What they do not see: Rabbinate and marriages in Israel

The Religious Services Ministry refuses to acknowledge the fact that growing circles reject the Rabbinate and prefer alternative marriages.

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January 18, 2019 02:11
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Gay marriage. (photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)

 
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A dramatic press release was recently issued by the Religious Services Ministry according to which a special report prepared by the Head of the Marriage Division reveals a “significant decline of 7.5% in the number of couples marrying civilly overseas not according to halacha.” Further, “the number of couples residing in Israel who married civilly is… 982 couples only”!

Reading the original report shows how detached it is from Israeli reality, and how blind the writers are to the ailments of the rabbinate itself, which alienates the public, and how incapable they are of understanding that a key data point they used is merely a typo, unreasonable on its face.

The Religious Services Ministry refuses to acknowledge the fact that growing circles reject the Rabbinate and prefer alternative marriages, whether representing a wide range of religious alternatives, secular, or even cohabitation without marriage. Data compiled by the Hiddush organization based on multiple surveys conducted in recent years through the Smith Polling Institute demonstrate that 1) 70% of Israel’s adult Jewish population support recognition by the state of freedom of choice in marriage, doing away with the rabbinate’s monopoly, and equally recognizing civil and non-Orthodox religious marriages and 2) 53% of the public state that had they been allowed a choice, they would not have married in an Orthodox ceremony at all! This percentage has been gradually and consistently growing. In 2009, only 35% responded that they prefer alternatives to Orthodox marriage, but this percentage rose to 39% in 2013, 47% in 2016, and today it has become the majority’s preference.

While the ministry’s spokesperson saw fit to emphasize the decline in overseas civil marriages in his headline, if you read the release in its entirety, you will find that there was also a decline in the number of couples who marry via the rabbinate. According to Central Bureau of Statistics data, from 2015, when 39,111 couples registered to marry to 2018 (35,163); there has been a net decline of over 11%. Given the growth of Israel’s Jewish population during those years, the crash in marriages via the rabbinate reaches 17%!

To the credit of the authors of the report, it should be said that they identify the threat to the rabbinate’s monopoly as emanating from Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative rabbis who conduct marriages outside the rabbinate (even though these marriages are not recognized and do not entitle the couples to register as “married”), as well as from civil marriages, which are enjoying increasing popularity. Large segments of the population have recently been exposed to a media campaign encouraging hatuna shava outside the rabbinate (this is a pun, meaning both “egalitarian marriage” and “worthwhile marriage”). This challenge was also rightly mentioned in the report as contributing to the decline in the rabbinate’s appeal.

Nevertheless, the rabbinic establishment still fails to understand that this isn’t just about a rise in the age of marriage, the existence of individuals who are halachically ineligible to marry, and “NGOs that invest a lot of money coming from sources overseas in order to encourage couples to marry outside the rabbinate’s framework;” but rather a growing, authentic desire of couples to marry in a manner that respects their beliefs and lifestyles, ensures the equal status and active involvement of the bride in the ceremony, enables creativity in designing the ceremony, and offers the option of rabbis and officiants who are closer in outlook to the couples and their guests. Namely – the preference for alternatives is based upon a rejection of the rabbinate, as well as a growing interest in Jewish pluralism. This was found recently by a new study regarding the growing identification with the non-Orthodox streams in Israel and growing empowerment of secular identity in the face of waves of religionization funded and sponsored by religious politicians and organizations that enjoy their patronage.

The writers of the report failed to identify a typo in the Central Bureau of Statistics’ data that they relied on. They constructed mounds of interpretations and ludicrous analysis on the basis of this mistaken data point. They quote that in 2016 (the most recent CBS data available): “Out of 1,826 couples that married overseas with both spouses registered as Jews, 1,601 are immigrants from the FSU and only 225 represent other Jewish demographics.” After an additional series of speculations, they present their conclusion that in 2016 only 126 Jewish couples who are not FSU olim have married civilly overseas!

Clearly, whoever wrote this and whoever communicated it to the media doesn’t understand what goes on in Israel’s marriage arena. This data point is absurd and checking the CBS reports reveals that this is not how the data should be understood. The accurate figures are: 1,826 Israeli Jewish couples registered their overseas civil marriages in 2016; the 1,601 FSU olim couples who arrived in Israel after 1990 refers to spouses who were registered in Israel’s population registry but not necessarily as Jews – they are divided between couples where one of the spouses is registered as a Jew and couples where neither is registered as a Jew (but are eligible for the Law of Return because of a Jewish father or grandfather). Therefore, it stands to reason that the overwhelming majority of the 1,826 Jewish couples who registered their overseas civil marriages specifically represent native-born and veteran Israeli Jews who didn’t want to set foot in the rabbinate or were denied the right to marry by the rabbinate because they are a Cohen wanting to marry a divorcee, a convert whom the rabbinate refuses to recognize as Jewish, etc.

What the report writers also failed to understand is that “the dramatic rise in the number of couples who cohabitate without marriage” is not merely a preference for non-institutional couplehood due to the decline in the status of marriage, rather it is a unique Israeli reality, which also explains the decline in the number of couples who marry overseas and go through the process of registering their marriages in Israel at all. It has to do with the realization that even when a Jewish couple chooses to marry civilly and not via the rabbinate, if they register their marriage with the Ministry of the Interior, they will be forced to walk the “via dolorosa” of the rabbinic courts if their marriages do not work out and they wish to divorce.

This realization has caused many couples who in the past would have chosen to marry civilly and then register their marriages to refrain from doing so and settle instead for the status of yeduim b’tzibbur (domestic partnership). This is a great irony, as the rabbinate and the rabbinic courts have become the main forces undermining the institution of marriage in Israel!

The writer heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel.

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