A recent report from the Religious Affairs Ministry, which oversees the Chief Rabbinate, points to a significant drop in Jewish Israeli couples marrying through their auspices, the only legal option for Israeli Jews. The report notes a 6.2% decrease in rabbinate marriages in 2018, and a similar trend from 2017 to 2016, despite continuous growth in the population. The ministry correctly attributes this to several factors, among them that Israelis marry later, don’t get married at all, or marry in unofficial ceremonies outside of the rabbinate.
Israeli society may reach a tipping point in the coming years, in which the Chief Rabbinate becomes an obsolete and irrelevant institution for most Israeli Jews. As Israel nears the April 2019 elections, the role of the rabbinate, especially in marriage, should be a top issue on the agenda of the next government.
The Chief Rabbinate, a government body comprised mostly of black-hatted rabbis, conducts a range of public-religious services according to a strict interpretation of Jewish law. These include marriage, divorce, conversions, funerals, managing the kashrut-observance system, and more.
Many Israeli Jews (around half) are deeply traditional or actively religious, and appreciate these services. They allow Israelis to be “lazy Jews” – it is there when you need it, without having to think too much about it. Israelis generally want their country to be characterized by Jewish tradition, but not necessarily according to Jewish law. However, what happens when Israelis wish to act outside the confines of Jewish law, or according to an interpretation that differs from that of the conservative Chief Rabbinate?
Secular Israelis have often been described as “secular-Orthodox,” meaning they are not observant, but when they conduct the occasional Jewish ceremony, they do so in the traditional Orthodox fashion. This was, for the most part, because non-Orthodox alternatives simply did not exist, or were marginal for most of Israel’s history. To paraphrase the old saying, “The synagogue most Israelis do not attend is Orthodox.”
For those who actively sought to do things differently, they often had to go out of their way. You don’t want, or are not eligible for a Jewish wedding (because you are one of 400,000 Israelis who are not Jewish according to halacha)? You can fly abroad to get married, and have it recognized in Israel. Want to convert? You have to be willing to accept a strictly Orthodox-observant lifestyle throughout the process, or at least pretend.
But a new generation of Israelis now seeks to break this monopoly from the bottom up. In the case of marriage, it is able to skirt the monopoly, simply by not calling it marriage. Domestic partnership agreements confer on couples virtually all the legal rights married couples have. These have been on the rise in recent years (at 6% today, compared to 3% a decade ago). The concept of marrying abroad in a civil ceremony has always been an outlet and continues to be so.
In conjunction with these two legal options, a growing number of secular, traditional, and even religious Israeli Jews are seeking alternative weddings. In doing so, they turn to Reform, Conservative and liberal Orthodox rabbis, as well as a variety of secular “wedding conductors,” none of whose weddings are recognized by the state (around 2,400 such weddings took place in Israel last year). Interestingly, the vast majority of these people sought weddings replete with Jewish traditions, and often in line with Jewish law.
THE BIG CHANGE in Israeli society is that all of this has become mainstream, when it was once considered rebellious. This trend is also making headways in other areas, like conversion, kashrut supervision, and especially bar mitzvah and, yes, bat mitzvah ceremonies.
This significance of this should not be underestimated. It amounts to a sort of a social revolution in Israeli Jewish identity – or at least an evolution. Secular and traditional Israeli Jews are more open to engaging in their occasional Jewish practice in alternative ways than ever before. And if the Chief Rabbinate won’t accommodate them, they are willing to take things into their own hands.
As it turns out, the rabbinate’s near monopoly on such matters is not a strong one, and requires enough people to play along. There are three Orthodox parties in the current government which help ensure this monopoly. They put their entire electoral weight against any attempts to break that through legislation.
Despite a majority of Israelis supporting religious pluralism, they are unable to make top-down changes through the Knesset, since the forces of religious conservatism are more committed to opposing them than their proponents are in favor of advancing them. Thus, pluralism activists make use of the Supreme Court where possible, although this too has limitations. Therefore, when revolutions cannot be achieved from the top down, they are achieved from the bottom up. If this means getting married and not calling it a “wedding,” or granting kashrut supervision and calling it something else, so be it. And this is exactly what is happening.
It seems the days of the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage are over because too many dissatisfied people have created a de facto alternative. The institution has already become irrelevant to a significant portion of society, a trend that will only continue so long as nothing changes.
The Knesset and the next governing coalition must facilitate a necessary debate on the role of the Chief Rabbinate in modern Israel, given its social and demographic realities. One direction would be instituting civil marriage, which would appeal to many Israelis, while others continue to marry through the rabbinate and others through Reform or Conservative rabbis. Another path could be re-imagining the rabbinate as the unifying social institution it once was, updated to modernity, and not the representative and guardian of ultra-Orthodox Judaism it has become.
This is unlikely, of course. However, such an institution could administratively unite rabbis of the major denominations in Israel, while finding a way to keep an eye on civil marriages, and thus preventing a greater schism than is already happening. Taking a more “social” and “national” stance on conversions, and not demanding that people live an Orthodox lifestyle would be part and parcel of this second path.
Will the government, Knesset and the Chief Rabbinate adjust accordingly to new social realities and try to keep the rabbinate a somewhat relevant figure in Israeli society? Or will they continue to pretend it maintains a monopoly and drift into further obsolescence? This is certainly a debate worth having when the new Knesset shows up for work after the coming elections.
The writer is a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and author of Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel. The opinions expressed in are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the JPPI.
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