Perhaps on paper, writes Haviv Rettig Gur, but not in reality. Last week ultra-Orthodox cabinet members successfully repealed two measures aimed at curbing the power of the Israeli rabbinate, and a civil-marriage bill failed to pass in the Knesset. However, personal freedom in Israel remains robust, as exemplified by, among other things, the marriage issue. Gur writes:
Israel is arguably the most restrictive and coercive state religious system in the free world, yet ordinary Israelis are in important ways actually living in one of the democratic world’s most liberal societies. . . . For Israelis, marriage and divorce can be conducted only through state religious courts: Jews in state-funded rabbinic courts, Muslims in parallel state-funded Sharia courts, Catholics in canon-law courts, etc.
Worse, any Israeli who is not accepted by one of these state-recognized religions as a member—such as Reform converts to Judaism, Protestants, and the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish family members of Russian-speaking Jews—simply cannot marry at all, not even each other. . . . But for all that, [my summary] of Israeli marriage law leaves out the most important fact about the whole system: the extent to which it is ignored by, and ignores, Israel’s social reality. . . .
In legal rulings over the years, Israel’s secular courts, keenly aware of the lack of marriage options for large swaths of the population, have increasingly recognized other forms of relationships as conferring protections usually associated with marriage. Wielding the ancient halakhic term y’duim b’tsibur, “known to the public,” in a way not unlike the English concept of common-law marriage, this glacial judicial reform, taking place in piecemeal rulings over several decades, has quietly transformed Israeli society. Where formal law has left hundreds of thousands of Israelis literally without access to marriage, courts have responded by extending the most important and intimate protections of marriage to nearly every cohabiting couple, including gays.