New campaign reopens debate on civil marriage in Israel

A provision for civil marriage doesn't exist in Israeli law, with marriage and divorce possible only through the established religious institutions.

Wedding rings [Illustrative] (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Wedding rings [Illustrative]
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Several senior national-religious rabbis, including rabbis Haim Druckman, Yaakov Ariel and Aryeh Stern, have joined a public declaration opposing civil marriage in Israel, arguing that it would divide the Jewish people.
The campaign, organized by the Chotam organization, follows a public statement issued by several rabbis from the liberal wing of the national-religious sector who called for some form of civil marriage or civil union to rectify the current situation, in which large numbers of Israelis cannot marry in Israel because they are ineligible to do so in the Chief Rabbinate.
Neemanei Torah VaAvodah, a national religious lobbying group that advocates for more moderate policies on religion and state issues, recently released a video on the topic. In the video, religious people — including rabbis — explain their position on civil marriage.
There is currently no provision for civil marriage in Israel, with marriage and divorce possible only through established religious institutions. Civil marriages performed abroad, though, are recognized by the Interior Ministry.
Ariel, the municipal chief rabbi of Ramat Gan and one of the most respected national-religious rabbis in the country, said that the Jewish people in Israel would be cut in half by civil marriage, between those who marry through the Chief Rabbinate in religious ceremonies and those who marry in civil weddings.
“Their children will not be able to marry each other," Ariel said. "This is a rift, and whoever talks about it [civil marriage] speaks irresponsibly. It’s a tragedy.”
Druckman, perhaps the most influential national-religious rabbi today, conceded only that there may be people who are prevented from marrying in Israel, but said that civil marriage would bring about “destruction and ruin for the Jewish people,” and was therefore not acceptable to solve the needs of “individuals.”
There are some 364,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union
— or their children who are not Jewish according to Jewish law. They are classified as “without religion,” meaning they cannot get married at all in Israel, since no religious institution will marry them.
In addition, there are 284,000 gays and lesbians in the country, who also cannot marry due to the lack of civil marriage, 13,000 non-Orthodox Jewish converts and 5,000 people ineligible for Jewish marriage for various reasons of Jewish law, according to the Hiddush religious pluralism organization.
There are also tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Jewish citizens who face restrictions on who they can marry due to constraints in Jewish law, such as Cohanim who cannot marry divorcees and converts.
And there is also a growing list of people who cannot prove they are Jewish to the satisfaction of the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Courts, and are similarly prevented from marrying in Israel.
In August, several prominent national-religious rabbis from the more liberal wing of the community gave qualified support for the notion of civil marriages or civil unions in a video produced by the Ne’emanei Torah VaAvodah organization.
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, co-dean of the Orot Shaul Hesder Yeshiva in Raanana, is one such rabbi who advocates for a new solution for people who cannot or do not want to get married through the Chief Rabbinate.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Cherlow says that he is extremely reticent to permit full civil marriage, saying that it would give a terrible message to the rest of world Jewry that the biggest Jewish community in the world, Israel, would in effect make inter-faith marriage between Jews and non-Jews legitimate.
“It would be tantamount to Israel saying that it has given up on the fight against assimilation and intermarriage, and we mustn’t give that message,” said Cherlow.
His solution is to allow for civil unions, which would have an explicitly secondary status, below that of marriage, but would still be a formal institution of partnership recognized by the state.
As for the notion that civil marriage or union would divide the Jewish people, Cherlow said he could not understand the argument at all.
“It ignores the fact that today many people live together without getting married, or get married in civil weddings abroad,” said Cherlow.
If such couples include a non-Jewish partner, their children will still not be able to marry the children of Jewish couples, regardless of whether the state allows civil marriage.