Marriage legislation has Messianics abuzz in Israel

A huppah (wedding canopy) in an event hall in Israel (Photo: Marchi Aronov/Wikimedia Commons)

The Messianic community in Israel is abuzz following reports that a Messianic Jewish Israeli couple was denied a marriage license by the Jewish court last week.

After applying for a marriage license, the Messianic couple was interrogated in a rabbinic court where they held fast to their convictions, acknowledging they believe Yeshua is God and the Messiah. The religious court, subsequently, ruled that the couple has converted to Christianity and therefore will not be granted a marriage license under the umbrella of Judaism.

This ruling determined that the couple were not practicing the religion of rabbinic Judaism. The court did not, however, rule on their Jewishness as a nationality.

The antiquated and murky marriage laws of the Jewish state were inherited from an Islamic system — stemming from the Ottoman era — that served to control the minorities of the region under its rule. While giving the minorities basic rights it served to fulfill the purposes of a corrupt religious regime. Under the Turks it was Islam. Today, it is rabbinic Judaism.

Introduced during the Ottoman Empire era and hardly changed during the time of the British Mandate, the lingering yet pervasive Personal Status Laws of the Millet way of rule have given those with religious authority the power to invade and control the most sacred and intimate facets of everyday life for all citizens, even those who are not religious.

Under the post-Ottoman Millet system, secular, or civil marriage, is barred. Only those who fall into specific categories — namely Judaism, Islam and some denominations of Christianity — can be officially married in Israel.

The state recognizes Shiite and Sunni Islam as well as Baha’i, Bedouin and Druze adherents. “Christian” in Israel means Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Chaldaic and Episcopal Anglican. Still unrecognized by Israel are Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and the Protestant United Churches Council of Israel. “Jewish” only encompasses rabbinic Judaism.

In this land of labels and categories, Messianic Judaism is recognized neither as Judaism nor Christianity.

To receive a marriage license in Israel, a couple recognized as fully Jewish by birth or conversion must apply at their nearest rabbinate office. A court-appointed or court-approved rabbi and his wife, typically, are assigned to the couple who will see them through a few sessions of premarital counseling wherein they learn the laws of family purity according to rabbinic tradition.

Then both bride and groom are separately ritually immersed and the rabbinate issues them  a marriage license.

Afterwards, the same or another court-approved rabbi will perform the wedding ceremony under the huppah and present the ketubah, the document considered by the rabbinate as the real marriage certificate as it represents Judaism. After the wedding, the couple can register their marriage with the Ministry of Interior.

Last year, an attempt was made to stop the prosecution of Jews for not marrying according to the rulings set out by the rabbinate. It was voted down and it means that any couple caught marrying in a ceremony not approved by the rabbinate could serve a two-year jail term.

For decades, secular Israelis have bypassed the system and married abroad in order to avoid premarital counseling and ritual immersion. In recent years, even Orthodox Jews have been fighting against this system and choosing their own non-court-approved rabbis.

Messianic Jews who have chosen to be married under the rabbinate have toed the line by complying with rabbinic law and having a rabbinic ceremony and wedding followed by a separate wedding celebration with their Messianic congregations. Many have bypassed the rabbinic courts completely by marrying overseas.

Ironically, regardless of whether they were married under the rabbinate, any Jew that wants a divorce must do so through this office.

KNI surveyed members of the Israeli Messianic community regarding their reactions to this recent decision and their own marriage choices.

Some couples were mixed meaning one spouse was Jewish by nationality, according to the Ministry of Interior, while the other was not.

Regarding whether they are recognized as “Jewish” by the rabbinic court, the answer was overwhelmingly no. Messianic Jews who do not follow rabbinic Judaism, according to some religious authorities, are not even deemed Jewish when it comes to marriage.

Hence, whether these couples were married in Israel or abroad, the answer depended on when they were married. Some Messianic believers who married in Israel under the rabbinate said that it was long enough ago that the religious court hadn’t asked specific questions about their faith. Now, however, the authorities have clamped down. Many Messianic believers in recent years have married abroad —  even if both husband and wife were Jewish — in order to bypass the rabbinic system completely.

However, all Messianic couples’ marriages — whether conducted in Israel or abroad — were accepted by the Ministry of Interior.

Not a single couple of the believers we interviewed had any desire for their marriage to be recognized by the rabbinic courts anyway, hence many would opt for a civil marriage in Israel if it were available.

Every person answered that, although the rabbinate doesn’t affect them in any way now, they were concerned for their own children when they want to marry.

Despite the inherent discrimination against Jews not considered “Jewish” enough to marry because they believe in Yeshua, some of the Messianic believers we surveyed are pleased that at least the law prevents non-biblical unions such as same-sex marriages.

In the end, a majority of those who responded to the survey felt that marriage is recognized by God and that no religious institute should interfere.

“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.
’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Mark 10:6-9