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  • Gabrielle Galchen

Marriage in Israel: Tradition or Patriarchy?

As we learn to recognize the sexism and gender discrimination within society, one crucial question arises: where can we draw the line between culture and systemic patriarchy?

On May 14, 1948, Israel gained statehood as the first Jewish nation. Though Israel currently has no official state religion, its distinctly Jewish character is what makes it a safe haven for Jews around the world in light of the Holocaust and thousands of years of persecution.

As Israel developed and prospered, however, the gap between its separation of religion and state increasingly widened; in fact, the majority of Israeli laws are now secular and liberal. Like most Western nations, Israel guarantees civil rights and liberties, establishes legal gender equality, forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation, and has democratic elections.

Only one aspect of Israeli law remains strictly religious: marriage and divorce. In order to legally marry within Israel, couples are mandated to obtain an Orthodox rabbi’s consent to perform an official religious ceremony. While this does not pose a problem for Israel’s majority-Jewish residents, the strict application of religious law means that Arabs, Palestinians, and secular Israelis are unable to have their marriages legally recognized in Israel. Marriage is also forbidden between same-sex couples, Jews and non-Jews, and a divorcee and a cohen (Jewish priest).

All in all, this means that some 660,000 Israeli citizens are currently unable to marry in Israel. This is why there is increasing public support for civil marriages that are not exclusively controlled by the rabbinic courts: in fact, a poll conducted by the Smith Institute for Hiddush found that 64% of the Israeli public support the establishment of civil marriage and 64% support recognition of gay marriage.

An orthodox rabbi officiating a traditional Israeli wedding

Yet the religious courts’ stance on divorce disproportionately affects 50.26% of the Israeli population: women. In cases in which one partner refuses to consent to divorce, different rules apply for men and women. When a wife refuses to divorce, the husband becomes a mesorav get, which means the rabbinical court will enforce divorce on the wife. When a husband refuses to divorce, the wife becomes a mosorevet get. Yet in Judaism, a man cannot be forced to give his wife a get (religious divorce). This means that many Israeli women are forced to remain in marriages that are non-functional, abusive, or even dangerous.

The husband’s power to refuse to give a get is often used as a bargaining chip for shared property. The 1973 Spousal Property Relations Law permits civil family courts to divide assets only after the rabbinical courts had granted a get. This has induced many husbands to refuse to grant their wives a get so that their assets will not be divided between them.

In other cases, the husband refuses to grant a get by going missing. This defers his wife to aguna status, which means she cannot legally remarry and loses her eligibility for ketubah (monetary amount stated in the religious marriage contract to be awarded in the case of divorce). Any future children she has are also legally considered to be illegitimate.

As recently as 2016, this disturbing pattern was finally reversed by amending the 1973 Spousal Property Relations Law. The amendment now permits the division of spousal property prior to divorce in cases where divorce proceedings last more than one year, if the marriage is in “irretrievable breakdown,” and in cases of domestic violence. In order to force a husband to give his wife a get, it is also now legal for rabbinical courts to impose sanctions, fines, staying orders, or even prison sentences on husbands who refuse to give their wives a get.

At the end of the day, patriarchal cultural traditions are no justification for perpetuating sexism. Love and marriage are objectively universal concepts that overcome the binary human restrictions of religion and conventions. By the same token, divorce- essentially the legal recognition of love that has dissipated- should not be subject to rabbinical courts that favor men. Gender equity applies to every facet of society, whether it be giving women agency over their education, incomes, bodies, or hearts.

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