People have been asking me: Yossi, what’s the mess with the right to marriage in Israel? I can’t make head or tail of it. Well, the issue is complicated. Let’s start with the basic facts: there is no way for anyone in Israel to marry in a civil service. Judges and mayors do not have the power to marry you. You need your local rabbi, priest or qadi. Why? There’s a long and tiresome explanation at the end. Let’s deal with the facts first.
The only courts which are allowed to perform marriages in Israel are the religious courts. A rabbinical court can marry Jews (well, some of them; see below for more.) A church court (of which each Christian sect has its own) can marry Christians, and the sharia courts can marry Muslims. There is also a Druze religious court, which – you guessed it – deals with marriage of the Druze.
The important bit is, there’s no possibility of intermarriage. A Jew cannot marry a Christian here. One of the couple will have to convert. If you’re unwilling to convert, or if you’re unwilling to submit yourself to a religious court, you will have no option but to marry in another country. The most common option is Cyprus, which is very close and where a small cottage industry related to Israelis coming to get married has already developed; Prague, in the Czech Republic, is also a popular option.
The Israeli government will then begrudgingly acknowledge your marriage. If you’re a Christian marrying a Muslim, a Buddhist marrying a Christian, or a Ba’hai marrying a Mormon, the state will probably ignore you afterwards. But if one of the partners is a Jew and the other isn’t, then the couple should brace themselves for harassment by the Interior Ministry. If the non-Jewish partner is also not a citizen, this can – and often does – end in an attempt to expel him or her from the country.
Also, if you’re a non-Jew who fell in love with a Jew, and you wish to convert, tough luck: if you convert to a non-Orthodox version of Judaism, chances are you’ll go through hell before the government will recognize the conversion. And if you wish to be converted by the only state-sanctioned Jewish court, an Orthodox one, be advised that they will reject you outright if you admit the cause of conversion is love and marriage. Also, if you wisely chose not to burden them with this fact and they learn of it later on, they can annul the conversion. In which case, I highly recommend hiring one of the excellent advocates of Lucifer and Sons, as they’re basically the only ones who can get you out of this mess.
Hey, you wanted a Jewish state, right?
Enough theory. Let’s look at practice. So, who won’t the Rabbinate marry?
Gay couples, obviously. You love someone of the same gender? Get the hell out of here and be thankful we didn’t stone you in the process.
Jews and non-Jews (naturally).
A cohen and a divorcee. The surname “Cohen” (and some others, such as Azulai) denotes someone descending from the ancient lineage of Jewish priests, who used to slaughter animals in the Temple and were famously corrupt. The caste didn’t have any sort of meaningful power since the destruction of the temple, in 70 AD, but by religious laws all their male descendants are presumed to be priests-in-waiting. As such, they are forbidden to marry divorcees. Your love happens to be a divorcee? Off to the airport with you.
A cohen and a prostitute. Purity of the bloodline must be maintained. This can be problematic if you pissed off someone at the Rabbinate, since technically all secular Jewish women are considered prostitutes by the Rabbinate. Rarely happens due to the huge uproar, but it can.
A cohen and a convert. Cohens may not marry people who converted to Judaism. Purity of the bloodline must be maintained. And if a convert does take the step of marrying a cohen abroad, the Rabbinate may take the step of revoking her conversion, which will result in a hideous legal mess which will make your eyes bleed.
A cohen and a halutza. (Okay. How do I even begin explaining this one? Take a deep breath, Yossi.) According to Jewish law, if a married man dies without heir, his brother is legally obliged to marry the widow by way of sexual intercourse, which is one of the three ways of purchasing a wife (the other, rather more common, ways are with a writ and a coin), so that the dead man may have some heir after all. This is considered rather gauche, however, and so a ritual has developed. The woman and the brother come before a religious court, the woman takes off the brother’s sandal, spits in his face and curses him. The woman is then considered a halutza, meaning a woman who has taken off a sandal; she is technically a widow, but one who is prohibited in marriage to a cohen. So, if the woman you want to marry went through this ritual, and you’re a cohen, you’ll need a plane ticket to marry her.
The Grand Cohen and… – Thankfully, this is not operational now, as there is no temple and no Grand Cohen. Let’s try and keep it that way.
A mamzer – If a married woman has sexual intercourse with a Jewish man who is not her husband, and a child is born, the child is considered a mamzer (literally, “bastard”). The status of mamzer is hereditary: the child of a mamzer will always be considered a mamzer. Mamzerim are prohibited from marrying other Jews, and may only be permitted to marry other mamzerim. The Rabbinate keeps a secret file, dubbed “the black list”, which writes down all known mamzerim. Often, people learn they are considered mamzerim only when they apply for a marriage permit from the Rabbinate. So if you’re great-great-great-great-greatmother fucked someone she shouldn’t have in 18th Century Szczecin, we’re so sorry. And in this case, better be ready to spend serious money not just on marriage abroad, but also on appeals against the Interior Ministry, so they’ll recognize your marriage abroad. Oh, and you’d still be in the Rabbinate’s black list, so your children will have to go through the whole mess again.
Suspect Jews – People who the Rabbinate suspect are not actually Jews. Here we come into the special joy of the Law of Return: The government will recognize you as a Jew if one of your grandparents was a Jew, but the Rabbinate will only recognize you as a Jew if your mother was one. Plenty of people emigrated to Israel, particularly from the former Soviet Union, believing they were Jews, and received Israeli citizenship according to the Law of Return – only to find out they’re good enough to pay taxes, good enough to serve in the army, but not good enough to marry. The number of the people the Rabbinate considers to be outright non-Jews is about 300,000; and anyone who came from the Soviet Union will face a particularly harsh screening by the Rabbinate. Good luck finding the documents of your great-grandmother from Minsk in 1902, proving she paid the communal tax. Archives burn easily, particularly so in the bloodlands taken over by both the Nazis and the Communists. A particular problem of this group is that they came from the Soviet Union, so as a rule they’re not Christian – technically leaving them with no millet (see below) to belong to.
