'Tzohar bills' approved for first plenum reading

Legislation would make it easier for national-religious rabbis to marry couples in any city or municipality.

Couple getting married dontuse 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Couple getting married dontuse 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Sunday approved two so-called “Tzohar bills” designed to enable the association of national-religious rabbis – who are considered somewhat more liberal than other Orthodox rabbis – to more easily perform wedding ceremonies.
The legislation will now move to the plenum for their first readings.
The bills, one initiated by MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) and the other by MK Faina Kirshenbaum (Israel Beiteinu), would allow couples to register for marriage in the city or municipal jurisdiction of their choice, regardless of where they reside, something which at present is technically prohibited by law.
“The time has come to change the current situation,” MK Isaac Herzog (Labor), who was standing in as committee chair for MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), said during the meeting. “The bill is better than the current situation in which couples are traveling to Cyprus to get married.”
In addition to freeing couples to register where they please, Schneller’s bill requires the establishment of a computerized database through which the Religious Services Ministry will be able to quickly check the marital status according to Jewish law of the couple wishing to register.
The committee voted four to three to approve the bills, with Herzog, Schneller, Kirshenbaum and MK Uri Orbach (Bayit Yehudi) in favor, and MKs Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism), Avraham Michaeli (Shas) and Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) against.
Maklev said the bill was being advanced in an “underhanded manner, under the cover of darkness and without appropriate debate of the devastating consequences.” He and other opponents were concerned that Tzohar rabbis would be more lenient than other rabbis when it comes to deciding if a person is permitted by Jewish law to marry another Jew..
The Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry have also been extremely critical of these bills, claiming they will create a situation in which large sections of the Jewish population will lose faith in the rabbinate’s marital registration process. This in turn would cause a schism among Jews, many of whom would not feel free to marry other Jews.
The Council of the Chief Rabbinate does, however, prefer Schneller’s bill, saying he had consulted with Chief Rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar, as well as with Shas party mentor and former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, for several years to address the complexities of the issue and seek solutions. Nevertheless, Rabbi Yosef Shalosh of the South Sharon Regional Council claimed during the committee hearing that both Amar and Yosef were opposed to both bills.
Sources within the Chief Rabbinate have criticized Kirshenbaum’s bill, saying she jumped on a populist bandwagon when the dispute between Tzohar and the rabbinate publicly erupted, and that her bill was superficial and problematic.
A spokesman for the MK denied these claims and said the emphasis of her bill was simply different, explaining that it focused on solving a problem in which certain rabbinical groups refuse to recognize converts who convert through the army and therefore refuse to register them for marriage.
Currently, a couple must register for marriage in the place of residence of either the bride or the groom. Because of restrictions the Chief Rabbinate enacted several years ago – which Tzohar claims were designed to allow local rabbinates to disqualify the group’s rabbis from conducting weddings – the organization began registering couples in Shoham, where its chairman, Rabbi David Stav, is chief rabbi.
Many secular couples prefer to register and get married with the help of Tzohar because of bureaucratic and other problems often encountered with local rabbinates.
In August last year, the Religious Services Ministry clamped down on the large number of couples registering with Tzohar in Shoham, near Petah Tikva, without living there. Tzohar shut down its service in protest, and the subsequent outcry led Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi to back down.
Since then, the organization has stepped up efforts to secure its ability to function freely through legislative means.