Closure of Tzohar wedding project prompts outrage

Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav accuses Religious Services Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate of acting based on financial motives.

Margi 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Margi 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The rabbinical group Tzohar announced on Tuesday that it has been forced to shut down its flagship wedding project – in which it provides marriage services free of charge – due to what it calls the Religious Services Ministry’s “discriminatory enforcement” of regulations against the organization.
Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav accused the ministry and the Chief Rabbinate of acting based on financial motives.
“Tzohar, through its kind and welcoming approach, threatens the income of rabbis who treat secular couples as a never-ending source of money,” said Stav.
“Simply put, [Religious Services Minister Ya’acov] Margi is causing assimilation within the Jewish people,” he continued. “I have heard secular couples say many times that they if they can’t get married through Tzohar, they’ll just go to Cyprus [for a civil wedding]. I cannot describe the damage this will do to the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Minister Margi is pushing these people and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren out of the Jewish nation.”
The ministry denied Tzohar’s claims that it was enforcing the law in a discriminatory manner, and said that it was simply acting in accordance with the findings of a state comptroller investigation that found “irregularities” in the application of laws pertaining to marriage registration.
In response, Tzohar called the ministry’s denial “a deliberate lie.”
Speaking on Army Radio Tuesday, Margi said that Tzohar was registering hundreds of couples without supervision or transparency, and that he was simply trying to create an orderly way for Tzohar to operate within the law.
The controversy sparked furious denunciations of Margi and the ministry on Tuesday, with numerous Knesset members and concerned groups weighing in on the dispute.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni stated that the rabbinate was “strangling” Tzohar, which was simply trying to draw traditional and secular couples closer to Judaism and prevent the polarization of society.
MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) denounced the move as a “mortal blow” to the general public, one that would “undermine the status of religious marriage in Israel.” She added that she would be holding a hearing on the matter in the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women, which she chairs, and would introduce a bill in the Knesset next week to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles.
Tzohar, which consists of hundreds of religious- Zionist rabbis, claims that the Chief Rabbinate, through which any Jew wishing to marry must register, alienates many secular couples through burdensome bureaucracy and an unwelcoming and suspicious attitude toward them. Additionally many of the rabbinate- approved rabbis allegedly demand discreet “voluntary” payments for performing weddings, even though it is illegal for them to charge money for conducting the ceremony.
In light of this, Tzohar established an initiative in 1996 that provided couples with rabbis free of charge, to perform weddings for those put off by the rabbinate. In recent years, it has performed around 3,000 weddings annually.
Because of restrictions the Chief Rabbinate enacted several years ago, which Tzohar claims were designed to allow local rabbinates to disqualify Tzohar rabbis from conducting weddings, the organization began registering couples in Shoham, where Stav is the chief rabbi.
As a result, more than 2,000 couples have registered with the Shoham rabbinate each year.
But now, Margi has decided to restrict the number of marriage registrations that can be performed in Shoham to 200, a move that will prevent large numbers of people from using Tzohar to get married.
The Religious Services Ministry claims that the state comptroller insisted that it enforce the law, specifically the stipulation that couples are only permitted to register for marriage in a city where one of them lives.
The enforcement of this stipulation essentially prevents such couples from using a Tzohar rabbi for their wedding.
Tzohar also claims that the law of registering in the city of the couple’s residence is being selectively applied to Shoham to hinder the organization’s free wedding services. It alleges that private haredi rabbinical courts register couples outside of those courts’ jurisdiction all the time, and the Religious Services Ministry and Chief Rabbinate simply ignore this.
A ministry spokesman who spoke with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday explicitly denied that any courts, haredi or otherwise, registered couples outside of their city of residence unless the wedding was also performed in the city where they registered.
Tzohar Executive Vice-President Nachman Rosenberg accused the ministry of deliberately lying in this regard.
“I can say with 1,000-percent certainty that private haredi courts register couples not resident in their jurisdiction who then get married also outside of the jurisdiction of the [rabbinical] court where they registered,” Rosenberg said. “We have documented evidence of this, and it happens all the time.”
He called Margi’s new regulations “anti- Semitic” and said they “discriminate against Zionist rabbis and secular Jews.”
“This is a political move that has nothing to with Jewish values,” he asserted.