If you live in a country like the United States, you can envision a Jewish couple getting married having a range of options to do so. They can choose an officiating rabbi of whatever denomination they like, or they might opt for a civil ceremony at city hall.
Strangely, Israel does not have this freedom of marriage. For Jewish Israelis, the only local option is to wed through the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. A Jewish Israeli whose Judaism is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, for whatever reason, has no legal way to get married in his or her own country.
How do Israelis feel about this situation? What could the future of civil marriage in Israel look like? Read on for more information, adapted from a Hebrew factsheet created by JPW to coincide with a Knesset committee hearing on civil marriage on February 15th, 2022.
The issues of marriage and divorce in Israel are central to the discussion regarding religion and state. Like other issues of religion and state, a nearly inconceivable gap stands between public opinion and governmental policy. This post seeks to give a bit of background information on marriage in Israel, before briefly presenting the views of the public as expressed in surveys and parliamentary activity on the topic.
To this day, the sole authority in Israel legally entitled to perform Jewish wedding ceremonies is the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. This has been true for the entirety of Israel’s existence, and is a core element of the so-called “status quo” of religious issues in Israel. Among the ramifications of this legal situation are that Jewish Israelis do not have the freedom to have a legal wedding conducted by a non-Orthodox rabbi, such as a Conservative or a Reform one; if the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate does not recognize someone’s Judaism, whether due to a non-Orthodox conversion or simple lack of documentation of Jewish lineage, that person cannot legally have a Jewish wedding in Israel; on a formal level, Jewish Israelis are legally barred from marrying non-Jews in Israel; and virtually no same-sex marriages conducted within Israel are legally recognized.
Israel is the only country in the OECD without freedom of marriage. The State of Israel is the only democracy with exclusively religious marriage, recognizing 11 religious groups.
Israel recognizes civil marriage, including same-sex marriage, only if performed outside of the country. This is because the Ministry of Interior, not the Chief Rabbinate, is responsible for updating personal status in the Population Registry. Thus, registration as married in the state of Israel can be based on a recognized religious ceremony within Israel, or a legally recognized marriage in another country.
In recognizing only religious marriage, Israel is in lockstep with countries such as Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Meanwhile, some third-world countries have freedom of marriage. For example, Senegal, whose population is 96% Muslim, has formal freedom of marriage. Other countries with freedom of marriage include Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Seychelle, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, the Central African Republic, and Eastern European nations.
Until 2013, a couple that chose to have a Jewish wedding ceremony outside of the Chief Rabbinate could be charged with a crime. In that year, the law was changed to also apply to officiants of such weddings. All three parties– the couple and the officiant– could be imprisoned for two years.
While no one has yet to sit in prison for such a “crime,” Rabbi Dubi Hayoun, a Conservative rabbi then serving at Kehillat Moriah in Haifa, was detained by police for questioning on July 19th, 2018. He was suspected of conducting Jewish weddings beyond the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, and was released two hours later.
In 2010, the Knesset passed legislation which allowed for legal recognition of relationships between two “persons of no religion.” This, however, was a very partial solution, providing no resolution to the remaining citizens of Israel who cannot or do not wish to wed through the official religious authorities. Another partial solution is common-law marriage, applying to couples who live together but do not legally wed. This is a societal phenomenon that is not formally defined by law, but in practice is recognized by the authorities and the courts and provides some of the rights enjoyed by married couples. Nonetheless, this solution does not account for those who wish to be officially recognized as married by the State of Israel, with all of the ensuing psychological and social ramifications.
As mentioned, the alternative way for couples to register as married who cannot or do not want to wed through the Orthodox Rabbinate is getting married outside of Israel. This solution has a number of issues, including the significant expense of a trip and a wedding abroad. Moreover, this solution became markedly more difficult during the coronavirus pandemic, when international travel was severely restricted. The State of Utah, in the United States of America, passed a state law allowing marriage virtually, allowing those who qualify to get an official marriage from the State of Utah without actually traveling there.
While Israel does allow the registration of foreign weddings, even if those weddings were not Orthodox religious ceremonies, all Jewish couples who register as married and then decide to seek divorce must do so through the Chief Rabbinate. In other words, while Israel may recognize civil marriages performed abroad, it does not recognize civil divorce.
Public opinion vs. public policy
Dozens of surveys over the years have proven, and still prove, that a solid majority of the Israeli public supports a legal option of civil, i.e. non-religious, marriage. According to the 2021 Israel Pluralism Index of the Jewish People Policy Institute, 66% of Israelis support civil marriage. A survey conducted by Israel Hofsheet and Ha-Madad showed that 63% of Israelis support civil marriage, including 58% of those who self-identify as “traditional.”
According to Hiddush, 90% of secular Israelis support civil marriage. Voters of most parties currently serving the coalition government support civil marriage, as well: 92% of Yesh Atid voters, 97% of Labor voters, 80% of Blue and White voters, 100% of Meretz voters, 92% of New Hope voters, 97% of Yisrael Beitenu voters, and 51% of Yamina voters. The survey was conducted after the public revelation that gymnast Artem Dolgopyat, who won an Olympic gold medal for Israel, could not marry his fiancée in Israel.
In 2018, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics published numbers showing a decline in the previous decade of marriages among the Jewish population in Israel. Between 2015 and 2018, the number declined by 12%, although the population itself increased. In addition, the report showed that 9,021 marriages conducted abroad were recorded in the Israeli Population Registry in 2018. All of these numbers clearly demonstrate a distancing of the Israeli public from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
Another ramification of these trends is that Israel is losing the basic ability to keep track of which of its citizens are married. In other words, the state is losing its sovereignty over registration, and does not know how many married couples live in Israel. From a perspective of governance, this failure could impact taxes, registration of children, medical rights, and much more.
Marriage has been the subject of a flurry of proposed legislation in recent years, although none of it has passed.
Proposed Basic Law: Referendum – Equality in Marriage and Divorce (2020), proposed by MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz). The bill proposed a national referendum in order to make decisions regarding marriage and divorce according to public opinion.
Proposed Law of Jurisdiction of Rabbinical Courts (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment – Civil Marriage on the Grounds of an Embassy in Israel) (2018), proposed by MK Sharren Haskel (Likud, now New Hope). The bill proposed defining the grounds of an embassy as beyond Israeli jurisdiction in regard to marriage and divorce, thus enabling Israeli couples to obtain civil marriages without traveling outside of Israel.
Proposed Law of Marriage and Divorce (2020), proposed by MK Yulia Malinovksy (Yisrael Beitenu). The bill proposed creating an option for civil marriage, alongside the existing structures of religious marriage, for those who so choose.
Proposed Law of Marriage and Divorce (2020), proposed by MK Idan Roll (Yesh Atid). The bill proposed creating a new civil-legal status recognized by law alongside the existing religious marriage, without changing the status or character of religious marriage and divorce.
Proposed Law of Marriage and Its Dissolution (2020), proposed by MK Merav Michaeli (Labor). The bill proposed establishing the registration and dissolution of a marriage as a civil matter.
Proposed Law of Jurisdiction of Rabbinical Courts (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment – Marriage in Foreign Consulates Within Israel) (2018), proposed by MK Andrey Kozhinov (Yesh Atid-Telem). The bill proposed allowing couples otherwise ineligible to marry in Israel the option of consular marriage at foreign embassies and consulates within Israel. The bill proposed making the change as a temporary order until the end of the special authorization of emergency powers. A similar bill was proposed by MK Evgeny Sova (Yisrael Beitenu).
Coinciding with the publication of a version of this document in Hebrew, the Knesset’s Committee on Special National Infrastructure Projects and Jewish Religious Services held a discussion on civil marriage on February 15th, 2022.
Committee Chairperson MK Yulia Malinovsky:
Approximately 520,000 citizens of Israel cannot exercise their right to wed. The State of Israel is the only democracy in the world without civil marriage. There is a large group of those who are Jewish according to Jewish law who have lost trust and do not want to get married through the Rabbinate, and that is their right. Many couples have private ceremonies. That does not allow for registration, but it gives citizens a sense of satisfaction. There is a popular opinion that the rabbis are in opposition, but there are many Orthodox municipal rabbis who live among our people and understand. Like the rabbis of Afula or Ramat Gan.
A representative of the Central Bureau of Statistics gave some numbers:
In the last 20 years, an average of approximately 7,500 couples reported to the Population Authority that they got married abroad. And not everyone reports. In total, 150,000 couples. We also keep track of their religion, and in 25% of the cases, both of the partners are Jewish.
(Meaning they had the legal option to get married in Israel – JPW.)
MK Moshe (Kinley) Tur-Paz (Yesh Atid):
This discussion is at the heart of the Jewish discussion in the State of Israel. This state is the state of the Jews, and a democratic state. We must allow people to choose what type of kosher food they eat, what type of conversion they undergo, and what type of wedding they have. The more that we offer choice in the religious realm, both Judaism and religion will grow. It would be good if we could manage to advance civil marriage, even within the current government.
MK Malinovsky referred to the fact that no ultra-Orthodox MKs were in attendance:
I invited everyone to this meeting. Unfortunately, they did not come. I told them, if my son and your daughter choose to get married, they won’t ask us. We are all in the same boat. When we have wars and terror attacks, no one checks anyone else’s Judaism.