April 24, 2019

Battling the Rabbinate's Marriage Monopoly

“When it comes to getting married in Israel, you don’t have much of a choice: If you’re Jewish, it’s the Chief Rabbinate’s way or the highway. The Chief Rabbinate is recognized by law as the supreme rabbinic authority in Israel, and therefore if you want a Jewish—as well as legal—wedding, you have no other option.

This has many implications. First, since the Rabbinate is Orthodox, no Reform or Conservative rabbi may legally officiate at a wedding in Israel. Interfaith marriages can’t be performed, either. And since the Rabbinate has the right to decide who is considered Jewish and who is not, many people who consider themselves Jewish cannot get legally married in Israel. For instance, out of the hundreds of thousands of people who came to Israel from Russia, many of them aren’t considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate, and so they can’t get married.

There are a few ways to go around this; all have major drawbacks. A couple can either travel abroad, get married there, and return and get registered at the Ministry of Interior, which means they are married by Israeli law but unmarried by Jewish law. They can have a Jewish wedding outside the Chief Rabbinate, but the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on Jewish weddings prevents them from being able to register their wedding legally—meaning they are married by Jewish law (according to some) but unmarried by Israeli law. (In this case, the couple, as well as the rabbi who ordained their wedding, can be charged with a criminal offense and be jailed for up to two years.) A third solution would be a common-law marriage, but the word “marriage” is part of the deal only in English; in Hebrew, it’s called yeduim betsibur, which literally means “known in public,” and isn’t really a “marriage” at all, just a legal commitment between partners.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz from Jerusalem is deeply angered by this. Therefore, in 2012 he established the nonprofit organization Hashgacha Pratit (meaning “private providence”), an independent rabbinic-halachic organization that challenges the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel through the provision of private religious services. First, Hashgacha Pratit led the struggle to open the kosher food market in Israel to competition. For more than five years, it provided an alternative kosher supervision without actually using the word “kosher,” which would have made its actions illegal. In March 2018, its kashrut division moved to Tzohar Food Supervision, and Hashgacha Pratit branched out to focus on weddings independent of the Chief Rabbinate. Its wedding organization is called Chuppot and its aim is to provide wedding ceremonies for couples who are interested in a wedding in accordance with Jewish law, yet are forced to get married without the authorization of the Chief Rabbinate—or choose to do so. After getting married through Chuppot, some of the couples then get married abroad, too, in order to register as married in Israel. Others find it sufficient getting married halachically by Chuppot and living together as yeduim betsibur, from a legal point of view.”

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