Time to change marriage and divorce laws

Rabbi Gilad KarivThe State of Israel is an unusual country. It doesn’t let us get married the way we want, and we cannot even divorce freely. Gilad Kariv, director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, believes that it’s time to change the situation.


The State of Israel is certainly an unusual country. On the whole this is a good thing, but sometimes it would be better if we didn’t try so hard to be different. An example of this is the situation regarding our marriage and divorce laws. In this field, the situation in Israel is unparalleled in any democratic country, and indeed it is not usually encountered even in countries that are not known as strong advocates of civil rights.

Israel is the only country in the democratic world that imposes substantial restrictions on its citizen’s freedom of marriage and divorce by stating that these proceedings must take place in accordance with the individual’s religious community. The strange legal anomaly by which every Israeli citizen is officially registered as a member of a religious community, regardless of his or her choice, is not merely a symbolic problem. It can also lead to grave violations of our most basic rights.

Although public attention focuses mainly on the happy moment of marriage, the worst problems in this area are actually encountered when it comes to divorce. Divorce law in Israel clearly discriminates against women. In Jewish law, for example, it is the man who divorces his wife, while a wife requires her husband’s consent in order to divorce. In addition to the problem of women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorce (and who therefore cannot remarry), this situation is apparent to any woman involved in divorce proceedings. Family law attorneys confirm that the lack of balance in the religious courts leads thousands of women a year to relinquish rights and assets.

The fact that these proceedings take place before a judicial body that consists exclusively of men, in itself creates an unfair reality. This is further compounded by the fact that women face numerous Halachic restrictions that do not apply to men.

The second problem, which is more widely discussed, is the fact that hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens cannot marry because they are not registered as members of any religious community. Most of these citizens are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who were encouraged to come to Israel but are not recognized as Jews by the state. Since they lack any religious identification, these citizens are simply unable to marry.

Another group of citizens unable to marry in Israel are same-sex couples, while a third group includes thousands of Reform and Conservative converts who are registered as Jews in the Population Registry but are not recognized by the Orthodox establishment when it comes to marriage.

Lastly, it is important to recognize that many other Israeli citizens are also affected by the Orthodox monopoly on marriage. Numerous surveys have shown that approximately 40 percent of Israeli Jews would prefer to get married in a Reform, Conservative, secular or civil ceremony. The fact that at one of the most moving and significant moments of life citizens are forced to act in a way that goes against their conscience constitutes a substantial and serious violation of freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

To date, no serious solution has been offered to these serious problems. Over the years, various alternatives have been developed, such as civil marriages conducted abroad or the improvement of the status of common law spouses. Although these solutions have become very popular, they are far from satisfactory. For example, Jewish couples who marry abroad are still required to turn to the rabbinical courts in order to divorce. Common law couples must repeatedly prove their status to different authorities and courts. Accordingly, we cannot make do with such solutions: there is an urgent need for a civil revolution in the field of marriage and divorce.

The coalition negotiations are currently entering the final lap. For the first time in a decade, a government will be formed in Israel that can make real changes to the religious status quo. It is already obvious that the opposition to civil marriage and divorce reflects a desire to maintain the power of the Orthodox establishment rather than any substantive concerns. The Jewish character of the State of Israel is harmed more by the present situation than by a new reality in which every couple can marry in keeping with their own conscience.

The growing number of Orthodox organizations, rabbis and public figures who support freedom of marriage and divorce proves that the obstacles are political rather than Halachic. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are looking more than ever to the political parties involved in the coalition negotiations. They expect that the parties will seize the opportunity and show that “There is a Future” (Yesh Atid) for each and every one of us to build a “Jewish Home” (Bayit Yehudi) and an Israeli home in accordance with our own conscience.

by Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director, Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism


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