Richard Rennison could not predict his career would morph from unassuming blacksmith to elopers’ hero.
Still, the coal miner’s son ended up marrying 5,147 couples in minimalistic ceremonies he held by his anvil in Greta Green, on the Scottish side of the border where English couples flocked in order to marry without the religious ceremony that English law demanded, and Scottish law did not.
New legislation put an end to this oddity in 1940, but the gap between governance and romance would live on in the Jewish state, whose marriage laws send thousands to its own version of Greta Green – Cyprus.
Some 3,500 Israeli couples marry offshore annually on average, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Most sail there for lack of choice, as children of immigrants considered non-Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate. Others marry abroad to protest Israel’s matrimonial law.
Now, a new initiative sets out to end this anomaly by allowing foreign consulates in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to perform civil marriages for Israelis the rabbinate labels as non-Jews.
Though well-intended, this idea is bad, not only because of its circumstances, which are manipulative but because of its substance, which is a mixture of social tragedy, religious travesty and civic disgrace.
THE IDEA of consular marriages is reportedly under consideration by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, as part of a prospective deal between him and the coalition’s secular parties.
Kahana, who is observant, would make the concession on the matrimonial front in turn for the anti-clerical Meretz, Labor and Yisrael Beytenu’s agreement to cancel the clause in the Law of Return which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew’s grandchild.
Chances that this will be agreeable to Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, whose voters include many who benefitted from this clause, are low at best. Yet even if he would agree, such horse-trading is not the way to right what is wrong in Israel’s marriage laws.
This is regardless of this column’s view (see “Flaw of return,” March 4, 2021) that the Law of Return should be replaced with a naturalization process that will shed the entire phenomenon of automatic citizenship, an attitude with which Kahana’s idea actually corresponds.
The problem with the marriage situation here is that it has produced wholesale civic discrimination, a disgrace that cannot be sustained over time, as the journeys to Cyprus indeed make plain.
The ability to get married is a basic right that any state owes its citizens, especially when both bride and groom are full citizens, born and raised in the state where they went to school, paid taxes, served in the army, and in many cases also risked their lives as combat soldiers.
This right is being denied here en masse, year in year out, in broad daylight, from thousands of loyal citizens. Worse, the establishment denying this right is the same one that industrializes other Israelis’ draft dodging.
That is why what is at stake here is not only a civic distortion but also a social powder keg. Now you might ask: wouldn’t it be nicer to send the victims of our marital anomaly to marry in foreign embassies than to send them abroad? Won’t it save them money?
Well yes, it would save the newlyweds thousands of shekels, but it will not save their honor, not to mention ours. Consulates and embassies are foreign soil, even legally, but particularly psychologically. Telling our citizens to get married there is like telling them they don’t belong.
This is a tragedy and it must be undone not by manipulation, and not through a backdoor, but with a confident reform that will be neither stammering nor apologizing.
Obviously, the solution should not be about unilateral imposition, and must therefore involve rabbis. As argued here in a different context (“A golden double standard,” August 5, 2021), the formula for civil marriages has already been crafted, by Rabbi Yaakov Medan, head of Yeshivat Har Etzion; and the late Hebrew University of Jerusalem law professor Ruth Gavison.
Realizing that what is at stake is Israeli society’s long-term cohesion, the two suggested that any unmarried man and woman would be allowed to marry in any ceremony, whether Orthodox, non-Orthodox or civil. Divorces, in turn, will be conducted according to Orthodoxy’s strictures, and that would be the only way for an Israeli Jew to divorce.
MINISTER KAHANA means well.
A true patriot and real reformer, he served as an F-16 pilot, combat-squadron commander, and air force colonel, and thus knows a thing or two about administration. That is what made him detect the flaws in the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut supervision, and launch the reform that privatized this part of its functions.
Similarly, having seen the negativity, not to say nefariousness, with which the Chief Rabbinate can treat prospective converts, Kahana set out to reform that system, too, by letting converts choose their converting rabbi rather than be assigned arbitrarily to their locality’s rabbi.
These are both blessed and long-overdue reforms. That is not the case with the idea of consular marriages.
Sending Israeli citizens to get married on foreign soil, even if it is in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, is wrong not only socially, nationally, and morally, but also Jewishly, because it ignores partially Jewish immigrants’ backgrounds as products of Soviet antisemitism.
To the ultra-Orthodox establishment that harasses them, they are not Jews, but to the rest of us, they are. As Ariel Sharon once told this newspaper (“With haredim out of power immigration can grow faster,” May 16, 2003), whoever moves to Israel, and “sees himself as part of the Jewish people,” and “serves in the [Israeli] army and fights” with us – is a Jew.
That is what most Israelis think, and what our marriage laws’ amendment should announce.
The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity