Marriage and civil union in Israel

The proposed Civil Union Law is essential in an Israel trying to balance Jewish identity with democratic values.

Marriage and civil union in Israel (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Marriage and civil union in Israel
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Many years, ago, as a young bride-to-be, I visited the Chief Rabbinate for what was called “guidance for brides.” A rabbi’s wife explained in clumsy metaphors the main principles of family sanctity and its advantages.
Not a word was said about the concept of kiddushin – the ceremonial designation of the bride for the groom and no other man.
And, of course, the possibility of mutual kiddushin never came up.
I was at the beginning of my university studies and full of the joys I had discovered in the Mishna, Talmud, Midrashim and Jewish philosophy. I wanted to express some of this beauty in the first significant ceremony of my adult life. But the Chief Rabbinate of the 1980s turned its back on me and others like me. It was clear that if my future partner and I registered at the rabbinate, we would have to follow to the letter the only possible marriage ceremony it allowed – the strictly Orthodox.
The problematic cooperation between the “secular” population and the rabbinate in those days was such that we led totally separate lives which crossed only at major ceremonial moments: a son’s brit, the celebration of the birth of a daughter, bar and bat mitzva, marriage, divorce and burial. In these meetings, a rabbi, a complete stranger who would not become a future source of advice or comfort, would preside awkwardly over the ceremony, as if he wanted to get it over and done with as quickly as possible so that he could escape from the non-Orthodox milieu around him – but not before receiving a payment of some sort in a discreet envelope.
We did not want to be party to this unwritten agreement. We wanted to take responsibility for our life ceremonies and not to marry in a way that did not reflect the people we are. We thought that first ceremony should mirror the nature of the Jewish home we wanted to build.
Both as a woman and a Jewess, I could find no place for myself in the rabbinate.
And since in those days there was no other option in Israel, my partner and I went to Cyprus where we were married in a civil ceremony.
That was not ideal either. Alone on a Saturday morning in a bleak office at the Larnaca municipality, the registrar reeled off the questions we knew from the movies. We said “I do” and exchanged rings. We were happy in the moment, but regretted the absence of family and friends and the fact that we were unable to conduct the ceremony in our own language, Hebrew.
Now, as a public servant, I see as one of my main goals creating a different reality for my children and for all young people who want to live as couples in Israel.
Over the past few months, a civil-political process has been unfolding bringing us closer, step by step, to a more friendly Judaism in Israel. It is an evolutionary process, not a revolution. Those behind it hope to take advantage of the Zeitgeist and mold the changes into law. There are several proposals on the Knesset agenda which together create a picture of a new inviting Jewish space opening up. They touch on issues like the spirit of the Shabbat in public space, kashrut, burial and Torah studies. The big idea is to open for the Jewish public as a whole additional ways of expressing their Jewish culture, enhancing both civil equality and individual liberty.
One of the key legislative initiatives in this process is the Civil Union Bill tabled by Yesh Atid, which I had the privilege of drafting with Knesset Member Aliza Lavie.
As is our wont in Yesh Atid, we brought into the drafting process the values and sensibilities of both the Orthodox and secular communities we come from. The interaction enabled us to find a golden mean and toadvance our goals without harming any of the communities we represent.
The aim of the bill is to enable Israeli citizens to choose freely between rabbinical marriage or civil union. The new institution of civil union is intended to allow any two Israelis who don’t want to or who cannot marry in a religious ceremony under the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate to live as a couple in a way that is meaningful for them and which affords them all the civil rights conferred on married couples in Israel today. The new law would amend the current situation in which the only legal way Jews resident in Israel can marry and divorce is through the Orthodoxy of the Chief Rabbinate. This creates a situation in which the rabbinate is forced to serve communities alienated from it, creating antagonism on both sides.
However, in contrast to previous legislative initiatives, the aim of the bill is not to demonstrate against or to undermine the powers of the Chief Rabbinate. Orthodox marriage and divorce will remain under its sole authority. The bill simply aims to create a parallel civil avenue for marriage and divorce.
We must be clear though that civil union in itself does not amount to Jewish marriage.
Every couple that joins in civil union can also, if they so desire, hold any other religious ceremony they please. In this new reality, a couple that chooses to marry in the rabbinate will be doing it freely, with total commitment and not out of a lack of choice.
The kiddushin will be meaningful for them, choosing the rabbi will be part of the significance of the ceremony and of their life afterwards as a married couple, and a new Israeli Jewishness will be the chief beneficiary.
Civil union is a prime example of Jewish and democratic legislation. In opening new possibilities, it allows for the preservation of the Jewish character of the state, while enabling its citizens to realize basic rights in ways that suit them and their worldview.
The power, resilience and cultural richness of Jewish tradition stemmed from its ability to change with the times. Together with notions of universal solidarity among all Jews, different Diaspora communities followed different traditions.
We in Israel inherited a wide variety of religious streams, many different ways of conducting religious ceremonies and many different ways of life. We need to respect and honor this variety and encourage the state of Israel to create an inviting and inclusive Jewish space that honors and respects different Jewish communities as well as minority religions and groups.
Freedom is not weakness. On the contrary, relaxing the Orthodox muscle will strengthen the rabbinate and enhance Israeli Jewish culture. A degree of freedom will help rebuild the partnership with Jewish communities in the Diaspora, enabling them once again to feel that Israel is truly their home, strengthening and enriching us as a people.
The proposed Civil Union Law is essential in an Israel trying to balance Jewish identity with democratic values. Slowly, over time, we will be able to see a more Jewish and a more democratic Israel, as it celebrates the existence of a wide variety of Jewish life.
I believe that the new law will help Jews who do not feel comfortable in the Orthodox world, and, at the same time, enable the Chief Rabbinate to establish a healthier relationship with the public at large.
The addition of the civil option will ease the tensions caused today by lack of choice.
It will also cause many secular Israelis to consider favorably the notion of civil union complemented by Orthodox marriage.
Moreover, it will prod the Chief Rabbinate into becoming more responsive to secular needs and to make an effort – something which in my view is already happening – to be a source of inspiration in marriage and Jewish life in general to all those who choose to enter its portals.
Knesset Member Dr. Ruth Calderon, a member of the largely secular Yesh Atid party, has a PhD in Talmudic studies