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Where 'I Do' Meets 'No, You Don't'

Israel is one of the few democracies to prohibit civil marriages, prompting many couples to go abroad to exchange their vows.

May 30, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

REHOVOT, Israel — Religion, not romance, drove Alon and Einat Bilu to get married in a quaint little town in the Italian countryside.

Although they are Israeli Jews, the couple objected to the only sanctioned wedding rite open to them in their homeland, an Orthodox ceremony in which Einat would be presented to Alon as his rightfully purchased property. So instead of a rabbi, they put themselves in the hands of a travel agent.

For $750, the couple declared their commitment before two friends and the beaming mayor of Montaione, who pronounced them husband and wife, then gave them a colorful certificate attesting to their matrimonio civile.

The Jewish state is among the few democracies in the world -- some say the only one -- not to offer its citizens the option of civil marriage. Only religious weddings can be performed: Jew marrying Jew, Christian marrying Christian, Muslim marrying Muslim in front of their respective clergy.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 126 words Type of Material: Correction
Israelis' marriages -- A front-page article last Friday about Israeli couples marrying abroad because of Israel's ban on civil marriages stated that Orthodox ceremonies make the woman the "rightfully purchased property" of the husband. Although that is the interpretation of some who choose not to marry in an Orthodox ceremony, Orthodox Jews deny this characterization. They explain that the groom gives a ring to the bride not to "acquire" her, but to consecrate the state of matrimony. Also, the groom does not sign a symbolic contract, as the article said. In fact, traditional practice does not require the groom to sign the ketubah, a contract spelling out the obligations of the groom to his wife. The only signatures required on this document are those of witnesses.

For the secular, or even for the observant who fall in love with someone of another faith, there is no way to solemnize their relationships in a legally recognized manner. They must either get married in another country -- as thousands do every year -- or live together with none of the benefits of being legally wed.

The ban on civil marriage has been in force since 1953, five years after Israel was founded.

The issue cuts to the heart of Israel's existential dilemma, its difficulties in striving to be both a democratic and Jewish state at the same time.

Those who back the ban on civil marriage say it is imperative to preserve Israel's Jewishness, to ensure the survival of a people and faith that enemies have tried to extirpate for centuries.

But many Israelis are becoming increasingly critical of what they see as a form of religious coercion in a modern society built in large part by people who fled oppression.

"This puts us back to medieval times," said Tommy Lapid, a member of parliament and a Holocaust survivor.

"Marriage to whomever you want to marry is one of the basic human freedoms. You don't have a single democracy in the world today where no civil marriage exists. Even Catholic countries like Italy, Spain and Ireland are allowing civil marriages nowadays."

Lapid is the head of Shinui, a political party whose liberal views and surprisingly strong showing in recent elections have given supporters of civil marriage their best shot at easing the ban, if not completely overturning it.

Although secular and liberal Jews now make up the majority of Israel's population, rabbinical law still holds a monopoly on many areas of social practice, setting up a constant clash between concepts of individual liberty and communal identity over issues ranging from burial rites to keeping kosher during Jewish holidays.

The debate over marriage has become especially acute and emotional over the last decade, a period of massive immigration into Israel, mostly by hundreds of thousands of refugees from the former Soviet Union.

Many of these new residents are Jewish but not observant, or are Jewish but cannot properly prove their lineage, which leaves them unable to marry in an Orthodox ceremony even if they want one.

"I think 80% of them have a problem" when it comes to getting married, said Irit Rosenblum, a lawyer who is spearheading a campaign to put civil marriage on the books. "There is no salvation for them. They have no options according to Israeli law."

Rabbis' Argument

Drawing on Old Testament statutes, the rabbis who have the final say on religious matters argue that God recognizes only Jewish marriages conducted according to Orthodox tradition.

Those traditions reflect the patriarchal values of the ancient world. For example, during a wedding, the groom signs a symbolic contract that in effect grants him possession of his bride, who remains veiled until "ownership" is officially transferred from father to husband. At the end of the ceremony, to celebrate their union, the husband is allowed to smash the glass that symbolizes mourning for the destruction of the ancient Jewish temple; the bride can merely watch.

Only husbands can seek divorces under Orthodox Jewish law. In addition, if a woman becomes a widow while childless, her late husband's brother technically has the right to wed her if he chooses -- a prerogative that has led to cases of extortion of women by brothers-in-law who refuse to release them from their bond unless they fork over money.

Men surnamed Cohen, believed to be descendants of a priestly caste, are not permitted to marry divorcees. Children born of adultery are still designated "bastards," or mamzer, and can marry only another mamzer. Interfaith relationships are taboo.

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