There is no civil marriage in Israel

Religion & State in Israel

The battle for religious freedom in Israel is one that I have been seeped in professionally for nearly seven years now; and it’s one that I follow very closely. You might say that it’s become something of an area of expertise for me.

That said, I hope to keep this blog post as simple as possible for the sakes of all my readers around the world who know very little about life in Israel. And, as always, I am happy to offer clarifications and more extended commentary, should you be curious to know more.

It’s important to understand that Israel is mired in two existential tensions, but only one of them gets much press abroad. The first is the so-called the Arab-Israeli conflict. The second is the political war over religious freedom between proponents of democracy and those who strive to turn Israel into a theocratic Jewish state.

Indeed, Israeli’s politics of religion & state are always heated, but ~ the prospective “change government” set to be voted upon and hopefully installed next week marks a somewhat dramatic shift in this arena.

Seriously: there is no civil marriage in Israel.

Only religious weddings conducted within the borders of the State of Israel may be registered with the government. Those Israelis who wish to have civil weddings must go abroad to other countries (such as Cyprus) to get married – because Israel is obligated by international agreements to respect marriages that are legally binding in other countries.

This means: every religious group recognized by the State has an official religious authority, and only representatives of those religious authorities may perform weddings. For Jews, who comprise ~75% of the population, the official religious authority is the Chief Rabbinate. Jewish citizens may only get married in Israel if the Chief Rabbinate approves of their marriages, and there are plenty of reasons why it might not.

And it’s not only Jewish marriage that the Chief Rabbinate has a legal monopoly over. It’s also Jewish burial, the certification of food establishments and hotels as kosher, divorce… Oh, and did I mention that public transportation is unavailable throughout most Israel on the Sabbath? If you can’t afford a car, that’s your problem.

So why is this the case?

There are undisputed historic reasons for the Chief Rabbinate’s authority, going all the way back to the Ottoman Empire’s millet system, which the nascent State of Israel adopted in order to appease the ultra-Orthodox community. When Israel was founded in 1948, most non-Orthodox Jews viewed Orthodoxy as the most authentic version of religious Judaism; and, for the most part, secular Jews had no problem ceding the realm of religious life to the Chief Rabbinate. “Sure,” they grinned, “we’ll get married according to your quaint religious standards.”

The problem, over the decades, became that Israel’s Jewish community was growing increasingly diverse. For example, there were more and more Jewish citizens who were not considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate because their mothers were not Jewish. These citizens paid their taxes and served in the armed forces but couldn’t legally get married in their home country. Also, there were LGBTQ couples, interfaith couples, couples who affiliated with non-Orthodox religious denominations of Judaism… and the list goes on.

In part, therefore, despite the many demographic and social changes, the reason for the Chief Rabbinate’s continued hold over religious life in Israel has to do with inertia. However, that’s far from the whole story.

The rest of the story is mostly political. In Israel, there are political parties that ostensibly represent the interests of their respective religious communities. There is now more than one political party to represent Israel’s Zionist Orthodox population; another party representing Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Israelis; and yet another to represent Ashkenazic ultra-Orthodox Israelis (including Hasidic Jews and Litvish Jews).

While these religious parties do not agree upon everything, they do, for the most part, agree that the democratic rights (freedom of religion, anyone?) of Israel’s citizenry should be curtailed for the sake of perpetuating Jewish tradition. And ~ historically, when potential prime ministers (of left, right, and center) have asked the religious parties to join their governing coalitions, they would only do so if those civil governments maintained the Orthodox Rabbinate’s state-enforced monopoly over Jewish life in Israel.

Suffice it to say that forming a majority governing coalition in Israel is no easy feat, and promising away Israelis’ civil liberties has long been a cheap price for prime ministers to pay for reliable political support.

Ripples of change

The prospective Israeli government, which will hopefully be voted upon this coming Sunday, does not include either of Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox political parties, for in recent years, both married themselves to the political fate of Israel’s outgoing prime minister (Benjamin Netanyahu).

Also, of the two political parties that represent the Zionist Orthodox population, the more right-wing and religiously fundamentalist party has refused to join any government that includes any Arab political parties, as the prospective Israeli government does. Only the more religiously moderate Zionist Orthodox political party is included in the prospective government. (The head of this party is slated to be Israel’s next Prime Minister.)

