Orthodox rabbis call for civil unions for citizens unable to marry in Israel

Campaign initiated by religious-Zionist group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah is seeking to establish formal civil-union registration system through legislation in upcoming Knesset.

A campaign launched by Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah to create a state-recognized form of civil union (Courtesy)
Two Orthodox municipal chief rabbis have joined a campaign by the liberal religious-Zionist organization Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah (NTA) to create a state-recognized form of civil union for couples unable to marry in Israel.
The rabbis said such civil unions will actually assist in preserving the integrity of the Jewish people in the State of Israel by creating a more transparent system, while at the same time constituting a civil right must be afforded by a democratic state to all its citizens.
Since Israel has no provision for civil marriage, mixed-faith couples, citizens not registered as belonging to any recognized faith, Jewish citizens who are unable to marry for various reasons of Jewish law, and homosexuals and lesbians have no marriage option.
Civil marriages performed abroad are recognized retroactively by the state, and couples can also register for a common-law marriage status to obtain benefits available to married couples.
Masha Fridman-Cohen immigrated from Russia with her family. Since her mother was not Jewish, she converted first through the Reform Movement and then again in the state-recognized Orthodox conversion system during her IDF service.
She said she thought this would be the end of her travails over her religious identity and her sense of national belonging, and that her future children would not experience the difficulties she went through.
After her army service, however, she met Ohad Cohen. When they eventually decided to get married, they were confronted by the restriction within Jewish law that prohibits a priest from marrying a convert.
“I had done all I could to feel part of the [Jewish] community. I did two conversions which is more than enough,” Fridman-Cohen told The Jerusalem Post, saying her inability to marry in Israel made her feel like an outsider once again.
“For a long time I was very angry that I couldn’t get married in Israel, but eventually I decided I would not let anyone make me feel like a stranger in my home,” she says.
Masha and Ohad decided they would not avail themselves of civil marriage abroad, insisting that since they are full citizens who served in the army and pay taxes, they are entitled to the same rights and recognition as everyone else.
In 2012 they married in an Orthodox ceremony, albeit not through the Chief Rabbinate and therefore not recognized by the state, with an Orthodox rabbi who takes a lenient position that in certain circumstances a divorcée and Cohen are able to legitimately marry under Jewish law.
“There has to be a change,” says Masha. “If the rabbinate wants to continue with these restrictions that’s fine, but the duty of the state is to find a solution for its citizens.”
NTA’s proposal is to establish a civil union registry within the Justice Ministry to afford state recognition to citizens who cannot otherwise marry.
Rabbi Shmuel David, municipal chief rabbi of Afula, points out that if a kohain [priest] and divorcée cannot marry in Israel, they will not end their relationship as a result of this restriction, but in many instances marry in a civil ceremony abroad instead, or live without getting married, meaning the status of their children will be unknown.
“We won’t know if maybe she [the mother] is Jewish and that her children can marry my grandchildren,” he says.
Tani Frank of NTA pointed out that the status of common-law marriage is even more problematic, as there is no consolidated registration list for such unions, meaning that someone who is married could technically register as in a common-law relationship with another partner, meaning that children from such relationships could be deemed to be mamzerim (children born from adultry), a highly problematic personal status within Jewish law.
“In my eyes, it is essential and even urgent to offer the option of civil unions in order to protect the unity of our people, to strengthen Judaism and strengthen religion,” said David.
Rabbi Aharon Katz, the interim municipal chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, emphasized the importance of granting all Israeli citizens their full civil rights to marry.
“In my experience, there is no choice but to establish a broader system of marriage so that any couple can get married with equal rights, as is fitting for a democratic state to give all citizens the full right to establish a family in an organized and recognized manner with all available rights granted by the state,” he said.
Frank said NTA intends to lobby MKs in the upcoming 21st Knesset in order to enact the new initiative in legislation.
According to NTA, there are some 400,000 Israeli citizens who face potential restrictions on who they can marry due to the lack of civil marriage and the constraints of Jewish law, including the prohibition on divorcées and converts from marrying Cohens, the Jewish priestly caste.
Others included in this category are citizens of marriageable age but classed as “without religion,” mostly from the former Soviet Union, meaning they cannot marry in Israel except with another citizen classed as “without religion.”
This does not include the estimated 285,000 gay and lesbian citizens who also cannot legally marry in Israel.