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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

Of the various practical and legal matters discussed, marriage is perhaps the most highly charged and widely discussed, as it affects every Israeli. Under the current Israeli system, a leftover of the Ottoman and British periods, marriage and divorce are the sole purview of each religious group. For Israeli Jews this means marriage is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate according to the rules of Orthodox Judaism. (Muslims, Druze, and Christians have similar authority over their adherents). This law has been in place since 1953. As of today, civil marriage does not exist in Israel.

Therefore, only Jews who can prove their status as a Jew by Orthodox standards, whether by birth to a Jewish mother or having undergone a recognized Orthodox conversion (in Israel or the Diaspora) can legally marry in Israel. Jews with Reform or Conservative conversions, and the offspring of such converts, as well as those considered Jewish under the Law of Return (Jewish father or grandparent but not mother) have no official matrimonial avenue in Israel.

Non-Rabbinate sanctioned marriage ceremonies, such as those conducted by the Reform and Conservative rabbis, non-recognized Orthodox rabbis, or secular ceremonies, are not recognized by the Rabbinate or the state.134 Besides those who object to the Rabbinate’s marriage monopoly on ideological grounds, these rules affect a large segment of Israeli society that cannot marry legally in Israel. This includes 350,800 Israelis (as of 2016) who identify as Jewish or as having no religion, mainly from the FSU, and who are unable to marry each other or recognized Jews. Another estimated 300,000 – 400,000 LGBTQ Israelis cannot officially marry one another. Jewish marriage is also prohibited between the roughly 80,000 Jewish men of priestly descent (Kohen) and the 270,000 female divorcees or the 50,000 or so female converts.135

At this time, there are essentially two (imperfect) options available for those who cannot or do not wish to have a wedding conducted by the Rabbinate, and a third option for those “of no religion”.136 These include marriage abroad which is recognized in Israel, domestic partnerships that confer most of the practical benefits of marriage, and a third option called a “couplehood contract” or “brit zugiut” available only to those “of no religion”, which bestows upon the parties a legal status akin to marriage.137 These three options are sometimes accompanied by private, unrecognized Jewish ceremonies in Israel.

The most common practice to date has been to marry abroad, either in a civil or religious ceremony. Cyprus, the United States, and the Czech Republic are among the main destinations for this.138 The marriages are then recognized by Israel’s Interior Ministry (but not the Rabbinate, unless the wedding was an Orthodox one). Same-sex marriages are recognized by the state, if conducted in one of the 25 countries around the world that permit them.139

It is worthwhile to compare the various alternative marriage statistics to official Jewish marriages, conducted and registered by the Rabbinate. In 2017, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) recorded 36,205 Jewish weddings, as compared to 39,111 in 2015. Despite a steady growth in the general population, this amounts to a decrease of 8 percent in Rabbinate weddings, mostly in the Tel Aviv area and its surroundings.140

Related to this decrease in Rabbinate weddings is the role of Tzohar, a Modern Orthodox NGO working to effect reforms and present a more welcoming “Modern Orthodox” face to the general Israeli public. Tzohar assists secular and traditional-minded Israelis in navigating the rabbinic bureaucracy and conducts weddings that are recognized by the Rabbinate, and officiated by a “friendlier” Modern-Orthodox rabbi. Tzohar, founded in 1996, estimates that it conducts roughly 10 percent of the official Rabbinate-sanctioned weddings conducted in Israel each year.141 According to a well-connected figure in the Rabbinate (who asked not to be named), Tzohar was able to “save the Rabbinate from itself” in this manner, by making it more relevant to a greater portion of the public. However, according to Panim, these have also been in decline.142

Traditionally, marrying abroad was the preferable alternative for those who chose to or could not wed in Israel. Data on such weddings is partial, as they often are not reported to the Interior Ministry’s Population Registry the same year in which they occur. According to an analysis of Population Registry statistics,143 between 12,000 – 13,000 Israeli individuals married outside of Israel each year between 2010 and 2016, the years for which we have such data (roughly two-thirds of the marriages are between two Israelis, the other third consists of Israelis marrying non-Israelis).

