Bill to remove criminal sanctions for conducting private marriages

Approximately 5,000 people per year encounter problems registering for marriage and are required to clarify their Jewish status with the rabbinical courts.

February 2, 2016 19:20
2 minute read.
An Ultra-orthodox Jewish

An Ultra-orthodox couple at their wedding in Bnei Brak.. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

A bill proposed by Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie to decriminalize private wedding ceremonies performed outside the auspices of the chief rabbinate is scheduled for a vote in the Knesset plenum Wednesday.

Originally introduced as a clause in legislation designed to abolish marriage-registration zones that was passed in November 2013, the law’s implementation has been stalled by the chief rabbinate.

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The law is not likely to be supported by the coalition in its preliminary reading Wednesday in the Knesset.

A clause within that law, however, stipulated that anyone who does not register his divorce or marriage with their local rabbinate, or anyone officiating at a wedding who fails to register the couple as married, is subject to two years in prison.

It was then deputy minister of Religious Services Eli Ben-Dahan who introduced the clause, arguing that it was intended to prevent instances where a husband who refused to give a bill of divorce to his wife remarried without finalizing the divorce from his earlier marriage.

Critics claimed, however, that it was an attempt to clamp down on a small but growing phenomenon of people marrying in an Orthodox style outside of the chief rabbinate.

Approximately 5,000 people per year encounter problems registering for marriage and are required to clarify their Jewish status with the rabbinical courts.

This process can sometimes be unpleasant and hostile, and it is thought that a certain percentage of those seeking to clarify their Jewish status give up doing so through the state rabbinical courts and approach Orthodox rabbis to conduct a wedding privately once the rabbi is convinced of their Jewish status.

People who convert to Judaism through a private Orthodox rabbinical court, and, therefore, are not recognized by the state as Jewish and able to marry another Jew, would also require a wedding ceremony to be conducted outside the auspices of the chief rabbinate. Approximately 400 to 500 such conversions are performed each year in Israel.

Others may simply object to marrying through the chief rabbinate on ideological grounds.

The criminalization of private weddings may even apply to Reform and Conservative rabbis, although if the Orthodox religious establishment believes those weddings to be invalid according to Jewish law it would be unlikely for them to fall foul of this law.

“Israel is the only democratic state in the world where someone can be imprisoned for conducting a wedding,” said Lavie.

“We need to deal with this new reality in which more and more young people are choosing to marry in a religious ceremony not through the chief rabbinate. Instead of dealing with this problem, the rabbinate threatens people with imprisonment,” she continued.

ITIM, a religious services advisory and lobbying group, also has criticized the current law and helped draft Lavie’s bill.

“This amendment will correct a historic mistake in the history of marriage in Israel,” said ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber.

“It is a travesty that performing a chuppa is a criminal act subject to two years in jail. This is a good example of how the chief rabbinate feels that punishment is the best incentive to creative religious devotion. The present law is anti-religious at its core. If such a law existed in another country, we would accuse the county of blatant anti-Semitism.”

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