Avigdor Liberman

While dramatic changes in Israel’s religion-state arena are not incredibly likely, from my perspective, it’s clear that we will soon be seeing the liberalization of some religious laws and policies, which can only be a good thing. State-recognized civil marriage (a big ticket item) is unlikely to be implemented any time soon, but this incoming government does represent a very positive sea-change…

Also, on a positive final note (for now), In the prospective government, the State’s purse strings via its Finance Ministry and powerful Knesset Finance Committee (which has been controlled by the ultra-Orthodox political parties for many years) will be in the hands of Israel’s secularist Yisrael Beiteinu party, chaired by one Avigdor Liberman. This is very much a step in the right direction.

63 thoughts on “There is no civil marriage in Israel”

  1. People are slow to change, most people don’t mind change so long as it doesn’t affect them. And when you have a theocratic strand running through for generations it would be hard to shift, and sentiment is hard to shift , and is especially vulnerable to coercive force and manipulation. It’s a long road, but no less worth taking.

    1. most people don’t mind change so long as it doesn’t affect them…. It’s a long road, but no less worth taking.

      True, and true, Paul.

      Thank you,

  2. You have clearly stated my unease with Israel in one post. I am against theocracy in any form. I did not realize that many Israelis were also uneasy with it however. In the United States, the Republicans are trying to impose a Christian theocracy, and too many people seem to like the idea, which makes me uneasy about my country too. (K)

    1. Kerfe,

      the majority of Israelis oppose theocracy by a wide margin, but security concerns tend to take center stage at the voting booth…


  3. And what about couples with one partner whose father is not Jewish? Do Judaism also believe in blood purity, as in Zoroastrianism? What about conversion to judaism? Is it also administered by the Chief Rabbinate? Whether the converted Jews are treated at par with the normal Jews?

  4. Interesting information. We generally don’t get a balanced picture of Israeli politics – it is more a snapshot without context. I have been very myopic concerning politics as I’m still reeling from the disaster of the Trump administration. I wish your (hopefully) new government coalition all success!

  5. Very interesting, David! So how often are marriages denied, and for what reasons? I had no idea of the extent of the reach of the religious aspects into everyday essential aspects of Israeli life. I just presumed civil marriages and burials were available. I really feel quite silly! Keep on fighting the good fight, my friend!

    1. well, as I said, 1) non-heteronormative couples are right out; also: 2) interfaith couples; 3) couples with one partner whose mother is not Jewish; 4) a descendent of the Jewish priestly tribe (Cohen) who wants to marry a divorcee or a woman who converted to Judaism; 5) somebody who was born of elicit sexual relations (this is very rare)… and these don’t include the many couples who simply want secular weddings and/or non-Orthodox weddings that reflect their values and worldviews.

          1. Thank you! I am indeed curious. These rules must cause a lot of pain. How sad that same sex marriage isn’t allowed on a civil level.

          2. in Israel there is a civil court system and a religious court system… the Supreme Court (civil) ruled that any two adults can be a “common law” couple with all of the same benefits (more or less) as an officially registered couple… the civil court system cannot change the way the religious court system functions, but it can create ways to bypass it…

          3. Ah, I see! That is good to hear, David. But there is no civil ‘marriage’ just ‘partnerships?’ I will read that article. I think it is wonderful that you are involved in this kind of social justice work!

          4. as I said, “common law” couples – of any gender – are recognized for legal purposes. In Israel, “common law” couples have more rights than just about anywhere else in the world, precisely for this reason… because there’s no civil marriage due to the Rabbinate and its political partners.

          5. I think I have grasped it now. It is not as extreme as I first thought, though not ideal, huh. What would be your ideal solution for Israel and this issue?

          6. It’s not “so” extreme, but there are extremist political forces in Israel that aim to make it “so”… That’s the problem.

            Ideal solution would be an open market – religion can be a state service in a Jewish state, but it should be any version of the religion, including secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc…. in other words, various theological approaches taught in schools to give the broadest range of religious perspectives, and religious services (like weddings) available in all religious flavors (including non-religious for those who prefer that).


  6. Very interesting. It is good to get the perspective from a non-political source, but from one living in the history of the moment and the traditions and culture of their past.

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