Reuters skips a key detail in Israel’s wedding wars — divorce

Everybody loves a wedding, or so culture would have us believe. However, according to a report from the Reuters news agency, not every Israeli likes the wedding options available in that country:

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.

I can’t say, for certain, how long this has been going on. However, I seem to recall that over the past decade, at least, I’ve heard stories from Israelis about booking a flight to Turkey or elsewhere to have a civil wedding, so as not to be under the thumb of the Orthodox hierarchy.

The reasons for avoiding this range from the couple themselves being secular (many, if not most, Israelis are) to not wanting the burden of “proving” their Jewishness to the rabbis’ satisfaction to, well, let’s return to the third potential reason in a moment.

Here’s some more explanation from the Reuters account:

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.

[Secular Pilates instructor Stav] 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.

And, Reuters notes, there are entire other communities in Israel for whom an Orthodox-sanctioned marriage is just not possible:

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 travelled 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.

Leaving aside the theological questions of gay marriage for the moment, Madeson-Stern’s dilemma is also echoed by immigrants to Israel, some of whom face exacting demands to demonstrate their “Jewishness” beyond that required by the State of Israel for citizenship, i.e., having at least one Jewish grandparent. A spokesman for the Orthodox Rabbinate is adamant about retaining control over Jewish marriages, however:

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,” Maor said.

There is, however, something almost conspicuous by its absence in the Reuters report, a word given only a passing mention at the very end of the piece, again in a comment from Maor:

“Matters of marriage, divorce and conversion are our most important fortress. It must not be touched and we will defend it fiercely,” said Maor.

Did you catch that? There is another crucial and very controversial issue involved in this story.

“”Matters of … divorce … are our most important fortress. … [W]e will defend it fiercely,” the spokesman affirmed. Yes, he did it in the context of marriage and conversion to Judaism, but divorce — something also fairly common in largely secular societies — might be a key issue here, one that the Reuters team apparently breezed past.

In order for those married in an Orthodox ceremony to divorce, the husband has to grant a decree, called a “get” in Hebrew, to the spouse. If the husband wants to be vengeful or extortionate or just plain nasty, he can refuse to give the “get,” trapping the wife in a rather hellish limbo called agunah.

Some GetReligion readers may recall that this popped up in American headlines a few weeks back over the arrest of Rabbi Mordechai “Martin” Wolmark of Monsey, New York, and several accomplices allegedly involved in some rough-and-tumble methods of getting recalcitrant husbands to, uh, “cooperate.” Tamie Ross provided a sterling analysis of what was, and wasn’t not, a “religion” angle there.

Writing in the Jerusalem Post in July 2013, Israeli attorney and women’s rights advocate Sharon Shenhav summed up the issue this way:

Despite over 30 years of efforts by veteran agunah advocates like myself, a recent study in Israel shows that a high percentage of Jewish women seeking a divorce are threatened by their husbands that such a petition will be met by get refusal.

Would that Reuters had mentioned this continuing problem in writing about the marriage issue. It would have given readers a fuller understanding of the complexities, I believe. Israel’s battles over secular and liberal Jewish weddings are almost certainly linked to that other painful reality — divorce.

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About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Other than your assumption, what journalistically sound source do you have for saying divorce is the unspoken element in this reliqio-political dispute between Israel’s Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities?

    I follow this issue fairly I closely and I don’t recall the divorce angle ever being mentioned in Israeli and American Jewish media. I don’t see why Reuters should have delved into this aspect.

    • Mark A. Kellner

      While I certainly can’t claim Mr. Rifkin’s experience, I don’t believe the divorce question is that far from the surface. The issue has been discussed a number of time in The New York Times and other media. Here’s one example: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/us/orthodox-jews-look-to-prenuptial-contracts-to-address-divorce-refusals.html?_r=0 by Mark Oppenheimer, and, most recently, in a letter-to-the-editor: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/19/opinion/divorce-for-jewish-women.html. In Israel, the subject came up not that long ago in the Jerusalem Post: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-Ed-Contributors/New-hope-for-agunot-319050.

      The unspoken element in the Israeli marriage story is this: if the only sanctioned marriages are orthodox, then ending said marriages is more difficult, because of the requirement for a “get.” Israelis married in a “civil” ceremony in Cyprus or Turkey or wherever else don’t face such a potentially daunting barrier if they decide to end their marriage.

      Also, the fact that the spokesman for the Rabbinate mentioned divorce in his comments is certainly a clue, wouldn’t you say?

      As someone who’s been to Israel five times, including two times in the past two years, my sense, from observing things there and from speaking with a number of young Israeli adults, is that the divorce component is important to a number of “secular” Israelis and therefore should have been mentioned.

  • Bogdan Sincu

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