David K. Rees
David K. Rees

The Rabbinate, Divorce, and the New “Moderate” Coalition

In the past week, there has been a great deal of press coverage and several blogs dealing with the Rabbinate’s control over marriage in Israel. See for example, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israels-new-national-sports-hero-cant-marry-in-the-country-mother-laments/

These were generated because Olympic gold-medal winner Israeli Artem Dolgopyat whose father is Jewish but whose mother is not, cannot marry his fiancée in Israel, because Israel does not have civil marriage. Rather, matrimonial matters are in handled by the  Rabbinate which is headed by two Haredi (Ultra-orthodox) Rabbis (one from Shas, a Sephardic political party, and one from United Torah Judaism (UTJ), an Ashkenazi, political party). The very conservative Rabbinate applies traditional Jewish law (Halakha), which requires that in order to be considered Jewish, the mother has to be Jewish.

I have no problem with people who, because of their religious beliefs, are content with the present system and wish to continue to utilize it. Still, for some people who do not share the Rabbinate’s religious beliefs, the present system  is onerous.

What is generally ignored in these articles and blogs is that the Rabbinate controls not only marriage, but divorce. In truth, one may never see the person who conducted one’s marriage again after the marriage ceremony. In contrast, one is liable to go before the same Rabbinical judges over and over again for years when it comes to divorce. The rulings that these judges make can affect not only the lives of the married couple, but their children, as well. The people who make these decisions are frequently old and ALWAYS men. Not surprisingly, as a result, there is horror story after horror story about how unfairly women are treated in  Rabbinical courts. Much as I want a civil alternative to the Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish marriage, I want its monopoly over Jewish divorce ended even more.

It appears that the new “moderate” coalition will try to  establish civil domestic-relations alternatives, though this is by no means certain. It is interesting to see how the issue has developed. The new coalition is headed by Neftali Bennett (Yamina). He will be Prime Minister for at least the first two years of this government. The new coalition, including Bennett, is very conservative in some respects. It is very hawkish on matters of war and peace; conservatives control Israeli’s Security Cabinet. It is also very conservative on issues regarding the West Bank, recently allowing an illegal settlement to remain in place, at least temporarily, despite a Court order to the contrary.

The coalition’s response to the Haredim, however, is a different matter. While he is religious and wears kippa daily, Bennett is a far cry from Haredi. The Haredi parties have supported Netanyahu for years; they are not members of the new coalition.

More importantly, Bennett is a different type of religious Jew. Before he went into politics, he was a businessman, establishing a business which he sold for $142 million. He was a commando in the IDF and until recently was an officer in the IDF reserves. He has long felt that the Haredim have not carried their fair share either in contributing to Israel’s economy or in the country’s military. After the 2013 election, he negotiated as a bargaining unit with the far-more liberal, secular Yair Lapid, then a newcomer to Israeli politics, in joining Netanyahu’s coalition. The issue that Bennett and Lapid had in common was limiting the power of  the Haredim. Lapid is now the leader of the center-left part of the new “moderate” coalition and is scheduled to be the Prime Minister for two years after Bennett is. He is currently the Foreign Minister. Numerous other members of the new government, especially Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, share the object of limiting the power the Haredim. On this issue, there is agreement among the different parts of the coalition.

The coalition’s support for civil marriage can best be seen as another broadside aimed the Haredim. First the new coalition set up an independent commission to look into the Mount Meron disaster in which 45 people were killed because the event was organized by a Haredi body that refused to abide by the government requirements for hosting large events and ignored warnings of an impending disaster. The Haredi leaders hated this.

Lieberman added to their woes when he introduced new conditions for receiving daycare payments for children under 3, effectively ending subsidies for roughly 21,000 children whose fathers were Yeshiva students.

The third blow to the Haredim came over the Kotel (Western Wall). In June 2016, the Israeli government approved a proposal which would have opened a new egalitarian section of the Western Wall. Unlike the traditional Kotel site, the egalitarian site would not be controlled exclusively by the Haredim. Men and women would be able to pray together at this site. Yielding to Haredi pressure, in 2017, the government backed down and abandoned this plan. The new “moderate” coalition, saying that it wants to improve relations with Diaspora Jews, has announced an intention to bring back the previous plan. Again the Haredi leaders are very unhappy.

The most recent blow to the Haredim came from Religious Affairs Minister Matan Katana (Yamina) who unveiled a plan to overhaul Israel’s kosher certification system which, until now, has been under the exclusive control of the Rabbinate. The Rabbinate and Haredi members of the Knesset were appalled.

The “moderate” coalition has been very careful to pick issues which will have public support. They are doing so at the same time as public support for the Haredim has been waning, particularly in light of the refusal of so many of the Haredim to get inoculated against Coronavirus. Once again, the coalition has an issue which will have widespread public support. Israelis are very proud of their Olympians. The thought that an Israeli gold-medal winner with a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother is not Jewish enough to get married by the rules of the Rabbinate is widely viewed as outrageous. This is music to the ears of the new “moderate” coalition.

About the Author
After spending an adulthood as a lawyer in Colorado where much of my practice involved the public interest, I made aliyah. As I child I was told by my mother, a German, Jewish refugee, that Israel was a place for her and her child. When I came here, I understood what she meant. Though I am retired now, I have continued my interest in activism and the world in which I find myself.
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