There is no such thing as civil marriage in Israel. All marriages are governed by religious law. Thus, marriages and divorces involving Jews must go through the Israeli Rabbinate. For many couples this presents a serious ideological problem, since they themselves may not adhere to the Rabbinate’s interpretation of Jewish Law or may not want a religious ceremony at all.
For such couples, there are a few options. If it is important to them to be legally recognized as married in the State of Israel, they can marry abroad in a civil ceremony (Cyprus is the most popular destination for these couples) and then register as married in Israel when they return. If they wish, these couples also can have a ceremony (religious or secular) in Israel that reflects their personal ideological and/or religious approach to marriage—the Israeli ceremony is not “legal” but may have emotional or spiritual value for the couple.
However, I do not recommend this option as the ideal. I recommend such couples marry in a ceremony of their design with a rabbi of their choice and simply not register as legally married. Why? Because once a couple is registered as married in Israel, if they end up getting divorced, the procedure must go through the Rabbinate, even if the marriage was abroad. But if the couple does not register as married, they can draw up a legal contract laying out the legal terms of their relationship, and if they end up divorcing, they can terminate this contract and draw up another if need be. That way, they can avoid the Rabbinate entirely.
If a couple decides not to marry in a Rabbinate-recognized ceremony, they can together create a ceremony (with the help of a rabbi or other knowledgeable individual in this area) that reflects their understanding of the relationship into which they are entering. I have had the honor of helping many couples create a ceremony that truly reflects their vision of what their marriage is about (and even officiating at a few), and the process is truly magical. It is a wonderful way for a couple to begin to discuss their values and see where there is commonality and where there is difference.
This exercise in jointly creating a shared memory that not only cements their relationship but also expresses it, a ceremony created through thoughtful discussion, intention, and compromise, is the best way I can think of to set of for two people to set out on their life together.
Those interested in Israeli marriage might be interested in the Reut seminars and retreats that I lead. The retreats include interactive sessions on zugiyut (“couplehood”), sexuality in marriage, marital fiscal health, mikveh and rhythmic sexuality, understanding and personalizing the Jewish wedding ceremony, and the legal issues involved with marrying in Israel. Our next retreat will be from May 5-7th at Kibbutz Hannaton Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.reutcenter.org.—Haviva
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