Zevulun Orlev
Zevulun OrlevFlash 90

MKs and leaders of the National Zionist movement responded with shock and anger to an announcement Tuesday by Religious Affairs Minister Ya'akov Margi (Shas) nthat would essentially prevent the Tzohar outreach organization from conducting weddings, which it performs largely for secular Israelis.

MK Zvulun Orlev (Bayit Yehudi) condemned Margi's enforcement of a rule that requires couples to register for marriage in the town or city in which they live. “It's an irresponsible decision that will abandon thousands of secular Israelis to non-Jewish marriages and distance them from Jewish tradition. The discrimination against rabbis affiliated with Tzohar as compared with the favor shown to hareidi rabbis is illegal and immoral, and must be halted,” Orlev said.

Israel's laws on marriage and divorce require that couples who wish to get married must register in the offices of the Rabbinate – in their home towns. In order for a marriage to be recognized by the State, couples must participate in a Jewish wedding held according to halakhic strictures.

Many secular Israelis in recent years have decided to forgo that requirement, either because they don't want to get married anyway and prefer living together without an official ceremony – or, if they do wish to wed but don't want a Jewish ceremony, by getting married in venues abroad, such as in Cyprus. Once married they are eligible to present themselves as such to the Interior Ministry here – which is required to recognize the marriage.

To stem this trend, the Tzohar group decided to provide parallel nationwide marriage services. Tzohar was created after the murder of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin specifically as an outreach organization, aiming to bring non-religious Jews in Israel closer to their roots. The group is headed by Rabbi David Stav, Chief Rabbi of Shoham and spokesperson for Israel's Hesder Yeshivot. All its members are Orthodox, and all ceremonies and activities – such as mass readings of the Megillah on Purim and special services for secular Israelis on Yom Kippur – are conducted according to the full requirements of Jewish law.

Tzohar is only one of many outreach programs that try to give secular Israelis more understanding and identification with Judaism, but they  are the only one that decided to perform marriages. Israeli marriages were performed by registered members of the Israeli Rabbinate, but Tzohar criticized local rabbis listed by the Chief Rabbinate and claimed that they are more in tune with secular couples.

Tzohar, being Orthodox, will not perform weddings that are not allowed halakhically, such as marriage with a non-Jew or non-Orthodox convert.

In order to comply with the requirements that a marriage be registered with a local rabbinate, Tzohar rabbis would register the couple with the Shoham rabbinate, although they did not reside there, which Rabbi Stav administers. Thus, claims Tzohar, many couples who had refused to register with their local rabbinates because of ideological opposition to an established rabbinate, or embarrassment and fear of the process, agreed to a fully halakhic Jewish wedding under the auspices of Tzohar rabbis, who get special training in working with “deep secular” Israelis. 

However, on Tuesday, Margi decided to enforce the law that requires couples to register in their place of residence – meaning that they will no longer be allowed to avail themselves of the services of Tzohar rabbis, unless they live in Shoham or another community where Tzohar-affiliated rabbis are members of the local rabbinate (in most communities in Israel, they are not).

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Rabbi Stav said that he feels that many of Tzohar's potential “customers” would begin making plans to get married abroad, or would seek out non-traditional ceremonies. “Margi is going to cause a split in the nation, plain and simple,” Rabbi Stav said. “So many people have told me that 'it's either Cyprus or Tzohar,' and that they would under no circumstances set foot in the rabbinate's office.

He accused the rabbinate of trying to prevent competition: "Tzohar's outreach efforts, and activities within the bounds of halakhah, are popular, and apparently threaten the income of some rabbis who see the secular as a source of money. Margi is unfortunately pushing these people, their children, and grandchildren, outside the community of Israel.”

Speaking to Arutz 7, MK Orlev said that Margi's decision needed to be canceled immediately, and that legislation ensuring Tzohar's continued operation in marriages be written into law. MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima) on Tuesday called for an emergency Knesset session on the matter, and is being supported by numerous other MKs, including Haim Amsalem (Shas/Am Echad) and Daniel Ben-Simon (Labor).

In a statement, Margi's office said that “the Religious Affairs Ministry does not concern itself with the identities of the specific rabbis who conduct weddings. Authorization for who is eligible to conduct weddings is up to the Chief Rabbinate. Minister Margi is not preventing the Shoham Rabbinate from issuing marriage certificates. However, they have been issuing too many such certificates, and the law does require that registration be done in the town where one of the candidates for marriage live.

“The Minister has met with Rabbi Stav on this issue several times and we have asked him to work with the Chief Rabbinate to authorize Tzohar rabbis as members of local Rabbinate offices, which would solve the problem. However, we have been led to understand that he prefers to conduct a media campaign on this issue,” the statement added.