New marriage license guidelines

Reform leader: Chief Rabbinate tightening its grip on weddings.

May 26, 2010 05:47
A wedding. (illustrative)

wedding 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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New directives issued by the Chief Rabbinate demand that marriage registrars send any person whose parents’ wedding was not performed by a rabbinate-recognized body to a full-fledged “inquiry into their Judaism” at a rabbinical court.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, including many immigrants – from Western countries as well as from the former Soviet Union – fall into that category.

The guidelines were issued on Sunday to all city rabbis and marriage registrars and are intended for immediate implementation. They are directed at applicants for marriage licenses whose parents were not married by a rabbi in Israel, or by a rabbi abroad whose name is on the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s list of recognized Orthodox community rabbis.

In addition, the letter accompanying the directives states that marriage registrars are “permitted” to refer even those who meet the above noted conditions to such an inquiry.

At the same time, however, registrars may allow the wedding of people who have “the verdict of a rabbinical court confirming their Judaism,” even if their parents were not wed by an approved rabbi. Senior sources in the Chief Rabbinate told The Jerusalem Post this was a reference to converts.

The guidelines are an attempt to regulate procedures that have varied from registrar to registrar for years, and come in response to a High Court of Justice petition by ITIM – The Jewish Life Information Center; Maj.-Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern; convert Alina Sardiyokov and her husband Maxim; and others.

As head of the IDF Manpower Directorate, the modern-Orthodox Stern oversaw a program that allowed non-Jewish soldiers to convert to Judaism.

Two months ago, the plaintiffs filed a petition against the rabbinate and four stringent city rabbis, who have repeatedly refused to grant marriage licenses to Israelis who converted to Judaism in Orthodox, state-recognized religious courts.

Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, head of the office of Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, told the Post that the new directives, which were recently formulated by the Chief Rabbinical Council, ensured that marriage registrars would no longer be able to reject state-approved conversions – the problem at the core of the petition.

However, the new regulations appear to officially elevate the Chief Rabbinate’s religious standards in accepting an individual’s Judaism. If in the past, someone seeking a marriage license could be approved by the registrar on the spot, the new procedures take that authority from the registrar and dictate a full rabbinical court session, which the applicant’s mother (and, if possible, maternal grandmother) must attend.

The same inquiry will apply to those who were not married by a body recognized by the rabbinate and who now want a divorce.

Expenses involved in the rabbinical court inquiries – such as testimonies by experts on various communities or laboratory examinations of wedding certificates – will be borne by those undergoing the mandatory procedure. In addition, the rabbinical courts may charge the litigant for “other expenses, including for the benefit of the state.”

The guidelines do, however, stress the aspiration to conduct no more than one session on each case, where possible, and note that such an inquiry will be final in determining the Judaism of the subject, as far as the Chief Rabbinate is concerned.

As such, while apparently attempting to solve a predicament of a relatively small scope, the directives mean that hundreds of thousands of Israelis – primarily from the former Soviet Union – whose parents were wed in non-Jewish ceremonies or by rabbis who are not recognized by the rabbinate, will have to go through a rabbinical court inquiry to get marriage licenses. Until now, marriage registrars had the authority to approve the applicants, and while they could send them to a rabbinical court for an inquiry, they usually refrained from doing so.

ITIM pointed out to the Post that there was no mention of converts in the document, and that the “verdict of a rabbinical court confirming their Judaism” could refer to a rabbinical court inquiry into Judaism, and not necessarily a civil conversion certificate signed by the head of the State Conversion Authority.

Conversions in Israel may take place in either a designated conversion court, a military court, or a regular rabbinical court, all of which are under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. In all cases, the convert receives a certificate from the State Conversion Authority.

Most conversions in Israel take place at the special conversion courts rather than at rabbinical courts.

ITIM also noted that even if the converts were meant to be exempt from an inquiry in principle, the clause permitting registrars to refer anyone to a rabbinical court could nullify that in practice.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, said the term “rabbinical courts” did not include the conversion courts in its accepted meaning and usage. He called the new directives illegal and expressed confidence they would be canceled.

“This is an attempt by the Chief Rabbinate to strengthen its grip over the rabbis conducting weddings,” Kariv told the Post on Monday. “If the extremist and haredi rabbinate thinks the Israeli public will let them conduct a massive operation of inquiry into the Judaism of a quarter of the population, they are wrong. These new directives will not pass.”

He noted other clauses in the document that require an inquiry into the Judaism of people seeking divorce, who were not married by an approved rabbi, and the fact that the person referred to the rabbinical court would have to cover the expenses of the procedure.

Kariv and Anat Hoffman, head of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, sent an urgent letter to Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein on Monday, demanding that they cancel the new procedures on the grounds that they were not issued by the justice minister and approved by the Knesset Law Committee, as the law demands on matters of marriage and divorce.

“Due to the severity of the ramifications of these procedures, we will act with all the means available to us to cancel the directives and let the citizens of Israel marry and divorce as they should without any delays, unnecessary expenses and humiliations,” the letter read.

“The new directives prove yet again how irrelevant the Chief Rabbinate has become,” Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti (conservative) movement in Israel said. “From an admirable institution that went hand in hand with the Zionist establishment it became an ignoble institution that in the name of baseless halachic pedantry, is harming the fragile fabric of the Israeli society. For the best of Israel and the Jewish people, the rabbinate should be dismantled and religious services in Israel should be privatized.”

“It is inconceivable that the State of Israel is the only place in the Western world where Jews have no freedom of religion,” Hess added.

“This is another attempt to add another layer of bureaucracy. Instead of the chief rabbinate playing a role in bringing people closer to Judaism, they’re succeeding in creating a feeling of estrangement," said Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky Tuesday night.

Some American Jewish organizations were particularly incensed by the new instructions.

“We await clarifications, but at first glance, speaking out of a deep desire for intra-Jewish dialogue, this looks like a power grab of breathtaking scale,” said Dr. Ed Rettig of the American Jewish Committee. “We may hope and pray that someone in the system will wake up to the dangers [that] this new policy [poses] to the credibility of the Chief Rabbinate in the world Jewish community.”

One senior American organizational official who asked not to be named slammed the rabbinate as “behaving more like bishops than rabbis.”

“Don’t they understand how much damage they are doing in the Diaspora when they behave like they can do to Jews whatever they like?” he said to the Post on Tuesday. “This is un-Jewish and not smart.”

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