakthrough in the relationship between the values of Western Israeli society and the values of tradition and Jewish law,” following the bill’s approval.

Many secular couples prefer to register and get married with the help of Tzohar – which began its wedding program in 1996 – because of bureaucratic and other problems often encountered with local rabbinates. In spite of the restrictions imposed, in recent years Tzohar rabbis have officiated at 3,000 weddings a year – and over 15,000 in total – approximately 20 percent of all secular weddings.

The Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry have expressed deep opposition to the bill, claiming that it would cause a schism between Jewish communities, who would no longer feel free to marry Jews from other communities, primarily referring to the ultra- Orthodox.

The Chief Rabbinate did not however comment on the passage of the bill on Tuesday.

In January, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger took the unusual step of writing to all 120 MKs calling on them to oppose the legislation.

Such a law, he said, would cause a decline in the reliability of the rabbinate marriage process – until now universally accepted – and would result in the separation of the Jewish people into “small tributaries that do not marry between each other.”

Tzohar has argued that the legislation under discussion would not have any such effect and has accused the Chief Rabbinate of trying to frighten the public with these claims.

Instead, Tzohar claims that the freedom of couples to register under the auspices of a rabbinate led by a Tzohar rabbi, regardless of their place of residence, will reduce the numbers of Israelis who go abroad to marry in a civil ceremony.

Both bills will now be brought to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for preparation for their second and third readings.

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