Sisterhood Blog

Taking on the Rabbinate — on YouTube

By Elana Sztokman

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Vered Shavit did everything she could to avoid the Israeli rabbinate. When she got married in 2005, she flew all the way to Cyprus for a civil ceremony, then had a Reform ceremony in Israel and never registered in Israel as married. But it didn’t matter. Despite everything, when she and the man decided this year to get divorced, she had to do it with a get, at the rabbinate.

“I didn’t want to get married in an Orthodox way because the religious institution is not a part of my life, and it is far from my beliefs and ideals,” Shavit, 37, told Ynet. “It seems weird for me that people that have nothing to do with religion and its traditions suddenly have to connect to it for their wedding. It seems extremely fake.”

It’s worse than that. It’s a dangerous intrusion of a state-backed religious fundamentalism into people’s private religious lives and personal practice. It’s downright frightening.

After Shavit left her husband early this year, she said she was utterly surprised to receive a letter from her ex-husband’s lawyer demanding a rabbinic divorce. “At first I disagreed completely,” she told Ynet. “What do I have to do with the rabbinate? But then a friend explained to me that since we had witnesses at our ceremony, according to halacha, we are considered married and I cannot get re-married without a final rabbinical divorce.”

Rather than mark this chapter in her life with the bitter taste of surrendering to the religious institution, Shavit decided to create a fun and entertaining video that celebrates life while subtly (or maybe not so subtly) mocking the rabbinate. The video, which can be seen here or below is making the rounds of the Israeli Internet, and, I might add, is somewhat addictive. The music is blues style while the lyrics, which Shavit wrote herself, have include, “I’m going to dance on the steps of the rabbinate” and “If I got married civilly, I don’t know why I don’t have a choice now, and I don’t understand what I’m doing at the rabbinate.”

The video, which has well-planned and well-timed choreography for a private divorce project, is filled with flamenco dancers, break-dancers, a charming belly dancer, and even a pole dancer — all friends of hers signing along as they dance at the steps of the Tel Aviv rabbinate. The clip was filmed on Shabbat, so thankfully there were no rabbis around to watch the licentiousness.

Despite the couple’s multiple marriage ceremonies, both Shavit and her now-ex-husband were listed as “single” in the Ministry of Interior. In the Kafka-esque world of marital-status-by-rabbinate-rules, it is nothing short of astounding how easily people can fall into the status of marriage and how difficult it is to exit the marriage. Marriage in Israel has become like the Hotel California — you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

My daughter Avigayil, who helped me prepare this column and who is currently in 12th grade and about to enter the wide world, where things like marriage and divorce will become part of her life, also had a hard time coping with this story. “Have we totally forgotten that this country is not only Jewish but also democratic?” she wrote to me. She called the relationship between citizens and religion a “one-way street” in which the religious establishment can force people to do whatever it wants.

“There should be an alternate option — and not just for the non-Jews,” she concluded. “‘Hijacking’ people’s marriage rights is not only pointless if there is an attempt to change ones religious views, but also creates an ‘anti’ view, like in this story. If only the rabbinate could lay back, relax and let others take their own definition of religion to their weddings, who knows, maybe Vered Shavit would have actually wanted to get married through the religious tradition by her own free will.”

Although the thought of sending my children out into this oppressive system fills me with countless fears, I am also left with a certain optimism that the next generation, with their fresh awareness of right and wrong, may yet have the energy and idealism to fight for real change.


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