Svetlana Sadigursky and Gabby Liebeschitz deserve a hearty mazal tov. That’s not only because they were married last week but because their marriage marks a significant milestone.
When they tied the knot they became the first Israeli couple to be wed according to the new Civil Union Law, the brainchild and pet project of Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem.
Both bride and groom, who had immigrated in their early childhood from the former USSR, are registered as unaffiliated to any religion. That made them eligible to take advantage of the new civilmarriage opportunity. That same opportunity isn’t available to other Israelis who prefer a nonreligious marriage (though that had been Rotem’s initial aim). Those Israelis still need to travel abroad if they wish to opt for a strictly civil ceremony.
The problem begins with the definition of one’s religious denomination.
In Israel this has nothing to do with actual religious practice, degree
of devoutness or lack thereof. It has everything to do with birth and
Jewish religious law. Offspring of a Jewish mother, or a Jewish maternal
line, are considered Jews. Descendents from a Jewish paternal line
aren’t, regardless of how much they may identify themselves as Jews.
This leaves many immigrants – mostly Russianspeaking but also from the
Americas and Western Europe – without clear affiliation. This becomes
problematic as, in the absence of civil marriage in Israel, a couple can
only wed under Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Druse auspices.
The little that remains of Rotem’s much broader legislative vision can
solve the problem of some among the 30,000 Israeli citizens who are
officially listed as belonging to none of the recognized religious
frameworks (out of an estimated 300,000 quasi-Jews – those not
recognized as fully Jewish by the Rabbinate). But it’s not that simple
even so far as this specific slim sliver of the population is concerned.
For instance, a “mixed couple” – i.e. where one person is of no
denomination while the other is – cannot benefit from the new law. It
solely applies only in the relatively uncommon cases where both bride
and groom come under the same legal definition of being religion-less.
This worked in the case of Svetlana and Gabby. Another 25 couples appear
to fit the definition and have therefore also applied for the civil
union ceremony; six are set to marry after Pessah.
The disconcerting aspect of the arrangement is that the applications of
these couples must be subjected to further official scrutiny to ensure
that they are in fact religiously unaffiliated. Some couples may find it
demeaning and others may object to the length of time and unbecoming
hassles inherent in the probe itself.
Incongruously, the very legislation that was designed to provide an
alternative to religious marriage is subjected to the approval of
religious authorities. Those who consider themselves as being without
religion will require the bureaucratic say-so from the religious
community to which they do not belong but to which they may be tenuously
In addition, the current law doesn’t even begin to address the problem
of a Kohen marrying a divorcée or of the illegitimate son or daughter of
a married woman (mamzerim).
THE CIVIL Union Law was born of the best of intentions to meet very real
and pressing needs of a burgeoning component of our population. To
leave them without recourse to full marriage in this country is
unconscionable (all they could manage here thus far was a common-law
union arranged by an attorney). The new law is a welcome breakthrough.
But while it may have been conceived whole, it was born amputated and crippled.
Still, perhaps it’s small-minded to nitpick too pedantically and focus
on what the law does not address rather than on the legal remedy,
limited as it may be, that it offers for some.
It is a patently imperfect corrective measure, but it is a significant
encouraging step in the right direction and perhaps, we hope, a
harbinger of better things to come. It’s better that this law was
enacted, than had it not been passed at all. Better that the glass be
half-full than fully empty.