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December 2, 2015 / 20 Kislev, 5776
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New Knesset ‘Tzohar Law’ to Curtail Chief Rabbinate’s Control on Weddings Passes First Reading

Newlywed couple Harel and Talya David under the Chupa in Karnei Shomron in Judea and Samaria. The new "Tzohar Law" will empower couples to seek officiating by non-Haredi rabbis.

Newlywed couple Harel and Talya David under the Chupa in Karnei Shomron in Judea and Samaria.
Photo Credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90

Israel Beiteinu’s MK Faina Kirshenbaum’s “Tzohar Law” passed its first reading yesterday in the Knesset by a majority of 25 to 8.

The new law will end the obligation of Jewish couples to be wedded only by the rabbi of their locale, and will permit them to choose any recognized Orthodox rabbi in the country to perform their marriage.

According to Israel Beiteinu, the purpose of the new law is “to mitigate the difficulties often associated with couples being beholden to the rabbis of their hometown.”

The law also gives a new lease on life to the moderate Orthodox organization Tzohar, which provides a  more accommodating wedding experience for non-religious couples, and which has been under threat from more right wing elements associated with the chief rabbinate, which sought complete control over marriage fees.

The bill now must go through committee and then be approved by the house.

Tzohar Chairman Rabbi David Stav told the Jewish Press that despite its popular nickname, the new law is not directly connected to his organization. “It’s true that we are pleased with this law, but it’s not essentially about Tzohar but rather intends to make life easier for secular Israelis who are trapped in the maze of bureaucracy.”

Rabbi Stav explained that Tzohar rabbis have been decrying for many years the chief rabbinate bureaucracy which prevents young couples from marrying according to “the laws of Moses and Israel,” pushing them instead to seek civil marriages in nearby Cyprus.

I asked Rabbi David Stav about the notion that Tzohar rabbis employ less stringent standards regarding conversions. He disagreed with the entire proposition.

“We recognize only those conversions which the chief rabbinate recognizes,” he stated. “We do not accept conversions which the chief rabbinate has rejected.”

The problem is, Stav says, that local rabbis in various municipalities, who are paid by the state as civil servants, refuse to recognize the legitimacy of conversions which have been approved by the chief rabbinate.

“There are hundreds of thousands of Jews who must be married in their locale according to the old law, but their local rabbinate would not permit them to get married because that rabbinate does not recognize some chief rabbinate conversions,” he said.

“We are delighted that the Knesset has discovered yesterday what we’ve known for a very long time,” he added. “The majority of Israel’s public wants a halachic wedding, but is asking not to be encumbered with needless obstacles.”

Rabbi Stav emphasized that all the rabbis associated with Tzohar who conduct marriage ceremonies received their ordination from the chief rabbinate and operate within strict halachic guidelines.

“In the Tzohar rabbis’ approach to marriages there isn’t even a smidgen of levity or allowance for shortcuts,” he stressed. “There is no halachic disagreement here whatsoever. The differences are in our more personal approach. We view our role as a holy mission, to bring the secular Israeli society closer to the institution of halachic marriages.”

Rabbi Stav criticized voices in the Lithuanian yeshiva world which warned that Tzohar rabbis would be lighter on halachic requirements, saying there was no basis in reality for such allegations.

“The big change ushered by this law is in regard to registration for marriage,” said Rabbi Chaim Navon, a congregation Rav in Modiin and member of the Tzohar organization, who also spoke to the Jewish Press about the new bill.

“Even before a couple chooses which rabbi would officiate at their wedding, they must register to marry at the Rabbinate office in their home town. To date, that same rabbinate also has the power to approve or disqualify the officiating rabbi. The new law will allow the couple to register anywhere they want in the country.”

This means that if their local rabbinate is too strict in the couple’s opinion, they are free to register elsewhere.

Rabbinic strictness, said Navon, is expressed in the local office’s views on standards of giurim (Jewish conversions), as well as on which Orthodox rabbis are acceptable to conduct the chupa ceremony.

“The bill received the nickname ‘Tzohar Law’ because some rabbinate offices around the country have been preventing rabbis affiliated with Tzohar from conducting marriages.”

The new law still maintains the complete adherence to Jewish Halacha of the officiating rabbis.

“It’s always going to be an Orthodox rabbi,” maintained Navon, “but couples will be free to seek an Orthodox rabbi with a sunnier disposition.”

Over the years, many in Israel have criticized the fact that the Chief Rabbinate has become populated with ever-more Haredi officials in high office, while the Haredi population rarely depends on the Rabbinate for religious services, and are known to shun its kosher certification. At the same time, those Israelis, modern Orthodox and secular, who do seek those services, are being governed by public servants who are far to their right.

“There are complex processes taking place at the Chief Rabbinate,” said Navon. “On the one hand you see this Haredization of the rabbinate. On the other hand, even today, there are open channels and cooperation on several issues between the chief rabbis and the rabbis of Religious Zionism.”

Rabbi Navon says National Religious rabbis have not given up on the chief rabbinate. “I think we should help the chief rabbinate help itself,” he said. “They should be truly the chief rabbinate of klal Israel.”

Comparing the complete absence of a chief rabbinate for U.S. Jews, which exist, more or less, in autonomous communities and congregations, Rabbi Navon said he would not trade Israel’s rabbinate for what appears like a complete freedom of religious choices in America.

“In Israel’s context such a situation would have dire consequences in two areas,” said Navon. “One area is the Jewish character of the state, where the rabbinate’s authority is anchored in state law; the other is the fact that in America religious services are exorbitantly expensive. We don’t wish to reach a reality in which a person must take out a mortgage to bury a loved one.”

About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.

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