Documents obtained by The Jerusalem Post show that the Chief Rabbinate is actively trying to circumvent a law passed in 2013 abolishing marriage registration districts.
The Chief Rabbinate’s behavior has prompted criticism that the institution is creating difficulties for couples getting married instead of assisting them and that its stance means that couples have to pay more money than necessary to complete the registration process.
The law allows couples to register in any of the local religious councils around the country regardless of their place of residence, a change from the previous situation when a couple had to register in the jurisdiction where at least one of them resided.
Complaints about the unprofessional and obstructive attitude of many religious councils to couples registering for marriage are rife, and the law was designed to allow couples to avoid unhelpful, overly bureaucratic and unwelcoming councils in favor of those that provide greater assistance in navigating the religious bureaucracy.
But the Chief Rabbinate has bitterly opposed the legislation and is using an administrative requirement for the marriage registration process to stymie the law.
Just this week, the chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical association said that the Chief Rabbinate had no substantive reason or concern for any aspect of Jewish law in opposing the new law, but was simply seeking to preserve its control of the marriage registration process and the flow of money inherent in it.
Although couples can now register for marriage in any local religious council they choose, partners must still prove that they are single, a statute introduced in the period of the British Mandate over Palestine to create reliable marriage records.
Until now, when couples had to register for marriage in the local religious council of their place of residence, they would take the witnesses to the council to testify they were both single.
Following the passage into law of the legislation abolishing marriage registration districts, many religious councils that began registering couples from outside their place of residence allowed them to also prove their single marital status at the same religious council.
But the law abolishing the marriage registration districts states that couples can register wherever they want but does not explicitly say that they can prove their single status anywhere they want.
So on November 20, 2014, the Chief Rabbinate wrote a letter to the local religious council in the Gush Etzion region, which had registered couples from outside their place of residence, stating that Chief Rabbi David Lau had explicitly demanded that local religious councils registering couples from outside of their place of residence continue to request a certificate of single marital status from the local religious council of their residence.
The letter argued that, despite the new law, the rabbinate has the authority to make such demands under the terms of the Law of the Chief Rabbinate of 1980.
A similar letter was subsequently sent to all local religious councils, many of which have complied with the Chief Rabbinate’s demand.
The practical effect of this demand is that even if a couple registers for marriage in a religious council known for its helpful attitude, they still have to take the time and pay extra fees to the religious council of their place of residence to produce a certificate of single marital status, thereby obviating the new law.
ITIM, a religious services advisory and lobbying group which helped draft the law, says that the Chief Rabbinate’s letter and its stance on certificates of single marital status explicitly contradict the language and purpose of the law abolishing marriage registration zones, and that its claim to authority under the Law of the Chief Rabbinate of 1980 is without foundation.
ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber pointed out that if proving single marital status is part of the marriage registration process, there is no reason to demand that it be done at a separate religious council. If, on the other hand, it is not part of the marriage registration process then, Farber argued, the Chief Rabbinate has no jurisdiction over the process of proving single status.
Additionally, the Law of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, 1980, does not in any way give the Chief Rabbinate the authority to circumvent the law and demand that couples continue to produce certificates of single marital status from the religious council in their place of residence, ITIM argues.
The Law of the Chief Rabbinate simply delineates the general authorities of the Chief Rabbinate, but does not permit it to ignore other laws, such as the statute abolishing marriage registration districts, Farber said.
“The Chief Rabbinate is blatantly disregarding the new law, causing further difficulties and expenses to couples seeking to get married,” the rabbi told the Post. “The intransigence of the Chief Rabbinate demonstrates their insensitivity to citizens seeking to get married in Israel.
It’s a shame that the Chief Rabbinate expends excessive resources on circumventing the law rather than trying to improve the Jewish lives of Israeli citizens.”
Farber noted that ITIM has received complaints on this issue directly from couples who were unable to complete the registration process at the local religious council of their choosing.
ITIM has written several times to the Chief Rabbinate requesting an explanation for its position on the matter, but has received no answer.
The organization is now in the process of pursuing legal action against the Chief Rabbinate to guarantee the rights of marrying couples.
The Chief Rabbinate declined to comment.