People who accidentally married – If you’re 13 and you gave your 12-year-old girlfriend a ring, and laughingly said, “I hereby take you to be my wife, according to the laws of Moses and Israel”, and there are two males over 13 in the room, then oops. You just got married and you need to get a divorce. This can be particularly troublesome if the 13 year old, who is now 19, feels that the former 12-year-old jilted him and decides to ruin her upcoming wedding. Extremely rare (children in religious schools are particularly warned against this), but it happens.
And this is actually the good part. Marriage is relatively easy. Divorce is hell on earth, if you married through the Rabbinate. At least, it is for women.
According to Jewish Orthodox family law – which I remind you is Israel State Law – a man may refuse to divorce his wife, thus leaving her an aguna – literally, someone anchored in place. The woman cannot then marry, and if she gives the Rabbinate the bird and enters a relationship with another man, the Rabbinate is likely to declare any child born from this union a mamzer. Men, however, though they cannot remarry – unless they convinced a hundred rabbis to approve it, which is doable if you have the money; it isn’t cheap – may form other relationships, and their children will be fine.
Some men turn their wife into an aguna out of spite: they want to destroy her life. Others do it for lucre: Sign off all of your property and you’ll get the divorce. The Rabbinate considers such men to be reprehensible and evil, but lack useful means to prevent the practices. It can excommunicate them (put them under nidui), but there are plenty of Orthodox communities in Israel who don’t care a fig about the Rabbinate. They can, technically, jail them for contempt of court, or deprive them of social security funds, but some of these bastards are extremely tough. Dozens of women have had their lives suspended for years, sometimes decades, because of the aguna laws. Rabbinical courts that are not affiliated with the official Rabbinate, of which there are dozens, found a quicker way to handle the issue: they beat the man senseless, time and again if necessary, until he agrees to a divorce. But if you got married through the official Rabbinate, which is obligated to act by law, you always know that if it comes to divorce, your husband can make your life hell on earth. (As for the other Rabbinical courts, they can and do perform marriages for their own sects, which are then automatically acknowledged by the official Rabbinical courts. For some of these sects, it’s a point of honor not to directly engage the state-sanctioned courts.)
How did all this mess come about? It basically begins with the Turks.
The Ottoman Empire conquered Palestine (from the Mamluks) in 1486. To make a long (400-plus years) story short, the Ottomans ran their empire by using the millet system: every subject of the Sultan was a member of a specific religious group, called a millet, each with its own religious leader. The main group was, of course, Sunni Muslims; they were headed by the Sultan himself. Almost every other group had its own laws and leaders. Orthodox Christians, the second-largest group in the empire, had their patriarch in Constantinople. Jewish communities were subject to the Ha’khacham Bashi (The Great Sage) of Constantinople, and other Christian denominations had their own leaders.
The millet system gave much leeway to religious groups to run their own business, including marriages, divorces, and to some degree wills. This went even into the realm of what we would consider criminal law: crimes by one millet member against another would be judged by the millet’s own courts. The imperial courts went into action when crimes were committed by a member of one millet against another. They also adjudicated civil cases between members of different millets.
This was a cumbersome, distinctly pre-modern way to run an empire, but in a multi-ethnic empire stretching from the Balkans to the borders of India, it worked surprisingly well.
The Ottoman Empire is gone some 100 years now, but the millet concept of the 16th century is still running personal lives in 21st century Israel. How? Well, the British, always loath to mess with local customs, kept it mostly in place (the one significant change was moving all criminal cases from millet courts to peace and district courts). Israel inherited the millet system as left by the British – and decided to keep it. It’s still in place, with one major exception: In the 1950s, the government virtually created a new millet, the Druze. The sect was not recognized as an independent one under Ottoman or British rule.
Israel is a member of the UN. To enter the UN, it had to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This meant it had to recognize marriages made in other countries. Many people who didn’t want to use the religious courts found an outlet: you’d go to an embassy, for a reasonable fee the ambassador would marry you, and the Interior Ministry, gritting its teeth, would approve the marriage. Embassies, after all, are considered to be sovereign territory of their countries.
This worked rather well until the 1980s, when the government put heavy pressure on the embassies to stop providing the service. Now, if you want to get married to someone the government doesn’t approve of, you’ll have to fly abroad and get married there. Basically, if you want to get married in Israel, and you don’t like the religious courts (or they don’t like you; see list above), your only option is to fly abroad. Needless to say, the government will not reimburse you for the expense.
When I tell this people, which is best done over hard liquor, they often gaze at me, just after picking their jaw off the floor, and ask: Why?
Why did Israel keep the millet system alive? Why did it give such power, such potential for abuse, to the rabbis?
Because Zionism needs a Jewish State. And it doesn’t have a clue as to what a Jewish State should be like. And it fears the potential damage it will suffer if major rabbis will say Israeli Jews are not actual Jews.
Also, and more importantly, there’s Judaism old bugbear: most Jews over history have abandoned Judaism. And most of them were not compelled to do so. Thankfully for Judaism, for centuries marriage between Jews and non-Jews was prohibited by the states they lived in. Once European countries allowed intermarriage, in the 19th century, a huge number of Jews left Judaism en masse. Orthodox Judaism – of which Zionism is a somewhat heretical branch – fears that once Jews have the option to marry non-Jews, it will happen again. How do you prevent that? You keep the millet system in place.
After all, the purity of the eternal people is more important than the happiness of individuals. The pursuit of happiness, as you know, is a goyish concept.