Debating civil marriage

Individual liberty must be carefully weighed against the importance of maintaining the Jewishness of the State of Israel.

A MASORTI wedding 311 (photo credit: Illustrative photo: Courtesy)
A MASORTI wedding 311
(photo credit: Illustrative photo: Courtesy)
A group of organizations petitioned the High Court last week demanding that it order the state to pass legislation that permits civil marriages.
They rightly argued that the status quo is discriminatory.
Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, including about 300,000 immigrants who came from the former Soviet Union and their offspring, and some foreign workers who are gradually undergoing a naturalization process, are living in an untenable state of civil ambiguity.
These people are seen as full-fledged Israeli citizens.
They are expected to serve in the IDF, to fight and if necessary to die to defend the Jewish state.
They pay taxes and perform other civic functions expected of citizens. But because they are not considered Jewish according to Halacha and because they are not affiliated with any other religion, these Israeli citizens are denied a basic right – the right to marry whomever they please.
Instead, these couples – one member of whom is Jewish and one is not – must travel abroad to tie the knot. Upon returning to Israel, their marriage is recognized by the state.
A partial solution to this situation was provided last November when the Knesset passed legislation that enables civil unions in cases where both the man and woman are not Jewish and have no other religious affiliation. But this legislation does not help in cases of intermarriage between a Jew and a non-Jew.
Still, while the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, the Masorti Movement, New Family, Na’amat, WIZO, Kolech, Hiddush and other organization that petitioned the High Court are right that the present marriage laws violate democratic principles of equality, there is, nevertheless, a reason why the civil marriage option has been denied Israelis for the first 63 years of the Jewish state’s existence.
Though according to recent surveys of Jewish Israeli opinion, this is no longer the case, there was once a strong consensus that Israel, as the sovereign nation of the Jewish people, has an obligation to fight intermarriage through legislation that encourages Jews to marry other Jews. Intermarriage and assimilation plague Jews of the Diaspora. The State of Israel should reflect through its laws the desire of the Jewish people to maintain continuity. Admittedly, preventing Jews from marrying non-Jews through legislation or a lack thereof will not stop intermarriage. Love will overcome any obstacle. But the fact that the State of Israel does not officially condone intermarriage has some declarative value.
It appears, however, that we are swiftly approaching a crossroads. A growing number of Israelis believe that more separation needs to be made between Synagogue and State. In part, this is due to the alienating effect for many Israelis of the haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious services – including marriage and divorce.
The demand for civil marriages would undoubtedly be less insistent today if religious services had been “privatized” years ago to allow various streams of Orthodoxy – modern and ultra-Orthodox – and recognized non-Orthodox streams of Judaism that accept central Jewish concepts – such as matrilineal descent – to compete in an atmosphere of “free market Judaism.”
The Reform and Masorti movements in Israel would probably never have joined in petitioning the High Court to institute civil marriages if they had been allowed to perform their own marriages.
If civil marriage is instituted in Israel, however, it must not be done via High Court edict, but rather only after an extensive public discourse, perhaps even a referendum, is conducted and our lawmakers are given ample time to discuss the matter. Individual liberty must be carefully weighed against the importance of maintaining the Jewishness of the State of Israel.
No matter what the final outcome, it is essential that all Israelis, whether for or against civil marriage, be satisfied that the decision-making process was thorough and fair and took into consideration the many dimensions of an issue that continues to arouse strong emotions on all sides of the debate.