What are the Differences between Civil and Secular marriage?
By Rabbi Nardy Grün
Many thanks to Rabbi Greg Epstein for the help with the English translation
The Current Situation in Israel
In 2004 the Knesset rejected two proposals concerning civil marriage registration. The opposition’s proposal was rejected by the general assembly of the Knesset; another, by the coalition comprised of Likud-Shinui-National Religious Party, fell through because of political interests.
After the civil marriage bills were rejected, the pre-existing marriage laws remained intact: all Israelis must wed under the authority of their religious affiliation. For Israeli Jews, the authority to perform and control marriages was thus given to the chief rabbinate. In order to find an alternative, many Israelis are forced to travel abroad to have a civil marriage, which existing laws oblige the state to recognize.
The establishment of a different kind of marriage is not likely to happen in the near future. This is partly because of the religious parties’ objection, though given that the various religious parties combine to hold a relatively small percentage of Knesset seats, we must also recognize that the big secular parties tend to bow on this issue as a concession to potential coalition partners. Nonetheless, the single most important factor may well be that the secular public generally isn’t aware of any doesn’t know any alternative to the current situation and lacks a voice to lead the fight for one. Still, while the Secular Israeli public may lack awareness about alternatives to the current situation, but it has no lack of need for such alternatives.
The Need for a New, Positive Vision for Marriage
During the past years, due to sociological changes related to the position of the family unit, the creation of new family models, as well as the growing phenomenon of people who live together without institutionalizing their relationship through marriage registration or even celebration, a slow decline in society’s appreciation for marriage and the marriage ceremony is unfortunately taking place.
This situation is exacerbated by the current legal climate, as there are many couples that ideologically refuse to get married through the rabbinate, others who cannot because the rabbinate has barred them from Jewish marriage, and even same sex couples denied a significant public ritual to honor their committed partnership.
Civil marriage, however, would be an insufficient solution to this difficult problem even in the unlikely eventuality that a civil marriage law should ever pass through Knesset. This is because it would do nothing to address the need of secular couples for wedding ceremonies meaningful to them.
Civil Marriage – Merely a Record in the Population Registry
The essence of the proposed civil marriage is the state’s bureaucratic registration – a formal, administrative agreement as to the official relationship between citizens and the Ministry of the Interior. In most countries, the registrars of civil marriages are clerks or magistrates on behalf of city hall. The registration does not require a ceremony and there are no feelings involved. It is about documentation and declaration in front witnesses that the couple is registered as married as far as the state is concerned. The purpose of this kind of marriage is to settle legal affairs and guarantee the rights due to the new family, as well as to establish the couple’s duties towards the state and one another, and the government’s formal recognition of their relationship.
What we truly need as an alternative is the Secular Jewish marriage ceremony, which more and more couples are beginning to choose.
Secular Jewish Marriage – A Ceremony for Friends, Family and Community
The essence of Secular Jewish marriage is the couple’s declaration, in front of the whole world, of the nature of the intimate partnership they are forming. It is a declaration of the spiritual and cultural foundations upon which their relationship rests.
This declaration takes the form of a ceremony, whose guests are the members of the couple’s family and community; the people whose acknowledging presence makes the newly formed bond even more meaningful. Such a ceremony is meant to produce a change of consciousness for the couple and the people who know them, crystallizing the their intention to create an ongoing partnership and to establish a common home.
Secular Jewish marriage incorporates the symbols of the traditional Jewish marriage – the chupah, or canopy; the exchange of rings; the seven blessings; the ketubah; and the breaking of the glass. It combines them, however, with a personal and creative approach, stemming from the couple’s as well as the ceremonialist’s personality, learning, and ethical vision.
Such a ceremony does not guarantee the state’s registration and recognition, which is important and should not require one to have to pass through the rabbinate to get it.
Civil marriage in some form would be necessary in order to change that reality, but of course civil and Secular marriage do not contradict each other—rather, Secular marriage is of great importance whether there is civil marriage or not.
The secular Jewish marriage ceremony is meant for people who wish to neither waive their personal identity, nor be satisfied with administrative registration in place of a ceremony that could be one of the most meaningful days of one’s life.
In today’s political situation, when change from above is impossible, the only remaining way is grassroots change. As more and more couples bypass the rabbinate and get married in alternative ways, the elected officials will understand that today’s archaic laws must be changed.
By Rabbi Nardy Grün