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Reform Marriage in Israel: Progress and Challenges

Reform Marriage in Israel: Progress and Challenges

Bride and groom forming heart with their hands

Thus said the Lord: Again there shall be heard in this place…the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and bride…
Jeremiah 33:10-11

A major manifestation of the problematic nature of religion-state relations in Israel has always been the matter of marriage. The law of the land is that matters of marriage and divorce are wholly under the jurisdiction of the recognized religious communities.  For Jews, this means the officially sanctioned Orthodox chief rabbinate and its representatives. 

Thus, a wedding performed by a Reform or Conservative rabbi is not a wedding, and the couple cannot be registered in the population registry as married. There is no civil marriage option; however, a marriage recognized by a foreign government is automatically recognized by the Israeli authorities. Thus, for example, my son and his fiancé, on a camping trip in the American West, stopped off for a day in Las Vegas and were married. That certificate qualified them for recognition by Israel. When they got home, I performed a Reform religious ceremony that they considered their “real” wedding. Another option (chosen by my daughter) has been to find an Orthodox rabbi who is willing to co-officiate with a Reform or Conservative colleague and sign the official papers (This of course is not very likely if the Reform or Conservative colleague happens to be a woman).

Over the years, most Israelis simply accepted this situation, seeing the Orthodox rabbinate at best as guardians of the tradition, and at worst as government bureaucrats to be tolerated. It is quite rare for the officiating rabbi to have any personal or communal relationship to the couple. Most try to avoid the disrespect of the crowd by making the ceremony as brief as possible; others try to be amusing, with usually unsuccessful attempts at stand-up. I don’t think I have ever heard a wedding sermon that indicated any familiarity with the couple or their families. 

In the past few decades, an increasing number of couples have chosen to avoid the rabbinate; some have no ceremony at all; others have a ceremony performed by a freelance “ceremony officiant” or a family member or friend.  In these cases, if there is no foreign civil marriage, the couple simply adopts the status of a “common law” relationship, a sort of quasi-legal recognition.  An advantage of common law is that it avoids the need for a religious divorce if the marriage should fail.

Recently I attended a meeting of Maram, the Council of Israeli Reform Rabbis, where a significant innovation was unveiled.  After years of discussion, planning, and legal work, the Reform Movement has established a Reform marriage registry, as a way to formalize our marriages.  Couples married by a Reform rabbi are required to register in this database and to sign a pledge that if they should decide to end their marriage, they will turn to the movement to obtain a Reform divorce.  The movement issues them a “certificate of marriage” that formalizes their common-law relationship, making it easier for them to claim married status in dealing with various bureaucracies, banks, insurance companies, etc. A step below full formal recognition – but one which avoids the need to turn to the Orthodox rabbinical court for a divorce. 

The rabbinate’s years of trying to maintain its authority by legal force represent a huge missed opportunity on their part – and have led to an accelerating loss of authority.  However, there is still a lot of work to be done.  The difficult challenge facing us now is the struggle for acceptance of women rabbis by the secular Israelis who think being married by a Reform rabbi might be cool - but only if he has a beard.

Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein, the author of Galilee Diary: Reflections on Daily Life in Israel, grew up in Highland Park, IL, at North Shore Congregation Israel. His first visit to Israel was as a high school student in the first cohort of the NFTY-EIE program in 1962. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1975, and received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in modern Jewish history, while a Jerusalem Fellow. In 1990, he made aliyah, moving to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee. Until his retirement, he served as executive director of The Galilee Foundation for Value Education, a seminar center that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence, and as director of the Israel Rabbinical Program of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.


Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein
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