Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"
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Could gay marriage in America lead to civil marriage in Israel?

Could Netanyahu's broad-based coalition finally institute civil marriage in Israel?

The Obama declaration on gay marriage, along with this week’s formation of a broad-based unity government in Israel, accelerates the possibility of civil marriage in Israel. Israeli opinion on this topic, like American opinion, appears to be liberalizing, albeit in fits and starts, and there is real hope that Israel will soon become a more pluralistic environment, Jewish in character but less beholden to the religious extreme.

It’s important to note that, in speaking of this complicated topic of gay marriage, there is no monolithic Jewish view and that so many of us have been, like the President, evolving.

Why might this week’s news speed up that process?

1)    For one of the few times in its history, Israel now has a government that is blackmail-proof.

2)    Plus, the impetus that led to this week’s political earthquake was the need to, at long last, integrate haredim into national service and the military. Right now it’s about the Tal Law, but ultimately it’s about Israel’s readiness to finally begin reassessing the “status quo” arrangements dating from state’s founding. The status quo is on shaky ground already, with the debate over Shabbat bus service in Tel Aviv. While the Tal Law is in some ways unique, it also could be the first of many dominoes to fall in a national reassessment of the role of religious authority in a democratic state.

3)    Add to that the curious position the LGBT community has in Israel. Shunned by the rabbinic authorities, which control marriage, they are not allowed to marry. But the state maintains a very liberal approach to gay rights, in large part because it helps Israel’s “brand” both diplomatically and economically in appealing to liberals abroad, especially in the US. And it’s worked, despite the occasional backlash. No less a figure than liberal icon Barney Frank has championed Israel’s gay rights record, and Tel Aviv was recently named the world’s best gay city.

4)     All marriages performed abroad are accepted by the state, including gay marriages — similar to the way conversions are handled. A marriage or conversion I perform in America is automatically accepted in Israel (for now, unless the Rotem Bill once again rears its ugly head). But one I perform in Israel will not be accepted, because the rabbinic authorities control personal status. Inevitably, this inconsistency needs to be rectified. It is only a matter of time before the forces coalesce to allow civil marriage in Israel, gay or straight, Jewish, non-Jewish or mixed. The forces are all in place, including the Russian immigrants, the secular parties and, because of this need to sustain the liberal brand when it comes LGBTs, even Netanyahu.

5)    As gay marriage becomes increasingly acceptable to Americans — and national polling trends are clearly and dramatically heading in that direction — Israeli leaders will increasingly see the light, in order to placate liberal American Jews and Christians. Conservatives are already loyal to Israel and will not be turned off should Israel allow civil marriage — it is the liberals who need to be convinced. See how the Obama declaration has already sparked debate in the Knesset.  This will increase the momentum for civil marriage in Israel. With a blackmail-proof government dominated by secular parties on the left and right, it might even happen…gasp…soon.

Thanks to President Obama, I may get to perform state-sanctioned weddings in Israel yet!

But I’m not holding my breath….


About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times (HCI Books). Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2018, he received an award from the Religion News Association, honorable mention, for excellence in commentary, for articles written for the Washington Post, New York Jewish Week, and JTA. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307
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