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

Multimedia Obama Defends Immigration Action

Obama says with his executive action on immigration, enforcement resources will be focused on 'felons, not families; criminals, not children' More

US-Led Airstrikes in Syria Kill Over 900: Monitoring Group

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the toll includes more than 50 civilians, five of them women and eight of them children More

Report: Obama Broadens US Combat Role in Afghanistan

The New York Times says resident Barack Obama has signed a classified order extending the role of US troops in Afghanistan for another year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid