We talk so much about Israel’s gap between the religious and secular in terms of militarism and nationalism. The usual questions we ask are about whether Chareidi Jews should go to the army or about inter-communal disputes ranging from peoples’ dress in more religious areas to whether the Women of the Wall should be allowed to hold services at the kotel. Addressing Bnei Akiva, Rav Stav discussed an issue that is rarely talked about but has been a major contributor to the ever-growing distance between the religious and secular communities.
Rav Stav said that three of the main things that make Israel a Jewish state are the Right of Return, having chagim as national holidays, and the centralisation of marriage to the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This centralisation means that for a Jew to get married, they must do so through the Rabbinate – reasonable, if you’re a religious Jew coming from a clear Jewish lineage. However, during the waves of aliyot of almost one milllion Soviet Jews, around 25% came across an issue. These Jews were Jewish enough be eligible for the Right of Return, but a few years down the line they wouldn’t be able to get married, as they were not halachically Jewish. As well as this, secular Jews were being forced to have their weddings officiated by a Rabbi regardless of their own preferences and attitudes towards marriage.
This is where Rav Stav unleashed his inner economist. The centralisation of marriage, he said, gave the Ministry of Religious Affairs monopoly power over marriage. According to the mainstream theory developed by economist Harvey Liebenstein (coincidentally a Soviet Jew), Monopolies will often have X- inefficiencies. Essentially, if there is a captive market and no competition, then firms will not strive to be efficient or to help give consumers a better service. Now translate that from dry economic waffle to the plight of secular or non-halachic Jews who want to get married: if a secular couple want to get married, not only do they not have the option to just get a civil marriage in a courthouse, but they also need to speak with a rabbi about their personal life and attitude to religion 3 months before their wedding – by which point, most couples have already got every detail of the wedding set in stone. This gives these couples 3 options: don’t get married, lie to the rabbi or go abroad to get a civil marriage. According to a Haaretz article in August 2012, this final option has been taken up by around 20,000 Israelis every year with the most popular destination being Cyprus.
How to deal with such a ridiculous situation? Why not just get the rabbis to speak to the couples much earlier? Seems like a reasonable compromise. Sure enough, Rav Stav went to the rabbinate and proposed exactly that suggestion. What happened next was shocking. He was told that on many occasions, couples would end up cancelling their religious marriage not long before the arranged date, meaning that they would have to be refunded the fees paid to the rabbinate for officiating the wedding. If they gave couples more time, they would have to give more refunds back which would have been too much of an effort. Rav Stav said that the other rabbis in the room couldn’t look him in the eye when this response was given. Clearly they felt the guilt of being bystanders in a situation that has only made things so much more difficult for the struggle to bring the religious and secular communities closer together.
Evidently something had to be done. For those Israeli Jews who had no real connection to their religion, the first thing they learnt about Judaism was how to cheat the rabbi so that they could get married. Rav Stav, among other rabbis, formed a group called Tzohar that would, at no cost, officiate marriages and give couples an easier time when it came to the marriage process. Word got round quicker than a controversial tweet from a celebrity, and Tzohar quickly gained popularity. It began to disrupt the Ministry of Religious Affairs who were essentially being bypassed on many occasions. The Ministry started making things more and more difficult for Tzohar until eventually they managed to get it shut down. That night, the minister had received over 11,000 calls, texts, emails and even death threats for this. The average mayor or minister will look into an incident after 2 or 3 complaints about it. After 11,000 it was more than evident that this was a bad decision. So Tzohar made a compromise with the ministry and in true Israeli style the compromise was that Tzohar was reinstated.
So what’s happened since? Firstly, Tzohar now has over 1000 Rabbis and volunteers working for them and have received the Presidential Award for Volunteers. Secondly, the initial issue has been attacked head on. In October 2013, the Tzohar bill was passed, abolishing regional marriage registration districts and creating competition between cities’ municipalities. The monopoly power was taken away and every municipality in Israel had to compete against the others to provide the best service for couples. It’s safe to say that thanks to Rav Stav and many other like-minded individuals, Jewish marriage in Israel is now more convenient than ever. While there is still a long way to go until the gap is narrowed between the religious and secular communities, it’s great to see that real efforts are being made.
On another note, Tzohar have just put forward a new form of pre-nup to prevent the issue of Agunah (A woman whose husband refuses to give her a document of divorce and is therefore halachically chained to the marriage against her will) – worth reading.