Civil Marriage in Israel

For a large number of Israelis, religious politics and identity issues disrupt the pursuit of holy matrimony.

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Alternate Options

Jewish Israelis who cannot or do not wish to marry through the Israeli rabbinate must explore other options. Since the Israeli population registry recognizes civil marriages performed abroad, a growing number of Israelis are marrying in civil ceremonies outside Israel, and circumventing the rabbinate altogether.

Cyprus, a relatively convenient locale near Israel, is a particularly popular marriage destination for Israelis. Israelis who also hold citizenship in another country have the option of marrying civilly at that country's consulate in Israel. And some Israelis who wish to have a religious wedding, but do not want it to be Orthodox, marry in a Reform or Conservative ceremony either overseas or in Israel, but also have a civil marriage outside of Israel. 

Many Israelis find these solutions problematic, and advocate for the institution of civil marriage in Israel. Former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, argues that the right to marry and build a family is a fundamental human right and is essential to human dignity. But many religious Zionist leaders and most if not all ultra-Orthodox Israelis, including the ultra-Orthodox political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, disagree.

They argue that maintaining the rabbinate's exclusive control over issues of personal status, particularly marriage and divorce, is an essential part of maintaining Israel's character as a Jewish state. Practically, they also worry that instituting civil marriage will encourage intermarriage and assimilation within Israel.

The Mamzer Argument

In addition, many religious leaders are concerned that civil marriage and divorce could create a deep rift within Israeli Jewry, by enabling the possibility that many halakhic mamzerim (plural of mamzer) will be born in Israel.

Uri Paz, in an article on the website of Aish ha-Torah, an Orthodox Jewish educational organization, explains that according to Jewish law, civil marriage, although not ideal, still counts as a valid marriage after the fact. Civil divorce, however, does not count as a valid divorce according to Jewish law. Therefore, if a couple were to marry, either in a religious or a civil ceremony, then divorce civilly without getting a religious divorce, and then the woman were to remarry civilly, any children produced in her second marriage would be mamzerim, since Jewish law would consider her still married to her first husband.

By instituting civil marriages and divorces in Israel, the argument goes, the number of mamzerim will rise. Israeli Jews who observe halakhah will not be able to marry growing numbers of Israeli Jews whose parents or grandparents did not.

Movement for Change

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.