News / Middle East

    Israeli Couples Say 'I Don't' to Orthodox Jewish Weddings

    Michal (C) and Shay (R) kiss after signing a marriage agreement, not recognized as valid by Israel's Interior Ministry, in front of a lawyer at an organization providing family law services, in Tel Aviv, Nov. 19, 2013.
    Michal (C) and Shay (R) kiss after signing a marriage agreement, not recognized as valid by Israel's Interior Ministry, in front of a lawyer at an organization providing family law services, in Tel Aviv, Nov. 19, 2013.
    Reuters
    For most Israelis in the Jewish state, there is one legal way to get married - God's way.
     
    Israeli law empowers only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at Jewish weddings, but popular opposition is growing to this restriction and to what some Israelis see as an Orthodox stranglehold on the most precious moments of their lives.
     
    Some of Israel's most popular TV stars and models have come out this week in an advertisement supporting a new bill allowing civil marriage. A political storm is likely when it eventually comes up for a vote in parliament.
     
    The Rabbinate, the Orthodox religious authority that issues marriage licenses in Israel, says it is charged with a task vital for the survival of the Jewish people, and a recent poll showed more Israelis oppose civil unions than support them.
     
    Nevertheless, many Israelis want either a secular wedding or a religious marriage conducted by a non-Orthodox rabbi. Facebook pages have been popping up, with defiant couples calling on others to boycott the Rabbinate.
     
    In September, Stav Sharon, a 30-year-old Pilates instructor, married her husband in an alternative ceremony performed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi.
     
    Bride Veronica (4th L) and her groom Michael (4th R), stand underneath a traditional Jewish wedding canopy during their secular wedding ceremony in Tel Aviv, Nov. 14, 2013Bride Veronica (4th L) and her groom Michael (4th R), stand underneath a traditional Jewish wedding canopy during their secular wedding ceremony in Tel Aviv, Nov. 14, 2013
    x
    Bride Veronica (4th L) and her groom Michael (4th R), stand underneath a traditional Jewish wedding canopy during their secular wedding ceremony in Tel Aviv, Nov. 14, 2013
    Bride Veronica (4th L) and her groom Michael (4th R), stand underneath a traditional Jewish wedding canopy during their secular wedding ceremony in Tel Aviv, Nov. 14, 2013
    “We wanted a Jewish wedding despite being secular. We feel connected to our Judaism, even if we are not religious," she said. "It is our people, our tradition.”
     
    Weddings such as Sharon's fall into a legal no man's land. They are not against the law, but neither are they recognized as valid by the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for registering marital status on the national identity card every Israeli is required to carry.
     
    In a twist in the law, the ministry will register as married any Israeli couple that weds abroad - even in a non-religious ceremony - outside the purview of the Israeli rabbinate.
     
    Some couples hop on the short flight to Cyprus to marry. The Czech Republic is another popular destination for Israelis wanting a civil wedding.
     
    Sharon and her husband decided against that option. “Marrying abroad means giving in. We wanted to marry in our own country,” she said.
     
    No formal records are kept on the officially invalid alternative ceremonies held in Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly 39,000 Jewish couples married via the Rabbinate in 2011. About 9,000 couples registered that year as having married overseas.
     
    Muslims, Druze and Christians in Israel are also required to marry through their own state-recognized religious authorities, making interfaith weddings possible only overseas.
     
    Who is a Jew?
     
    Secular-religious tensions have simmered in Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state, since its establishment in 1948.
     
    About 20 percent of Israeli Jews describe themselves as Orthodox while the majority of citizens are only occasional synagogue-goers. There are also non-Orthodox communities such as Reform and Conservative, but these are proportionately smaller than in Jewish populations abroad.
     
    Ultra-Orthodox zealots have drawn anger in recent years for separating men and women on some public buses and harassing women and girls for what they see as immodest dress. Orthodox rabbis insist that brides take ritual baths to purify themselves before marriage, a practice to which some Israeli women object.
     
    Immigrants to Israel, which since its inception has appealed to Jews around the world to live in the Jewish state, can find marriage through its Rabbinate a grueling process.
     
    Anyone wed by the Rabbinate is required to provide evidence of being Jewish, usually a simple and quick process.
     
    But when it comes to new immigrants, the Rabbinate requires an affidavit, usually from an Orthodox rabbi in their home country, attesting they were born to a Jewish mother - the Orthodox criterion for determining if someone is a Jew.
     
