The Orthodox voice that supports civil marriage in Israel is only rarely heard in public. It generally cedes ground to the argument of “national interests.” Ironically, this is true despite increasing numbers within religious circles, even within the rabbinical courts, who believe that the establishment of a state system of civil marriage, alongside the existing religious system, would benefit both the general public and the halachic community.
Fear of assimilation and for the survival of the Jewish people, even on the part of secular Israelis, are the primary factors that allow the continued religious monopoly over personal issues in the country. Religious and secular Jews have united to perpetuate the myth that the “status quo” is in the best interests of society. The religious argue on halachic grounds that civil marriage will split the nation; while the secular, who would be in favor of the immediate establishment of civil marriage, succumb to that argument.
The oppressive nature of divorce in this country and the increase in the number of agunot – women who are denied a religious divorce, for whatever reason – has produced a historically unprecedented phenomenon of couples living together publicly in spite of the fact that the woman is still married to another man according to Jewish law. The increase in such couples and the public legitimacy they enjoy presents a real danger of increasing mamzerim – halachic bastards – a situation that threatens the nation’s social fabric from both a religious and a secular point of view.
The legal recognition that the courts give such relationships institutionalizes a marital bond that is considered religiously incestuous, and further exacerbates existing religious and national problems. Concern about this situation even motivates recognized halachic decisors to speak in support of civil marriage.
Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, for example, has proclaimed publicly that
“coerced religious marriage ceremonies for nonreligious couples who have
no interest in them creates halachic problems that overshadow the
benefit of requiring everyone in Israel to be married religiously.”
IT IS no secret that the institution of civil marriage would have an
immediate positive effect on the way the rabbinical establishment
handles religious marriage. There is no doubt that the option of
state-sanctioned civil marriage would motivate the religious
establishment to find and implement appropriate halachic solutions to
the problems of agunot, to the problems of marriage between a Cohen
[member of the priestly line] and a divorcee, and to other kinds of
religiously “invalid” marriages. Additionally, the existence of an
option to marry civilly would reduce the pressure exerted by proponents
of a rigid Orthodox conversion process and remove it from the public
Without a religious legal system that coercively binds all Jewish
citizens, the state could automatically preserve Orthodox law in
personal-status issues, thus establishing a common basis for the
religious identity of its inhabitants and preventing assimilation. In
spite of the singular importance of this goal, practically it is
impossible to continue to hold an entire population hostage to the
demands of the Orthodox establishment, a situation that prevents the
formation of an alternative, independent, Israeli Jewish identity that
is crucial to our existence.
The writer is the executive director of Mavoi Satum.