Alternative wedding, Tel Aviv_311.
(photo credit: Reuters)
For some time now Tzohar, a group of modern-minded Zionist Orthodox rabbis, and
the Chief Rabbinate of Israel have been engaged in a power struggle. Broadly
speaking, while the Chief Rabbinate has tended to defend the autonomy of city
rabbis and rabbinical judges, especially their right to issue stringent rulings
wherever they see fit, Tzohar has sought to find leniency while remaining within
the boundaries of Orthodox practice.
Perhaps the single most contentious
issue splitting the two sides, which reached crisis proportions in the last
week, has been Tzohar’s marriage initiative. For nearly a decade, the group has
made available a cadre of motivated and enthusiastic Orthodox rabbis willing to
officiate at weddings on a pro bono basis. And in recent years, it opened up an
office in Lod where couples can register for marriage instead of going to their
local Chief Rabbinate-appointed rabbi.
Until about a week ago, both the
Chief Rabbinate and Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi turned a blind eye
to the Lod office – technically a violation of the directives of the Chief
Rabbinate, which has a monopoly over marriage registrations. But internal
pressure to close down Tzohar’s marriage initiative grew. Eventually, a
compromise was reached, however this undoubtedly will not be the last clash
between the two sides.
Apparently, Chief Rabbinate-appointed rabbis were
disgruntled by the fact that Tzohar was encroaching on their sources of income,
which are augmented by payment received for officiating at weddings.
guiding principle behind the Tzohar initiative is to make the marriage ceremony
inviting and relevant for non-Orthodox Israelis without deviating from normative
Orthodox practice. Tzohar rabbis understand that unless Orthodoxy is
user-friendly, more and more Israelis will either opt out of Jewish practice
altogether or choose non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism.
have traveled abroad and been exposed to more liberal forms of Jewish
expression. Others have been influenced by Israel’s transition in recent decades
from centrally planned socialism to a free market economy that encourages
Meanwhile, the Chief Rabbinate has been undergoing a
haredization process. Haredi political clout, buoyed by Shas’s ascendancy and a
dramatic haredi population growth, has been translated into influence within the
Chief Rabbinate. The national-religious sector, which once controlled the Chief
Rabbinate, has lost influence due in part to a shift in focus from the rabbinate
to the settling of Judea and Samaria. Under haredi influence, the chief
rabbinate has become increasingly supportive of the strictest interpretations of
Halacha: Conversions performed by non-haredi rabbinical courts are not
recognized; women seeking divorces encounter reluctant rabbinical divorce
courts; kosher supervisors are unwilling to find solutions in Jewish law for
Jewish farmers during the the shmita
sabbatical year. And because the Chief
Rabbinate is a state-funded body, it suffers from all the ills that afflict big
government: mind-numbing bureaucracy; advancement based on seniority, not merit;
and a total lack of a service ethos.
Under the circumstance, steps need
to be taken to ensure that the state-recognized monopoly over marriage
registration is not relegated to any single group or body, especially one that
represents a particularly stringent version of Judaism. Instead, Orthodox rabbis
representing a diverse range of opinions should all be allowed to perform
weddings. (A bill to that affect will be presented by MK Tzipi Hotovely.)
Couples should be allowed to choose freely among a variety of
Ideally, recognized non-Orthodox streams – Reform and
Conservative – should also be allowed to conduct weddings as long as they adhere
to basic consensus tenets such as matrilineal descent.
push rabbis to find innovative ways to reach out. And Israelis will no longer
feel coerced into celebrating a wedding in a way that feels
What we are advocating is, in effect, “free-market
Judaism,” which, we believe, will foster religious expression and provide a
positive alternative to the Chief Rabbinate’s counterproductive monopoly.