    And, Orthodox authorities in Israel can pile on more problems by digging even deeper into Jewish roots by requiring additional documentation proving that a bride or bridegroom's grandmother was Jewish.
     
    “It took a year,” said a 34-year-old Argentinian immigrant to Israel, who asked not to be identified.
     
    “They said the papers I had were not sufficient. They kept asking for more and more crazy documents," he said. "At one point they wanted me to provide a witness, from Argentina, who knew my grandparents and who had seen them, inside their home, celebrating a Jewish holiday.”
     
    His case was ultimately brought before the Chief Rabbi who ruled the man was Jewish and could marry his bride-to-be.
     
    Israel's government is less strict in determining “who is a Jew” and therefore eligible to immigrate to Israel. Under its Law of Return, proof that someone has at least one Jewish grandparent is enough to receive automatic citizenship.
     
    The Rabbinate says it is charged with preventing intermarriage and assimilation with non-Jewish communities which would endanger their people's survival.
     
    Ziv Maor, the Rabbinate's spokesman, said strict adherence to Orthodox ritual law and practices had bonded Jews across the globe and set common rules for all.
     
    “A Moroccan Jew knew he could marry a Jewish woman from Lithuania,” he said. “Rabbinical law guides us in a very clear way on who is Jewish and who is not ... and we do not have permission from past or future generations to stray even a hair's breadth from those criteria.”
     
    According to the Rabbinate, only two percent of the men and women who apply to it for a marriage license are turned down because they are found not to be Jewish.
     
    Gay Marriage
     

    There are other groups to whom marriage is forbidden by rabbinical law.
     
    Same-sex marriage, as in other religions, is out of the question as far as the Rabbinate is concerned. Israel's Interior Ministry recognizes gay marriage - but only if it is conducted in a foreign country where it is legal.
     
    Margot Madeson-Stern, a business consultant, was wed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi at a celebration attended by more than 300 guests. The ceremony had no legal foundation in Israel.
     
    “The [Rabbinate] would not marry me. The person I fell in love with was a woman,” said Madeson-Stern, 30. “I'm Jewish. I wanted a Jewish wedding. It's my family, my tradition, it's how I grew up.”
     
    She later traveled with her wife to New York for another wedding ceremony. New York recognizes gay marriages, so Israel's Interior Ministry did the same, registering them as a couple.
     
    At least two parties in the coalition government are promoting a bill to allow civil marriage in Israel, including for same-sex couples. One of them is Yesh Atid, which tapped into anti-religious sentiment in last January's national election and finished in second place.
     
    “It cannot be that people who do not believe or whose lifestyle does not suit the Rabbinate will be forced to get married by people whose way is not their own,” Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid told Israel Radio this month.
     
    But tradition could die hard in Israel. A poll published in November in the Israeli newspaper, Maariv, showed that while 41 percent of Jewish Israelis supported Yesh Atid's Civil Union bill, 47 percent objected.
     
    Such bills have been floated at Israel's parliament before. But for the first time in years, ultra-Orthodox parties, which oppose civil marriage, are not in the government.
     
    Yesh Atid believes it has enough votes from lawmakers across the board to pass the law in the next few months. The Rabbinate says it will oppose the measure strongly.
     
    “Matters of marriage, divorce and conversion are our most important fortress. It must not be touched and we will defend it fiercely,” said Maor.

    You May Like

    Vietnam Urges US to Lift Lethal Weapons Ban Amid S. China Sea Tensions

    US president’s upcoming visit to Vietnam underscores strength of relationship, and lifting embargo would reflect that trust, ambassador says

    Are US Schools Turning a Blind Eye to Radical Qatari Preachers?

    Parade of radical Islamist clerics using mosque at Qatar’s Education City draws mounting criticism for American universities that maintain satellite branches there

    Why Islamic State Is Down But Not Out

    Despite loss of territory, group’s ferocious attacks over past three months seen as testimony to its continued durability and resourcefulness

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroadi
    X
    May 02, 2016 1:36 PM
    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With the conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, between the rebel PKK and the Turkish state, many Kurds are trying to escape the turmoil by focusing on the success of their football team Amedspor in Diyarbakir. The club is increasingly becoming a symbol for Kurds, not only in Diyarbakir but beyond. Dorian Jones reports from southeast Turkey.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora