Civil unions

When Israel’s first premier, Ben-Gurion, entrusted all issues of marriage and divorce to the rabbinical authorities immediately post-independence, the situation was radically different from today.

Wedding (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Yesh Atid has submitted a civil union bill (like marriage but not quite) and a similar initiative is sponsored by the Zionist Union. Sooner or later Israel will have no choice but to adopt such legislation. This is the most reasonable course barring outright separation of religion and state, which is problematic in the Jewish perception.
The measure would not affect religious wedding ceremonies for those who want them but would offer a solution to thousands of Israelis who cannot marry in this country.
Such a situation is unthinkable in the 21st century.
When Israel’s first premier, David Ben-Gurion, entrusted all issues of marriage and divorce to the rabbinical authorities immediately post-independence, the situation was radically different from today. The population for the most part still hailed from traditional backgrounds or was familiar with rituals and customs. There were no complexities such as the clamor for same-sex marriage or a massive influx of only partly Jewish immigrants.
Yesteryear’s problems were relatively marginal (like the marriage between a Kohen and a divorcée). Ben-Gurion was being pragmatic in the context of his day. His aim was to avoid strife.
The Chief Rabbinate, however, failed to evince the flexibility that the responsibility bestowed upon it should have produced. Indeed, over the years things only got worse, especially since the advent of haredi Shas control over the rabbinate versus the religious-Zionist predominance of the state’s early decades.
In many ways things are considerably less liberal now than they were then – for instance coercing brides to produce written confirmation that they had been to the mikve on the eve of their nuptials. This was not so a generation, and some of today’s young women find it demeaning.
Are they to be denied the right to marry? The answer they generally receive is that if they choose a rabbinical wedding they ought to submit to rabbinical norms. That is indisputably so.
The problem is that no other readily available choice is on hand. Sending young Israelis to Cyprus – or further afield – for quickie civil ceremonies is undignified.
The better approach would be to allow civil partnership or civil union to those whom the rabbinate turns away.
There are those who say that this would introduce division into the nation, leading the Orthodox sector to steer away from matches that involve anyone associated with a civil union. But this division anyhow already exists. The offspring of those exiled to Cypriot marriage registration offices are already not considered desirable matches for prospective spouses from haredi communities.
Already rabbinate officials check invasively and distrustingly into the genealogy of anyone with a Russian-sounding surname, even if that person is a recognized Jew with a known Jewish maternal lineage. It is only right to spare this ordeal from soon-to-be brides and bridegrooms who had cast their lot with the Jewish people and who do not deserve to be spurned and humiliated.
The least any modern state owes all its citizens is a choice. It is far better to go with a civil union formula such as Yesh Atid’s which offers couples recognition as spouses but falls a tad short of the designation of marriage as the rabbinate would define it.
Indeed, it even falls short of the civil marriage terminology that most couples who cannot be wed by the rabbinate would doubtless prefer. Nevertheless, the rabbinate’s monopoly on its ceremonies would thereby stay untouched while an alternative would be offered to those ineligible for or uninterested in Orthodox wedlock.
This is far from perfect, as ultimately, the rabbinate’s monopoly on religious life cycle events must be smashed, and non-Orthodox rabbis (including Reform, the boogeyman of the day) must be allowed to perform weddings, funerals and everything in between.
Until that desired day comes, the rabbinate is presented a dignified way out that it ought to grab willingly. It would deflect pressure away from the rabbinate, and simultaneously preempt a situation in which the courts would impose what the rabbinate rejects.
Judicial intervention would be extremely more divisive and acrimonious than the democratic compromise that this bill constitutes. This is an enlightened and feasible live-and-let-live solution that is quite inevitable in our fast-changing world. It would leave the national fabric unraveled. Thus preserving our collective Jewish cohesiveness can only be good for us all.