Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who happens to be an observant Jew, this week determined that a person who wishes to change his or her surname to Cohen, Levi and names associated with these classics—such as Azulai—should not be required to provide written approval from a rabbi, as required by the Interior Ministry. Mandelblit’s representative, Attorney Omri Ben-Zvi, expressed this opinion in response to an appeal by MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz).
In her appeal to the Attorney General, MK Zandberg wrote that in recent years she has received many requests from citizens who had applied to the Interior Ministry to change their surname to Cohen or Levy or related names, and were refused. She argued that when same-sex couples approach the Interior Ministry with a request for one spouse to take on his/her spouse’s name Cohen or Levy, “they encounter difficulties and even refusal because they are not connected to the head of the religious community or to the community rabbi.”
“This procedure is puzzling and offensive, since in most cases, secular people do not pray in a synagogue and therefore they have neither a community leader nor a synagogue,” she wrote, and asked the AG to act to change the procedure.
The Names Act of 1956, which regulates the changing of a person’s name, does not require an affidavit from a religious authority, however, the procedure at the Interior Ministry regarding those names which carry an added religious significance requires the applicant to provide written approval from the head of their community or from the rabbi of the synagogue where they pray. The obvious reason is that Jewish law sets more restrictive rules regarding the life-cycle events of Jews who are priests (Cohen) and levites.
The Names Act does empower the Interior Minister to refuse a request for a change of name if he or she believes that “the new name is liable to mislead or harm public policy or public sentiment.”
In his response to Zandberg, Ben-Zvi wrote that “the Supreme Court’s ruling determines that every case in which the exercise of authority is required must be considered individually as to the special nature of the case, and should the case require it is possible to deviate from the guidelines. The authority has an obligation to consider the need to deviate from the guidelines whenever it is claimed that this is an exceptional case.”