Tzohar rabbis and the right to get married in Israel

Israel’s marriage laws are a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Knesset vote 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Knesset vote 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Declaration of Independence of May 14, 1948 includes the following sentence: “[The State of Israel] will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Article 1(3) of the Charter states that one of the goals of the UN is to promote and encourage “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – to which Israel is a signatory – elaborated on what is meant by “human rights” and “fundamental freedoms,” inter alia stating in article 16(1): “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.”
Israel is in total breach of this provision. The famous “status quo” agreement, based on a letter sent by David Ben-Gurion to the leaders of Agudat Yisrael in 1947 in order to ensure that it refrain from objecting to the establishment of the State of Israel, promised that all issues relating to the personal status of Jews would be left in religious hands. What followed was that all issues connected to the marriage and divorce of Jews in Israel were left in the hands of the rabbinate, and parallel ultra-Orthodox institutions.
Over the years the rabbinate has turned into a body that provides jobs (many of them superfluous) and a source of additional grey income to thousands of religious functionaries, many of whom perform their duties in total disregard for the feelings, culture and beliefs of secular Israelis who are forced to use their services.
Some examples: A young university lecturer went to the rabbinate in Jerusalem to register for marriage. In order to arrange a date for the wedding she was asked when she would be getting her next period, to which she answered that she was pregnant. She was told that she was little better than a whore, and sent to a rabbinical court to clarify her status. Another bride to be was asked about her parents. She answered that they are divorced. The rabbi then asked her, with a wink, whether her father regularly “visited” her mother.
Recently a middle-aged immigrant from the Ukraine accompanied her daughter, who was in the midst of rather unpleasant divorce proceedings, to the rabbinate in Jerusalem. The dayan (rabbinic court judge) insisted on asking her (the mother) all sorts of personal questions that had no bearing on the daughter’s divorce, such as why back in the Ukraine she had married a goy, and whether she knew the full Hebrew name of her in-law.
IN ORDER to put an end to the subjection of innocent secular citizens to insulting and humiliating treatment and to pull the country in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Israel must put an end to the religious monopoly over the personal status of its citizens. Israel needs alternative forms of marriage so that everyone, including mamzerim (children born of adultrous unions), mixed couples and hundreds of thousands of totally kosher Jews who are sick and tired of the rabbinate can fulfill his/her basic right to get married without finding all sorts of legal tricks to bypass the status quo.
Plenty more Israeli simply despise official Jewish wedding ceremonies (I say “official” because according to Jewish law one doesn’t need a rabbi to get married.
It is sufficient for a man to tell a woman in front of witnesses “harei at mekudeshet li betab’at zo kedat Moshe ve- Yisrael” (Behold, you are betrothed to me with this Ring in accordance with the Law of Moses and Israel) for the couple to be considered married.
Hopefully someday the law in Israel will be changed following growing pressure from secular Jews, who are tired of hearing that they are a threat to “the unity of the Jewish People” because they wish to be free of any religious coercion. The unity of the Jewish People can only be preserved under a pluralistic regime that ensures the human rights and personal freedom of every Jew.
In the meantime many secular couples are glad to be able to use the services of more moderate, liberal Orthodox rabbis, such as the rabbis of the Tzohar organization. These rabbis treat their clients with respect, and do their utmost to comply with the couples’ wishes regarding the wedding ceremonies at which they officiate, as long as the couples are marriageable according to halacha, and their requests do not clash with it.
But now the rabbinate has declared war against the Tzohar rabbis, whose popularity, resulting from their derech eretz (proper manners and demeanor), and the fact that they do not ask for any payment beyond a registration fee, threatens the rabbinate’s monopoly and power.
Hopefully the important work performed by the Tzohar rabbis, and their likes, will not be abruptly stopped.

The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.