At the end of a month that began with three Israeli couples getting married in New York City as a protest against what they see as the increasingly fundamentalist Chief Rabbinate’s stranglehold on marriages and conversions, a liberal Orthodox organization in Israel last week opened a crack in the religious establishment’s control over the interpretation of Jewish law.
The two-decades-old Tzohar organization of religious Zionist rabbis, which was founded to narrow the gap between the country’s religious and secular Jews, opened a marriage registration branch in Tel Aviv.
Tzohar already has offices in Jerusalem, Lod, and Haifa, which operate independently of those cities’ officially sanctioned rabbinates. The Tel Aviv branch, in a first, is now working in cooperation with the local rabbinate.
That unprecedented level of official blessing marks a breakthrough for Tzohar, which — like Rabbi Seth Farber’s ITIM organization, and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat — helps Israelis navigate the often-byzantine bureaucracy of the Chief
The new branch was opened at the Tel Aviv Port, in the office of EasyWed, an organization that offers a variety of event-planning and other services to Israeli couples.
As part of its activities, Tzohar — headed by Rabbi David Stav, whose positions have often collided with those of the Chief Rabbinate — will provide a rabbi to conduct the wedding ceremony for free.
“We are confident that this will allow us to positively contribute to helping those couples build healthy new relationships and families in accordance with halacha [Jewish law] and the laws of the State of Israel,” Rabbi Stav said.
Tzohar’s Tel Aviv branch was opened during a year in which the ongoing tug-of-war over control of religious matters in Israel intensified with the publication of a so-called blacklist of diaspora rabbis whose conversions are not recognized; submission of a Knesset bill that would further empower the Chief Rabbinate and limit the authority of rabbis like Stav, Farber, and Riskin; and the government’s withdrawal from an agreement to allow non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall.
The establishment of the Tzohar branch contains a certain amount of irony: Rabbi David Lau, Israel’s chief Ashkenazic rabbi, is the son of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who also served as a chief rabbi of Israel. And chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.