Civil marriage is one of the most encumbered issues in the Jewish state, but the religious-Zionist organization Ne’emenei Torah Va’Avodah began a campaign Sunday advocating for the introduction of such a possibility in Israel.
The group, which is on the liberal end of the religious-Zionist community, says it is the first time a religious organization has called for civil marriage, which is generally considered to be an anathema to religious communities and leaders.
To start the campaign, NTA created a comical, animated video underlining the problems inherent in the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over Jewish marriage in the state.
There is no legal framework for civil marriage in Israel at present, and all matters of marriage and divorce are conducted by the established religious authorities – in the case of Jews, by the Chief Rabbinate. The state does, however, recognize a couple that was married abroad in a civil ceremony, and they can register as such with the Interior Ministry if they so wish.
NTA argues that the lack of civil marriage and the necessity of dealing with the Chief Rabbinate, with its frequently less-than-welcoming approach, has distanced Israelis from religion, forced religious marriage on them and led to thousands of couples being married in civil ceremonies in places such as Cyprus and the Czech Republic.
This, the group says, has negative consequences for the cohesiveness of Jewish religious life in Israel, which could be alleviated by some form of civil marriage.
NTA’s campaign will seek to bring public awareness to their argument that civil marriage, if done correctly, will not be detrimental to the unity of the Jewish people, an idea that has been supported by senior rabbinical figures.
The group points to a responsa written by former chief Rabbi Bakshi Doron, who wrote that, if a form of civil union were created that explicitly stated it was not marriage, there would be no religious concern that the couple’s cohabitation would be considered Jewish marriage, and they, therefore, would not need a religious divorce if they wished to separate or be confronted with the problematic personal status issues of Jewish law.
The late Rabbi Yehudah Amital, one of the founders of the prestigious Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, also wrote that he believed many people who opted for civil marriage abroad did so in order to fight against religious coercion and the religious establishment, and that if there were to be a reduction in the motivation for such a fight, religious marriage would still remain popular alongside a track for civil marriage.
At this stage, the organization is not proposing one specific solution, but trying to advance the notion that there are alternatives.
One idea that could be advanced, for example, would be to create a form of civil union, which is explicitly not called marriage, while another could be to allow a form of civil marriage to the 600,000 Israelis who are unable to marry in Israel.
This figure includes some 400,000 citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law, as well as members of the LGBTQ community and those who cannot marry each other due to concerns of Jewish law such as a Cohen with a convert or a divorcée.
The only real way to create some form of civil marriage would be through legislation, something that is politically impossible at present due to the opposition of all religious parties, including the haredi United Torah Judaism and Shas parties and the national-religious Bayit Yehudi.
In the last government, which did not include the haredi parties, Yesh Atid advanced a law that would have allowed civil unions, but it was blocked on religious grounds by Bayit Yehudi.
Therefore, NTA is not currently lobbying for legislation on the issue, but simply trying to create a public campaign to highlight the solutions and possible alternatives to the current situation, especially among the national-religious community.
A poll conducted for the group by the Miskar Institute for Surveys found that nearly half of the national-religious community, some 49%, already would support, to some degree, some form of civil marriage.
Among the broader Israeli population, support is much higher, with a poll for the Hiddush religious pluralism organization in 2015 by the Rafi Smith Polling Institute showing that 67% of the Jewish-Israeli public supports the implementation of civil marriages or civil unions, while a poll in June 2016 found that 76% of the Jewish-Israeli public supports the establishment of some form of marriage for gay couples.
Although support for civil marriage among the general population used to be accompanied by a widespread hope that religious marriage would still be the option of choice for Jewish couples, that phenomenon is decreasing.
While in 2015 Hiddush’s polling showed that 63% of the Jewish public wanted their children to get married through the rabbinate and 37% wanted an alternative, in 2016, just 53% said they wanted religious marriage for their children and 47% said they wanted an alternative.
“Our goal in this current campaign is to explain to the [religious] public that the current situation is problematic,” said Dr. Hanan Mandel, chairman of NTA.
“It is problematic not only because of the claim about the damage to civil rights and freedom, it is also problematic from a Torah direction, since it distances people from religion... there are eight different proposals that have been made [at some stage] to change the status quo on the issue of marriage and divorce, in one form or another, and at least some of these proposals could lead to a better situation from a religious perspective.”