Barry Newman

Bypassing the Rabbinate’s Monopoly on Marriage in Israel

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Yoni, a former colleague with whom I speak from time to time, called me a few days ago with the news that his son will soon be getting married to a wonderful young girl from the northern part of the country. Something in his voice, though, sounded off, so after the mazel tov and some small talk, I asked if everything was okay. As it turns out, there was indeed a complication that Yoni and his wife had not expected.

Yoni’s son Moti and his fiancée Shira (names have been changed at the request of the youngsters) chose not to have their marriage organized or sanctioned by the Rabbinate. The two define themselves as “modern traditional” and have no intention of coordinating the most important day of their lives with what they refer to as the “black hatted bureaucracy”. They felt it necessary, for one thing, that prenuptial agreements be signed in order to prevent an agunah (chained woman) scenario, and did not feel confident that this would be permitted by the Rabbinate. In addition, Shira did not want a visit to the mikvah as a mandatory requirement. And, finally, the two had heard enough horror stories from friends and acquaintances of how the Rabbinate seemed to go out of the way to make things difficult and complicated.

The young couple is not in any way opposed to a “nuts and bolts” Jewish wedding. On the contrary, they are both respectful and proud of their Jewishness and have every intention of beginning their married lives in full accordance with Orthodox-based halacha, provided it did not involve the Rabbinate. A rather daunting objective, considering the Rabbinate has a monopoly on Jewish weddings that are performed in Israel.

Five years ago, several yeshiva-trained Orthodox rabbis decided to accept that formidable challenge. They, too, believed the Rabbinate very often oversteps the authority they have enjoyed since the body was first established in 1953. From the experiences they’ve had with members of the communities and congregations they are part of, they found the Rabbinate to be unfairly rigid and uncompromising in matters of Jewish ancestry and conversion, and decided that the time has come to provide an opportunity for getting married in full compliance with the laws of Moses without the need for Rabbinate registration.

The mantle was picked up by Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, a yeshiva trained rabbi who received his ordination from the well-known and highly respected Rabbis Riskin and Brovender. Rabbi Leibowitz introduced, in 2012, the idea of Hashgacha Pratit in which kashruth certification could be awarded to food producers and restaurants by individuals or organizations other than the Rabbinate. Based upon the successful reception of this concept, the next logical step seemed obvious; Chuppot – providing the option of a chupa pratit (private marriage ceremony) – was unveiled in 2018, and has been a welcome alternative for hundreds of young men and women who felt uncomfortable undergoing a civil marriage in Cyprus or would have remained unmarried.

Approximately 20 rabbis are now associated with Chuppot and officiate at weddings throughout the country. The ceremonies are, for all practical purposes, identical to those sanctioned by the Rabbinate, and while some degree of flexibility and creativity is more readily acceptable, nothing that is prohibited by halacha will be permitted. The Chuppot m’sadrei kiddushin (wedding orchestrators) ensure that every step – from the kiddushin (betrothal) to the nisu’in (the actual wedding) – is properly performed, including the reading of the Ketubah, the recital of the seven blessings (sheva brachot) and, of course, the reminder of Jerusalem’s destruction and the promise of a future return by the smashing of the wine cup. The sound of the mazel tovs at these weddings are no less joyous than the ones performed under the auspices of the Rabbinate.

There is, though, a hitch of sorts. The weddings performed by Chuppot are not recognized as “legal” and are therefore not registered in the records of the Interior Ministry. The newly married couple, instead, will be defined as common law spouses (y’dua b’tzibur) and will enjoy just about all the entitlements of those who have registered their marriage through the Rabbinate, including tax rights and obligations, insurance and pensions allocations, and joint property ownership. More importantly – indeed, perhaps most importantly – the children of such unions are in no way differentiated from those of legally sanctioned marriages, not by religion and not by state. They will be regarded without prejudice as unblemished Jews as well as full-fledged citizens of Israel. Those married by Chuppot do have the option of going abroad and marrying civilly, which would be recognized by the State of Israel, but are by no means compelled to do so.

Despite Chuppot’s claim that growing numbers of young Israeli men and women are engaging their services, they are still operating, for the most part, under the radar. Though by no means a well-guarded secret, the service they provide is far from common knowledge. The Rabbinate regards the organization as rebellious and harmful, which should come as no surprise since a viable alternative to Jewish marriage, such as offered by Chuppot, threatens the security of their monopoly. And most privately hired rabbis would advise against marrying without the approval of the Rabbinate. Chuppot, quite simply, is swimming against a very powerful tide.

This, then, is the anxiety that Yoni and his wife are now struggling with. Several friends and family members incorrectly assume that Chuppot is a subsidiary of the Conservative or Reform movements, and that any marriages they officiate at must be viewed as improper. The misinformation gets worse. The rabbi of the small shul that Yoni attends will not permit Moti to have his aufruf (Shabbat Chatan) there, explaining that it would be condoning what he perceives to be an unsanctioned alternative. Truth to be told, he’s not entirely wrong. The Rabbinate, at some point in the past, pushed through legislation making it a crime – punishable by up to two years in jail – for Jews to get married in Israel via any means other than the through Rabbinate. That the next individual prosecuted for this infraction will be the first that has ever been makes no difference. It does, though, demonstrate the obstacles that Chuppot is forced to navigate around.

One has to wonder what goes on in such Haredi communities as Mea Shearim and Har Nof. The Haredim there are skeptical at best regarding the authority of the Rabbinate, yet marriages are being performed throughout the year. The management of Chuppot is convinced that it’s only a matter of time before the marriage alternative to the Rabbinate they are offering will be officially accepted and that, sooner or later, their service will be fully integrated into the current law of the land. Maybe. But for now, Moti and Shira will begin their lives as a married couple without the rubberstamped okay of the Rabbinate. And nobody will recognize any difference; the bride will circle the kittle wearing groom seven times under the chupa, the food will be no less kosher, and the music will be just as jubilant.

And the mazel tovs of the attendees will be no less sincere.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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