This system is best understood as a marriage police, motivated by an unprecedented zealousness to detect, enforce and punish would-be violators of Jewish law’s ancient bans on certain kinds of relationships as if they were criminal offenses — most notably the prohibitions on intermarriage and the marriage of a mamzer, the offspring of illicit relations. While the Jewish prohibitions date back two millennia or more, Israel’s marriage police is a new phenomenon of recent decades. It is not rooted in law, but almost entirely built upon a patchwork of administrative regulations and decisions by Israel’s rabbinical courts.
The first and best-known process for policing marriage prohibitions is the pre-registration interview. This interview is at times more like an interrogation; witnesses and relatives of suspect couples are brought before the marriage registrar to give testimony, asked to bring evidence, and are carefully cross-examined on the couples’ Jewishness. This can be a humiliating process, and makes ordinary Israelis feel that the religious authorities of the Jewish state are calling their Jewish identity into question.
If an individual is suspected of being subject to a marriage prohibition, their case is brought before the rabbinical courts. Ordinarily, these cases involve only adults who have applied to marry and were turned away. In recent decades, however, rabbinical courts have adopted the view that they have the authority to initiate investigations into the marriage eligibility of minor children who were born under circumstances that may make their marriage prohibited – whether suspected mamzerim or children of suspected non-Jewish or convert parents. Once any person — adult or child — is caught up in the rabbinical courts, the ordeal can last for years and extracts a heavy financial and emotional toll.
The system of marriage police relies on modern information technologies. One such tool is the “blacklist,” a national database containing thousands of individuals suspected of being under marriage prohibition. A single official, the Administrator of Rabbinical Courts, controls the blacklist. By official policy, every couple applying to marry anywhere in Israel is checked against this list. Placing individuals on the “blacklist” (temporarily pending investigation or permanently) serves as a de-facto sanction to compel cooperation with rabbinical court proceedings.
Like the sad reality in other kinds of policing, the Israeli marriage police also has its suspect classes — primarily recent immigrants and converts to Judaism. These groups are treated with immediate suspicion and suffer excessive enforcement and on the part of rabbinical authorities. Several sources of data allow rabbinical authorities to identify their “suspects.” Marriage registrars enjoy full access to the National Population Registry, which allows them to know, for example, when and where the couple and their parents were born, if they immigrated to Israel, or if they changed their religious status. Official rules on the registration of newborn babies flag suspected mamzerim from birth in official records by omitting the name of their biological fathers.
When individuals of questionable Jewishness (a category expanded since the 1990s to include all immigrants from the Former Soviet Union) seek to marry, the rabbinical courts rely on the opinions of four state-appointed “Jewishness investigators,” who are tasked with investigating and determining who is Jewish and who is not. Officially acting only as expert advisors, the four investigators have unfettered discretion to collect any information — and their opinions are almost never challenged. They apply a body of “expertise” on Jewish genealogy that was never subject to public scrutiny or debate. The investigators use a computerized database called Maayanot to perform their investigations, and receive assistance from the Israel Police’s forensic investigators to examine genealogical documents they suspect as forgeries.
The treatment of converts, always a touchy social issue, took a dramatic turn for the worse after a 2008 landmark decision of Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court held that any rabbinical court was authorized to retroactively annul the conversion of a parent and her children and at any time if the court believes the convert was insincere. Consequently, every and any contact by a convert — or her children — with Israel’s rabbinical authorities becomes an opportunity for the rabbis to closely scrutinize the converts’ level of religious devotion.
While every marriage denied or delayed is a personal tragedy, the cumulative affect of the system of marriage police is to deny thousands of citizens the right to marry in Israel, and causes unnecessary hardship on entire segments of Israel’s population, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Most cases of denied marriages are “false positives” of couples who should never have been denied marriage under Jewish law in the first place. The excessive and unfair targeting is a significant factor in the scores of Israeli couples’ decision to avoid marriage in Israel entirely and marry abroad, or to forego official marriage altogether.
The bitter irony is that Israel’s modern marriage police is an aberration from Jewish tradition, not an expression of it. Traditional Jewish marriage law was careful to limit the disclosure of information that might lead to the prohibition a marriage. It allowed old secrets to remain hidden and forgotten over time and wisely required distant rumors to be ignored.
But creating alternatives to Jewish Orthodox marriage is not enough. Dismantling the marriage police through legal reform is not only possible, but necessary. As long as most Israelis desire some form of Jewish wedding, reform of the broken marriage system will not end with the creation of civil marriage; it requires an end to the vast and arbitrary power that a tiny group within the state’s religious authorities exercise over the entire Jewish population of Israel.
(This op-ed was originally published in +972 Magazine)