Renouncing or recognizing rabbinate?

Are Israeli Jews really escaping to Cyprus to get married?

wedding 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
wedding 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For years, pluralistic groups in Israel have been lamenting the “Destination-Cyprus” phenomenon. Because Israeli law empowers the ultra-orthodox Chief Rabbinate to control Jewish marriages in Israel, secular Jews often feel disenfranchised and the argument is that with each year that passes, more and more couples decide to travel to Cyprus, or other destinations in Europe, to avoid the Rabbinate altogether. Overseas marriages entitle couples to benefits which they could not receive if they married in an alternative, unofficial ceremony.
Perhaps more than anything else, this argument has fueled legislation that would allow for civil marriage and, to a large extent, has swayed public opinion so that more than 80 percent of non-orthodox Jewish Israelis think that civil marriage in Israel is a necessity.
Well, the Central Bureau of Statistics recently released the most recent numbers related to marriages in Israel and overseas. The results are startling.
If in 2004, 6,987 Israeli couples married overseas. In 2008 (the most recent year the CBS has numbers for) that number went down to 5,028. Apparently, fewer couples are marrying overseas than any time in the last decade.
In theory, this reduction is easily explainable. One is tempted to suggest that it isn’t that more and more couples are pursuing overseas marriages, but that Israeli Jews are just not getting married at all. An empiric look at the Tel Aviv scene would certainly bolster such an assertion.
Others would argue that more Israelis are marrying in alternative ceremonies in Israel, hoping that, eventually, their marriages will be recognized. This, as the claim goes, will ultimately supply facts on the ground for legally sanctioned civil marriage.
But these interpretations misrepresent the facts. To claim that less people are marrying in Israel, one needs to compare the number of couples being married overseas with the number of couples being married through the Rabbinate.
This is where the drama begins.
In 2004, 29,969 Jewish couples married through the Rabbinate. In 2008, that number rose to 37,488. Or, to put it in other terms, 23 percent of Israelis chose to be married overseas in 2004, while in 2008, only 13 percent of Israeli couples abandoned the Rabbinate for Cyprus among other destinations. So, has the Rabbinate become more palatable for the rank and file?
Based on my experience handling hundreds of calls monthly from Israelis seeking to get married in the Rabbinate, I’m not convinced that this accounts for the dramatic increase in those getting married religiously. North American Jews in particular, are regularly subjected to humiliation by marriage registrars in Israel. And, though there is an increase in user-friendly rabbis who are not government employees, they only represent a fraction of the officiators at Jewish weddings around Israel.
Instead, I think two other global phenomena are impacting the Israeli public, compelling them to be married through the Rabbinate - despite the price. The first one is the trend – especially in the Middle East, but also in North America – toward more traditional religious values. Religious rites are much more accepted within Israeli society today than even a decade ago.  Consider that there is now a regular Torah study session for (secular) MKs that meets in Israel’s parliament, or that the Education Ministry has adopted a Jewish Heritage curriculum that is mandatory in Israel’s (secular) public schools.
But the increased religious affinity would not account for the increase of more than ten thousand couples a year choosing the Rabbinate. Instead, I think that it is information technology that is gradually democratizing the most intolerant of Israeli institutions, the Rabbinate.
A decade ago, even with regards to the most banal aspects of opening a marriage file, secular couples were at the mercy of the Rabbinate. With no Internet and no interactive forums Jewish couples were essentially alienated by the religious establishment even before encountering it. In 2004, Yediot Ahronot published a survey of 11th graders, of whom 87 percent said that they didn’t trust the Israeli Rabbinate. Very few of those 11th graders had ever had any personal contact with the Rabbinate.
What has changed is that information in now accessible to the public. Long before they even cross the threshold of their local religious council, individuals and secular couples are now far more aware of their rights. Even though the law in Israel forces them toward specific rabbis, secular couples know what is expected of them, what to ask, what to bring, how much they need to pay (and how much they don’t), and even how to dress. Simply said, the Israeli public is slowly taking greater responsibility for Jewish life and as a bi-product, is finding ways to wear down the Rabbinate in areas which were once sacrosanct.
A decade ago, when a bride was told by a local rabbinic official that she couldn’t give a ring to a groom under the chuppah, she had no recourse. This is not the case today, and a woman in this position can easily scour the plethora of electronic information to find licensed rabbis who are more accommodating and that meet her needs as a bride.
Furthermore, information technology is gradually affecting the Rabbinate from within as well. In many registration bureaus, filing is now done electronically, increasing productivity and decreasing the waiting time for secular couples. The rabbinical courts in Israel have just launched an automatic voice-sensitive answering service to track files.  While the negative interface still exists, it is slowly diminishing.
Does this mean that all is good? As an Orthodox rabbi, I am still devastated and embarrassed (almost daily) by the treatment of non-orthodox Jews in the halls of the religious establishment. Some of the things that go on in Israel in the name of Judaism are inexcusable. The fact is, there is still much to do to minimize the role the Rabbinate plays in our lives. The civil service in Israel is far from civil.
But, at the same time, the statistics indicate that more and more people are willing to cross that threshold in order to attain full recognition. And, while I believe that civil marriage in Israel would do a lot to promote a more civil society, I wonder if we are already on our way.
The writer received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the founder of ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center and rabbi of Kehillat Netivot in Ra'anana.