Washington, DC: As fewer and fewer secular Israeli couples register for rabbinic marriage, the founder of Israel’s first feminist-Orthodox group, “Kolech,” recommended that secular Jewish women boycott the institution entirely. In a recent conference on “chained women” who cannot obtain religious divorces, Kolech leader Chana Kehat raised a stir by stating that the more distance women maintained from the rabbinate, “the better for the whole nation.” Kolech, known in English as the Religious Women’s Forum, aims to improve the status of women by deep-seated change in the Orthodox community, is a major grantee of the New Israel Fund, and also participates in NIF/SHATIL’s Pluralism Project.
The Orthodox rabbinical monopoly on Jewish marriage in Israel has long been a symbol of minority rule and theocracy to Israel’s mostly-secular population. Israeli couples who marry in a secular ceremony, even abroad, must register themselves as married couples through a religious registry in Israel to be considered legally married. Once they do, the rabbinate holds sway over the marriages, meaning that men can hold their wives hostage if they don’t want to grant them a “get,” a religious divorce. The news media regularly covers stories of women who must relinquish property and/or child custody to gain divorce, and of abused women who have been refused divorces for years or even decades.
“We support creating change simply by stopping the use of the rabbinical courts,” said Shira ben Sasson Furstenberg, NIF/SHATIL Coordinator for Religious Pluralism. “This will eventually make the rabbinical courts irrelevant to the vast majority of Israelis, which in turn will affect legislation and government allocations. It will also make living a Jewish life a conscious decision made out of personal choice rather than through alienating coercion.”
For many years, an NIF-supported coalition, the Forum for Freedom of Choice in Marriage, has worked to establish civil marriage for any Israeli couple who prefers to marry outside Orthodox halacha. Given the parliamentary system of government in Israel, and the need for governing coalitions to include religious parties, it has been extremely difficult to make progress through the political process. Both Ashkenazic and Mizrachi religious parties reject civil marriage, although some progress has been made in allowing alternate provisions for couples in which one or both spouses cannot qualify as Jewish by Orthodox standards. Rejecting rabbinic marriage in entirety, however, is a bold new strategy, especially when advocated by a group representing National Religious women.
“Chana Kehat is attempting to forge a coalition of religious women with their secular counterparts,” Furstenberg explained. “In a country in which there is so much mistrust between the two groups, it will take both bravery and dialogue to form common cause against a repressive and out-of-date patriarchal rabbinate.”
Response to Kehat’s declaration has been mixed. Some secular feminists are thrilled to get public affirmation for their stance against the rabbinate from an Orthodox woman; others prefer that Orthodox women themselves rebel against the rabbinical hierarchy instead of urging secular women to initiate or expand a boycott. In general, many leaders of Israeli womens’ groups are starting to believe that direct action – where Israelis “vote with their wedding rings” against participation in rabbinically-sanctioned marriages – may succeed where years of political pressure have not.
“Sometimes the best path to social change is concerted social action, rather than waiting for the political dynamic to change,” said New Israel Fund CEO Larry Garber. “Chana Kehat exemplifies the bravery we hope to find in our grantees and partners – a religious woman openly calling for a boycott of rabbinic marriage. We intend to continue our support for the movement to civil marriage, and to personal choice in religious matters generally, as a reflection of the values of democracy and personal autonomy that Israel needs to respect.”
THE NEW ISRAEL FUND (www.nif.org) – The New Israel Fund advances civil rights and social justice for all Israelis, and believes the only secure Israel is a just Israel. A partnership of Israelis, North Americans and Europeans, NIF is transforming the social justice and human rights communities in Israel with grants to hundreds of nonprofits, and with training and coalition-building through its action arm, SHATIL. Through litigation, lobbying, and community empowerment, NIF grantees have emerged as the core of progressive Israeli civil society.