Jewish Review of Books

Why I Defy the Israeli Chief Rabbinate

By Elli Fischer
Winter 2016

I am still not really sure how Israel’s Channel 2 got to me last summer. A reporter told me that they had received my name from a civil rights organization called Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel). I have nothing to do with the group, so they were probably thinking of the other rabbi interviewed in the segment, Charles Davidson, who is now listed on Israel Hofsheet’s website. However, like Rabbi Davidson, and perhaps a handful of other Israeli rabbis, I have married couples who have not registered with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate (Rabbanut). I am willing to do so despite the fact that, according to a law passed in 2013, anyone who marries in a halakhic ceremony must make efforts to register the marriage. Although there are some apparent ambiguities in its formulation and, so far, no one has been arrested let alone tried under the law, it carries penalties of up to two years in prison for any couple or rabbi convicted of violating it.

The first non-Rabbanut wedding at which I officiated was for a couple who wanted to marry under a chuppah and with kiddushin (halakhic betrothal), “in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel.” However, their feelings about the Rabbanut were so profoundly negative that they did not want it to have any role in their wedding. One way for American readers to begin to appreciate this sentiment is to imagine asking an official from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to officiate at their wedding, though, as the journalists at Channel 2 and others have shown, it’s really much worse than that.

The second wedding was for an Ethiopian couple. The groom, frustrated that the Rabbanut conversion court seemed to be in no hurry to convert him, converted with a private rabbinic court and then came to me. Of course, I haven’t married every couple that has come to me for a non-Rabbanut wedding. In the first place, I perform only halakhic weddings. I also insist upon a prenuptial agreement requiring a get (halakhic divorce) in the event that the marriage is dissolved. Finally, I insist that the couple have a civil marriage somewhere (usually they go to Cyprus, along with all of the other Israelis avoiding the Rabbanut).

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