In order to be able to compare data points, we look at only those weddings that occurred in the year in which they were reported (roughly 40 percent in any given year). Overall, we observe a slight upward trend in such marriages between 2010 and 2017. We further examined only those marriages that took place between two Israeli Jews who would be eligible for a Rabbinate wedding in Israel. Here too we observe a slight increase (See Figure 22.)

Note that in any given year for the 7 years we examined, about one-third of the total number of Israelis marrying abroad are Israeli Jews marrying other Israeli Jews abroad, while they could have married in Israel. Another roughly one-third are Israelis marrying non-Israelis (religion unknown) and another third are Israeli Jews marrying Israeli non-Jews.

Simultaneously, common-law marriage (domestic partnerships), known in Hebrew as yeduim batzibur (“recognized in the public”) is a growing trend in Israel. This arrangement allows couples living together to register as such and gain access to virtually all of the legal and financial benefits and rights granted to married couples.144 Same-sex couples are eligible for this arrangement as well.145 Increasingly, the Reform and Conservative Movements, as well as advocates of non-Orthodox Israeli Judaism in general and those advocating civil marriage, call for Israelis to have the wedding of their choice and then register as yeduim ba’tzibur. This is, since even if one marries abroad in a civil or non-Orthodox ceremony, divorce in Israel is granted through the Rabbinate (assuming the couple is Jewish), making domestic partnership the only path to fully avoid the Rabbinate at this time.146

According to the CBS, the rate of cohabiting couples is still relatively small in Israel (as compared to other developed countries), although it has been steadily growing in recent years. From 2005 to 2008, 3 percent of Israeli couples were unmarried and in a domestic partnership.147 In 2009, this rose to 4 percent,148 and by 2014, to 5 percent.149 The most up-to-date CBS data shows 65,000 unmarried cohabitating couples between 2012 and 2014 with a jump to 84,000 such couples in 2015 and through 2016 (See figure 23).150 Of course, it would be safe to assume that most of these couples have likely not held alternative wedding ceremonies and forgone any ceremony at all. Moreover, it is likely some of these unmarried couples eventually marry via one of the available legal options, especially when they wish to have children (as a number of Hilonim have said to the author, “what is the point of getting married if not to have children).

In recent years, public opinion has been turning against the institution of marriage under the Rabbinate’s auspices. A May 2017 Hiddush survey found that 55 percent of Israeli Jews would prefer an egalitarian marriage independent of the Rabbinate. The survey noted that among Hiloni Israelis, this number was 81 percent, 61 percent for Hiloni-Masorti (secular-traditional) (not so close to religion as Hiddush phrased it), 40 percent for those more traditional (close to religion), 13 percent for Zionist Orthodox or Dati or National-Religious, and 0 percent for Haredi Israelis.151

Hiddush asserts that although Israelis generally dislike the Rabbinate, this was the first time in their polling that a majority expressed a clear interest in having the option of non-Rabbinate, egalitarian weddings. In the past, a majority of Israelis supported the general principle of marriage freedom but did not indicate that they would personally prefer such an alternative marriage ceremony.

A Hiddush survey conducted in February 2017 showed that as long as no legal alternative existed, the majority (67 percent) would still prefer the official Orthodox wedding. However, were alternatives legally recognized, 47 percent of all Jews and 78 percent of secular Jews would prefer such a marriage for themselves or their children. Sixty-four percent of Jewish Israelis, the poll also noted, supported recognizing same-sex marriages.

A 2016 Nemenei Torah V’avodah survey showed that 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe that the Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce “increases the number of Israelis who choose to wed … abroad”. Also, 56 percent of Israeli Jews felt that the “amount and content of religious legislation… is distancing Israelis from Judaism” itself. The survey showed that 68 percent of Israelis supported recognizing non-religious weddings and that 61 percent supported changing the current status quo.152

