Orthodoxy’s control over marriage in Israel is over

Israel has a long way to go before all religious streams enjoy equal status in the Jewish State and its citizens have the right to freedom of religion and freedom from religion as embodied in her Declaration of Independence.

The struggle by the Women of the Wall to pray as they wish and read Torah at the Western Wall is not yet over. Indeed, the Supreme Court rebuked the government earlier this month for not implementing its commitment to create a pluralistic prayer section as outlined in the plan that had been negotiated with former Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblitt.

Many see this as a struggle by Reform and Conservative Jews for equal rights, but it is much more than that. Not only liberal Jews are suffering.

In a country in which the Orthodox rabbinic establishment enjoys exclusive jurisdiction under law in the fields of marriage and divorce, there are hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who cannot marry in their own country and there are agunot (grass widows) unable to start a new life, because their estranged husbands refuse to grant them a get (bill of divorce).

A survey conducted in 2013 showed that no less than 70% of divorced women had had to contend with financial blackmail and other demands before their husbands had finally agreed to divorce them!

We may like to think of ourselves as a Western democracy and a “start-up” nation, but when it comes to marriage and divorce, Israel is still living in the Middle Ages.

However, when it comes to getting married, a silent revolution is taking place in Israeli society, which is undermining both the authority of the Orthodox rabbinate and the jurisdiction of the State in matters of personal status.

In the past, many Israelis, not wishing to marry under the auspices of the establishment rabbinate, would simply fly to Cyprus, hold a civil wedding ceremony at a town hall and then return to Israel to register their marriages with the Interior Ministry. New York and Prague are also popular destinations and there are travel agencies that specialize in offering wedding packages.

However, whereas couples choosing such an option may have succeeded in getting married without recourse to the establishment rabbinate, they will not escape their clutches should they decide to divorce and the wife will have to receive a get from her husband before the State of Israel will register them as divorced.

As the number of couples marrying under the aegis of the establishment Orthodox rabbinate continues to fall in spite of an increase in the size of Israel’s population, a growing number of people are opting for a different route. Instead of marrying overseas, they are simply turning to agencies such as Mishpacha Chadasha (New Family) and signing affidavits enabling them to be classified as common law spouses, whose unions are recognized by Israeli institutions including social security, government ministries, municipal governments, hospitals and banks.

While this option has its limitations, such a course of action has certain advantages including the fact that, should such couples decide to separate, they do not have to appeal to an Orthodox beit din (rabbinic court) to dissolve their unions, because they were never recognized by the State as married!

As a Reform rabbi who officiates at many weddings, I have witnessed this growing trend over the past few years, which has in effect brought Orthodoxy’s control over marriage in Israel to an end.
When governments don’t listen to the voice of the people, they simply vote with their feet.

About the Author
Rabbi Boyden was educated and received his rabbinical ordination in London, England. Having served as the rabbi of Cheshire Reform Congregation for thirteen years, he made aliyah with his family in 1985. He has established Reform congregations in Ra'anana and Hod Hasharon and previously served as director of the Israel Reform Movement's Beit Din.
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