Civil Marriage in Israel

For a large number of Israelis, religious politics and identity issues disrupt the pursuit of holy matrimony.

Print this page Print this page

Diana Mirtsin and Alexander Skudalo, Israeli citizens who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, live together, with their baby, in Tel Aviv. Very much in love, they would like to marry--but they cannot make it official in Israel. This is because the Israeli rabbinate does not recognize Alexander as Jewish, because although his father is Jewish, his mother is not Jewish. Diana points out the irony in their frustrating family situation: “If there is a war tomorrow, he'll be Jewish enough to fight for Israel. But he's not Jewish enough to marry here.”

According to the country’s law, marriages in Israel are performed by sanctioned religious authorities--be they Muslim, Jewish, Druze, or Christian.
wedding jewish
Within Israel, only the Israeli rabbinate can marry Jewish couples. And the Israeli rabbinate is an exclusively Orthodox institution, so it insists that the marriages its rabbis perform be subject to the strictures of traditional halakhah (Jewish law).

Because of this policy, a significant portion of the Israeli population, like Alexander Skudalo, cannot marry in Israel. The Law of Return grants anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, and his or her spouse, the right to immigrate to and settle in Israel and gain automatic citizenship. But the Israeli rabbinate will only perform the marriage of a person defined as Jewish by Orthodox halakhah--in other words, someone born to a Jewish mother or converted through the Orthodox rabbinate. 

As a result, thousands of immigrants admitted to Israel under the Law of Return cannot marry in Israel, because the Israeli rabbinate does not recognize them as Jewish. Since these people are also not affiliated with any other religion, no other religious authority can marry them. In 2009, there were over 300,000 Israelis, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who were not recognized as Jewish by Israel's rabbinate, and who had no other religious affiliation. This group includes people whose mother is not Jewish, as determined by the rabbinate, but might have a Jewish grandparent or Jewish father, and might be considered Jewish by other standards.

The Israeli rabbinate will also not perform marriages prohibited by Jewish law. An interfaith marriage cannot take place in Israel, because each of the sanctioned religious authorities in the state will only marry two people who both belong to that religion. A kohen, a man of priestly lineage, cannot marry a convert or divorcee. A halakhic mamzer, someone born of an adulterous or incestuous relationship, cannot marry anyone other than another mamzer. A woman whose husband cannot or does not grant her a Jewish divorce also cannot remarry. 

In 2010, Israel passed the Civil Union Law, allowing a couple to marry civilly in Israel if they are both registered as officially not belonging to any religion.  Out of the 300,000 Israelis not recognized as Jewish by the Israeli rabbinate who have no other religious affiliation, only 30,000 are officially registered as without a religion, so only they can take advantage of this law.  This law also does not help couples like Diana and Alexander, where one member of the couple is registered as Jewish, nor does it help a Jewish couple that cannot or do not want to marry through the Israeli rabbinate. Still, civil marriage advocates see this law as a small step in the right direction, and hope that it will lead to more far-reaching legislation.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.