Marriage in Israel : Intermarriage in the diaspora

There is an overwhelming consensus of the Jewish people that the state of Israel should be both Jewish and democratic in nature. Out of respect for the human rights and religious needs of the dati leumi community, the state turned over the legal procedure of marriage and divorce for all Israeli Jews to the halachic courts run by Orthodox rabbis.

Unfortunately, the halacha , as interpreted and administered by the rabbis, did not meet the needs of many Jews; indeed it violated their democratic rights. For example, the halacha does not permit or recognize intermarriage. It prohibits the marriage of a cohen and a divorcee or a convert. The rabbis will not convert people unless they agree to live a completely observant, or even ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Russians of Jewish descent can not convert or be legally married by the rabbis. All of these denials of the right to marry contitute deprivations of the democratic rights of the individuals involved.

In matters of rabbinic divorce, there is serious discrimination against women. There are many cases of iggun where abusive husbands refuse to grant their wives a gett and hold them hostage to a failed marriage. They ruin their oppressed spouses’ lives – sometimes for years. Sometimes the damage is irreparable. In thousands of cases, husbands exploit the inequality/injustice in the law to extort lower financial support or poorer child custody terms for the women. These are all violations of human rights. All of this is not to mention the imposition by the rabbis of religious marriage ceremonies that violate many citizens’ sends of social arrangements, or aesthetic taste or personal dignity.

These violations contradict the democratic nature of the state of Israel. They harm its reputation in the world. This harm represents a serious security threat to Israel – since much of its support in the world, especially in the United States, stems from the fact that it is seen as a democratic country

The non-dati sector of Israel – as the individuals who are denied their rights – have been long-suffering and patient despite the trampling of their rights. Still the patience is wearing thin. One major improvement would be to permit civil marriage and divorce in Israel. This channel would be available to all who cannot have their needs for marriage met by the rabbis, as they interpret the halacha. This would remove tens of thousands of violations of human rights annually and meet the legitimate human needs of many (which they are entitled to in a democratic society.) I am grateful that a Rabbi as distinguished as Rabbi Sherlo understands the problems and is prepared to support the introduction of civil marriage and divorce in Israel. I hope this view spreads in the dati leumi community so that this helpful change can take place.

Many observant people will be troubled that the state of Israel accommodates violations of halacha – but this is the reality of how a democracy works. Such accommodations have been extended already in many other aspects of Israeli life.

Personally I think that such an accommodation is in accordance with one of the deepest values of the tradition. The halachic process is predicated on the principle of free will. The Torah and its legislation is framed as a brit  -a covenant between God and humanity (brit Noach) and between God and the people Israel (brit Sinai). In entering the brit,God promised never again to coerce humans to live in accordance with God’s laws and values. Rather God gave up the power of coercion, out of respect for human dignity and the desire that they voluntarily take on the good life and its obligations. In this spirit, religion should never be imposed on people. Certainly, they should not be coerced into accepting violations of their rights.

Rabbi Sherlo has one serious hesitation. Intermarriage is widespread among Diaspora Jewry. The high rate threatens the future of that Jewrywhich may be lost to assimilation. He fears that when Israel legitimates civil marriage and divorce, this will be seen as an acceptance of intermarriage. He fears that removing this obstacle/objection could turn intermarriage into an irresistible flood.

I too believe that world Jewry is threatened by the lack of education, religious experience and connections to other Jews. This is the force behind the rising rates of intermarriage. Stopping this phenomenon requires a massive effort – educational, human resources, financial – in which it would be good for Israel to partner with  Diaspora.

However, I regret to say that permitting civil marriage will have next to no effect on intermarriage. The Jews who are intermarrying, by and large, are not even aware that Israel prohibits – or permits – intermarriage. Nor would they take this proposed change as approval of intermarriage. To the extent that Israel’s decisions influence such people, it is mostly when they hear about rabbinic refusals to marry people or discrimination against women.They are ‘turned off’ by such incidents. Their respect and attachment to Israel (an important barrier to their assimilation) is lessened by such reports. To the extent that civil marriage and divorce will reduce or eliminate such incidents, the impact may well be to encourage some to be more attached to Judaism and the Jewish people.

The marginal effect of the introduction of civil marriage and divorce on the rates of intermarriage should not be a serious consideration to validate continuation of a bad situation. If anything, unaffiliated Jews hearing that Israel has become more democratic may open up and come closer to Israel and Jewry. Then if we reach out to them positively and substantially, we may be able to save some from assimilation.

If Rabbi Sherlow is concerned that civil marriage may encourage intermarriage in Israel, my response is that the overwhelming Jewish population majority is the best protection of in-marriage. Beyond that, vitality and relevance in religion and culture is the only guarantor that Jews will continue to marry Jews. When Jews’ lives are enriched by Judaism and Jewish culture, they want it to go on. Creating Jewish families is the only way that will happen

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