Religious Affairs: Resolving a chief marital squabble

Strange bedfellows born this week, when UTJ announced it wouldn't oppose gov't allowing civil unions.

couple love marriage 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
couple love marriage 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It looks like for the first time in Israel's history, Jews not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate as halachically Jewish will be allowed to tie the knot. This week, United Torah Judaism's rabbinical leadership announced it would not oppose the coalition agreement reached between Likud and Israel Beiteinu, which includes reforms in the way marital unions are performed. The agreement obligates the new government to pass legislation immediately upon formation which would permit two Israelis who are not halachically Jewish to enter a civil union (brit zugiyut). The Chief Rabbinate will be responsible for determining who is eligible to fit into this category. But a (non-Jewish) lawyer, not a rabbi, will perform the civil union. The clause is worded in a way that avoids calling the union a full-fledged marriage. In this way, the religious status quo, which gives the Orthodox establishment complete control over marriages, is maintained. The agreement also calls for the formation of a committee within 60 days of the creation of the government that will find a solution "within the framework of halacha" for Israelis who are presently prevented from marrying for religious reasons. MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), an Orthodox Jew who is the driving force behind his party's religious reforms, said that the committee's job is not to permit a union prohibited by halacha. A divorced woman will not be allowed to form a civil union with a kohen, nor will a mamzer (a Jew born of certain illicit relationships) be allowed to form a union with a Jew. However, Jewish Israelis who opt for a civil union instead of a marriage in the Chief Rabbinate will be allowed to do so. Finally, the agreement also introduces certain reforms aimed at making the process for conversions smoother, such as widening the circle of authorized rabbis who are permitted to perform them. Activists for the dismantling of Orthodoxy's monopoly over religious issues were disappointed. For instance, Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement's Rabbinical Assembly here, called the agreement "a lost opportunity" to reform conversions and create civil marriages. "Ridiculously, Israel Beiteinu announced a huge 'achievement' which in reality is lacking in substance, and which ultimately does not advance those who really need a solution," he said. The reality today is that non-Jewish immigrants and their children are fully integrated into Israeli society. They go to the same schools, the same youth groups, they serve in the IDF, but when they fall in love with someone who is Jewish, they have to leave the country to get married. "They could have put pressure on the coalition parties to enter into an agreement that would have created a friendlier environment for conversions and that would have opened up civil marriages to everyone, including a Jew who wants to marry a non-Jew. But they sold out for nothing," Sacks said. IN CONTRAST, in the Ashkenazi haredi establishment, the decision reached Wednesday night by a special rabbinic committee - especially the part regarding the approval of civil unions - is considered a major compromise. Until now, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the preeminent halachic authority of the Lithuanian yeshiva world, and Rabbi Ya'acov Arye Alter, the Gerer Rebbe, have opposed any form of civil union, arguing it was a slippery slope that could lead to the total deterioration of the Jewish state. "This is a dangerous initiative that is liable to introduce civil marriages to the Jewish people and cause a serious breach in Jewish law," warned a notice in the haredi daily Yated Ne'eman, which is affiliated with the Lithuanian yeshiva world, when the proposal to allow non-Jewish Israelis to marry was first raised in the summer of 2007. Ashkenazi rabbis attacked "Shas" - a politically correct way of leveling criticism against its spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef - for backing the initiative. "It is well-known to all that halacha is unequivocal on this issue and there is no room for the serious breaches included in this dangerous initiative," the notice concluded. Hamodia, a daily controlled by the Gerer Hassidim, expressed a similar position, albeit in a more moderate way. Even this week, a senior rabbi closely connected to Elyashiv attacked the idea of civil unions. "Anyone who wants a civil marriage can get one without leaving Israel, by simply mailing a letter to a foreign consulate," he said. "Therefore this is not a civil rights issue. Rather what Israel Beiteinu really wants to do is uproot all vestiges of Judaism in this state. When Israel was founded, it was designed to be Jewish state. Everyone agreed on that. Now they want to turn it into a state like all the others." Nevertheless, the rabbinical leadership of UTJ convened Wednesday night and agreed to approve of Israel Beiteinu's civil-union proposal, including the formation of a committee that will recommend ways of expanding the use of civil unions to include halachically recognized Jews as well. UTJ's backtracking is not as surprising as one might think. It is a pragmatic decision to maximize political profits. As one UTJ source put it, "Fighting civil marriages is important, but there are more important issues which directly affect our constituency." He was referring to Torah education budgets and child allotments, which are two of the most expensive demands UTJ and Shas are making of Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu. Veteran haredi journalist Ya'acov Eichler, a commentator for Knesset Channel 99, tied the success of Israel Beiteinu's civil-union initiative to demographic changes that brought the party to power. "Under the Law of Return, hundreds of thousands of non-Jews have immigrated to Israel in the past two decades," said Eichler. "These people have become totally Israeli, but they are not Jewish. So a dissonance has been created between their Israeli and Jewish identities. "These immigrants, who are responsible for Israel Beiteinu's success in the last election, are now demanding their rights as loyal Israeli citizens who happen to be non-Jews. Meanwhile, haredi parties have internalized the reality that this is no longer a Jewish state."