Many Israelis have to Leave the Country to Marry
Cyprus is a beautiful place for a honeymoon. With its pristine beaches, modern hotels and even ski lodges in the mountains, Cyprus is a perfect place for Israelis to celebrate their new life together.
(cue the sound of scratching record)
But wait, what if you were forced to go to Cyprus before your wedding because the Chief Rabbinate (the rabbinic council in Israel that has legal power to decide for every citizen, what and who is Jewish and what and who is not) says you are not Jewish…enough…and refuses to marry you in the Jewish state?!
The Ministry of Religious Affairs gives full authority to the ultra-orthodox chief rabbis of Israel to decide on matters such as marriage (and also birth and death) certificates for every Israeli, whether they themselves are ‘religious’ or not. And those rabbis require that you prove your mother was Jewish according to halakhic (rabbinic) law. That rabbinic law actually requires you prove not just that your mother is Jewish, but that her mother’s, mother’s mother was also Jewish! Going back four generations! If you can not do so, then you cannot receive a wedding license in Israel.
Famous Zionist’s Great-Great Niece, not Jewish Enough
Take the case of the great-great-niece of one of Israel’s most famous Zionists, Nahum Sokolow. You cannot drive through a city in Israel without encountering a Sokolow Street. Sokolow translated one of Theodor Herzl’s books that’s title inspired the city name ‘Tel Aviv’, and he was even one the primary influences that inspired Great Britain to release the Balfour Declaration. Sokolow’s great-great-niece, Hillary Rubin, was told by the rabbinate in Herzliya that she needed more proof of her Jewishness! She explained that her grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and that they lost all documentation of their Jewishness during World War II. Hillary says she was told of the rabbi “that wasn’t his problem.”
Instead of appealing her case to a Bet Din (religious court), she and her fiancé, like so many other Israelis, went to Cyprus to get married
In our congregation, we just celebrated two weddings and in two days we will rejoice as another messianic Jewish couple will recite their wedding vows! Sadly, the first couple had to go to Cyprus to have a civil ceremony there first, and then returned to Israel for a wedding with their family and friends. Why? The couple includes a (messianic) Jewish Israeli groom and a gentile bride (not acceptable to the rabbinate). The groom actually holds a position in Israeli law enforcement! But still not good enough for the rabbis! So, they went to Cyprus (akin to going to Las Vegas for Americans) to receive a quick wedding license, that the Israeli government will then acknowledge.
It is unthinkable that many citizens of Israel cannot get a marriage license in their own country! Israel is a country of immigrants, many of whom came here, not for religious reasons, but to escape persecution or economic difficulties in their former country. So many of these people have Jewish blood, but cannot prove four generations of Jewish mothers! Young adults from Russia or France, who have one Jewish parent, decide to move to the Jewish homeland. They are citizens, they pay taxes, they fight in the Army, they speak Hebrew, but they can’t get married here!
You see, you can make aliyah (immigrate) to Israel, just by proving that you have one Jewish grandparent. However, according to the rabbis, that only means you are a citizen, not necessarily that you are Jewish—in their eyes—and they have the control. According to Rabbinic law, you are Jewish only if your mother is Jewish…and of course in order for her to be Jewish, her mother and mother’s mother, etc, etc, would all need to be Jewish.
King David in Cyprus?
Ironically by this definition, King David could not have received a marriage certificate in Israel. He would have had to fly to Cyprus because as we all know, his great-grandmother was Ruth the Moabite.
So King David would not even be able to spend his wedding night in the famed hotel named after him in Jerusalem.
Of course the rabbis have an answer for this: Ruth converted. I don’t know how because the massive orthodox conversion process that exists today amongst the rabbinic community did not exist in the day of Ruth. Her amazing declaration, “Your people will be my people and your God my God,” (Ruth 1:16) would not even come close to being enough for the modern day orthodox rabbis to grant her conversion.
And how about the children of Moses? His wife was not Jewish. Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh—tribal fathers of Israel—would also have had to go elsewhere to get married, as their mother was an Egyptian—the daughter of a pagan priest! (Genesis 41:45)
Most Israelis are against this, but the Rabbinate uses its considerable political power to keep legal control over these and many other issues pertaining to Jewishness.
Even though their political parties are small, they often make the difference between establishing a coalition and not. For example, if several secular parties on the right are able to bring together 54 seats in the Knesset (Parliament), they would still need 7 more seats to form a majority coalition. The seven seats will often come at a price and more than likely be ultra religious parties. The religious parties, though small in number, will use this leverage to basically blackmail the coalition into caving in to their demands.
Many Israelis are fed up with this system and several groups, together with many messianic Jewish Israelis, held a public demonstration in Dizengoff Square, in the heart of Tel Aviv to protest this law.
Several years ago lawyer Calev Myers founded the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, where he serves as chief counsel. The JIJ makes it its mission to shed light on issues of social injustice. It is now fighting against a recently passed law that says Israelis can get married without proving their Jewishness, if they instead declare they have ‘no religion’.
“This is a discriminatory and degrading law which requires upstanding, loyal citizens to declare that they are not Jewish if they wish to marry outside of the Rabbinate,” said Myers, as he addressed the eight hundred gathered. “This law gives the Rabbinate veto power to decide who is allowed and not allowed to marry his/her fiancé.” (read more from Myers and the JIJ)
The highlight of the demonstration was the civil wedding of Mark and Natalia Stein, who could not legally marry in Israel, despite the fact that Mark, a well known radio host here in Israel, is a citizen. They had to first receive a legal marriage certificate in Cyprus. Instead of having their wedding celebration in a wedding hall with friends and family, they chose to make a political and social statement that the present law is discriminatory.
In the midst of gorgeous Tel Aviv, they exchanged vows, as bystanders looked on. At the end, one of this blogger’s favorite Israeli composers, Daniel Solomon, sang his hit song: Ahava (Love).
Last month Calev Myers submitted a petition to the Supreme Court, calling for the marriage law to be either revoked or extended to every citizen because according to Myers, the law is discriminatory and offensive. “The Supreme Court is only the first step in the process of achieving the final goal—Civil Marriage in the State of Israel,” said advocate Myers. “The separation of religion and state is a an absolute requirement for a free and democratic state.”
While Israel’s democratic credentials far outweigh anything else in our region, the rabbinic control over issues such as who can get married in the Jewish state, goes against the ideals of democracy. Please be in prayer for Calev Myers and others who are seeking to challenge these laws. There is no place for sacred cows in the Jewish State. We should have learned from our experience with the Golden Calf.