Wedding Bills

No, not the kind you pay, the kind that are passed by the legislature, in this case, the Israeli Knesset.

Knesset elections were held most recently on January 22, 2013, and it took a while for a new government to form. Many of the parties elected promised changes in fundamental areas of Israeli law, including laws of personal status.

This past week has seen two new laws relating to marriage. The first, a bill which allows people to register for marriage with the rabbinate in the city of their choice, not necessarily in their place of residence. As the article in the Jerusalem Post explains:

The so-called “Tzohar bill” to abolish regional marriage registration districts was passed into law Monday evening, ending a long-running feud between the Tzohar national-religious rabbinical association and the state’s religious establishment.

The legislation, which passed its second and third readings in the Knesset plenum Monday night, allows couples to open a marriage registration file with the local rabbinate of any district or city they wish, regardless of where they themselves reside.

Until now, registration had to be conducted in the municipal jurisdiction of one of the partners of an engaged couple, limiting their options in choosing a professionally run rabbinate and even the rabbi they would like to marry them.

Why is this change necessary, or even important, one might ask? Well, it depends who you ask. Tzohar, the organization that pushed the bill, came on the scene in Israel about a decade ago, to provide religious services to the public as an alternative to the State Rabbinate, as a result of the strong feeling that the establishment Rabbinate was alienating people from Judaism. This is their take on the bill:

Tzohar described the passage of the law as the “completion of a revolution in the process of marriage registration,” which would put marriage registrars who don’t act in an appropriate manner out of work.

The organization has argued that the regional marriage registration districts perpetuate an inefficient, hostile and obstructionist system. It alienates secular Israelis from religion and the religious establishment.

The law was also promoted by Tzohar because it alleged that the 600 rabbis belonging to its rabbinical association were prevented by the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry, formerly run by Shas, from gaining licenses to perform marriages.

The organization claimed that this stance was motivated by a desire within the religious establishment to protect weddings as a source of income for Chief- Rabbinate-approved rabbis who, Tzohar alleges, frequently and illegally charge couples for performing weddings.

The establishment’s opposition to the bill is based on concerns about the preservation of Jewish identity and family:

The basis for the rabbinate’s opposition, as well as that of the haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, is the claim that the legislation will make the marriage registration process less reliable and lead to the inadvertent marriage of people who cannot marry according to Jewish law. Chief Rabbi Lau and the council have argued that municipal rabbis are better able to investigate the marital-status history of someone seeking to open a marriage file when the registration process is carried out in the district in which at least one of the partners resides.

Just what I can tell from anecdotes of friends and acquaintances, what seems to have happened in the years since I’ve been here is that the municipal rabbis have set higher and less reasonable standards about who they are willing to marry; I know people who have had to produce a ridiculous amount of evidence to the rabbinate to convince them that they were Jewish and could be married according to Jewish Law.

The other bill this week had to do with the legal age of marriage. Until now, people in Israel could marry at the age of 17, and that’s just been raised to 18. From the Times of Israel:

The bill that cleared the plenum Monday, besides setting the age at 18, allows the family court to recognize a marriage for minors in special cases — but only above 16 years of age, and only after it interviews the applicants and receives the recommendation of a social worker.

In addition, the ministers of justice, the interior, religious affairs, and public security, are required to submit an annual report on the marriage of minors to the Knesset, which would include statistics on the numbers of exemptions requested, exemptions granted, and individuals prosecuted.

The legislation raised the ire of ultra-Orthodox parliamentarians, who argued it would infringe on the rights of religious teenagers who wished to start families.

The bill will effect primarily Hassidic families, where the children tend to marry in their late teens, and girls from Arab families.

The next bill coming down the pipeline, which hasn’t yet been passed into law, is a bill for civil marriages. Currently, marriage in Israel is only through religious authorities, be they Jewish, Muslim or Christian, and then only for recognized religious communities.

Civil marriage would mean that couples who today do not wish to get married through their religious community, or who are unable to (for example, an Anglican and a Jew), would now be able to marry in the State of Israel, rather than travel abroad to do so. (For previous posts on the issue, see here and here.)

I suspect that the civil marriage bill will take longer to enact, and the process will be noisy and messy. Watch this space.

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