Indeed, non-Rabbinate alternatives are becoming increasingly popular in practice, not just in opinion polls. The largest organizer of alternative wedding ceremonies (and religious ceremonies in general, alongside the Reform and Conservative Movements) is Havaya, a part of the Be Free Israel organization. According to its director, Inbar Oren,153 Havaya has arranged roughly 5000 wedding ceremonies since it was founded in 2006, 400 of them in 2016, 500 in 2017 and she expects to reach 650 in 2018.154 Among the group’s “wedding conductors” are people of various religious streams and connections, including some with rabbinical ordination from the liberal streams. Oren noted that about 70 percent of the couples that apply to marry through Havaya seek an ideological alternative to the Rabbinate, while 35 percent were prohibited from marrying through the Rabbinate due to the Jewish status of one or both of the parties involved (these numbers may overlap – Oren did not know to what extent). Oren further noted that 7 percent of the couples that turn to Havaya are from the LGBTQ community. The vast majority of couples that marry through Havaya seek a wedding that comports with Jewish tradition (including liberal and modern adaptations) and only a small number sought purely secular ceremonies.

Brom, in his research, points out that of the various alternative weddings, and according to the wedding officiants he interviewed, 55 percent of the couples make use of this option out of secular or anti-Rabbinate ideology, 33 percent are those from the former Soviet Union, 8 percent are LGBT couples, and 4 percent are those couples who cannot officially marry in Israel, as their conversion would not be recognized, or they are a “Cohen” (Jewish man of priestly descent) marrying a divorcee or a convert (forbidden by Jewish law).155

Havaya estimates that beyond the non-Orthodox weddings it and other groups organize, another 200 or so Orthodox weddings take place each year outside of the Rabbinate. This, too, seems to be a growing trend among liberal-minded Orthodox couples and traditionally-minded liberal Jews. These couples wish to get married in complete accordance with Jewish law but bypass the Rabbinate in the process. They mainly cite the gender inequality of the traditional ceremony, and have found religiously acceptable (granted by more liberal Orthodox rabbis) ways to include the bride as an active participant in the ceremony.156 More importantly, they wish to correct what proponents of this type of ceremony see as a major flaw regarding “agunot” or “chained women” by signing pre-nuptial agreements.157 Gathering exact statistics of non-Rabbinate weddings in Israel is challenging, due to lack of any kind of official records and a plurality of independent wedding officiators throughout the country. Further, we estimate that many who choose wedding alternatives may not use any kind of organization or wedding conductor, rather make use of friends or family in an intimate ceremony.

The Reform Movement estimates it conducts around 500 ceremonies each year while the Conservative Movement estimates around 250. Gilad Kariv of the Reform Movement estimated another roughly 300 “Reform style” weddings each year, while Havayah conducts on average around 500-600 weddings. There are also roughly 200 Orthodox ceremonies outside of the Rabbinate each year.158

In his report on non-Rabbinate weddings in Israel, Brom took this further, and conducted interviews with dozens of independent ceremony conductors, alongside the Reform and Conservative movements, and estimated at least 2,400 such ceremonies in 2017. According to those he interviewed, this is an 8 percent increase from 2016.159 Brom further estimates that were all non-Rabbinate weddings taken into account, the number might reach as high as 3,500 a year. (See figure 24.)

In interviewing ceremony conductors, Brom points out if in the past, conducting such an unrecognized wedding was considered a deliberate act of rebellion and not acceptable in mainstream society, today it is far more normative, and is thus growing in popularity. He concludes three main elements that the majority of the wedding ceremonies have in common – they are egalitarian in nature, they are more personal and intimate, and are largely adhere to Jewish tradition.

Lastly, discussing the growing alternative of private Orthodox weddings, Brom pointed out that there are a number of regional councils who allow, at the request of the couple, for a more liberal rabbi to conduct the wedding, including in a more egalitarian manner. While it is difficult to say to what extent this occurs, it is interesting to point out that in certain areas around Israel, liberal and egalitarian-minded Orthodox couples are able to get married through the Rabbinate according to their wishes.

Notably, in the meantime, a majority of Israeli Jews still prefer to marry in the traditional fashion and through the Rabbinate’s bureaucracy, with all its complexities. This is not to say that the trend of alternative weddings, whether abroad or through a non-official ceremony followed by a common-law union are not significant. Israeli society may be approaching (difficult to say when exactly) a tipping point, with respect to the Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage in Israel.