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New Israeli Reality TV Show Makes a Powerful Enemy: The Chief Rabbinate

Can a show have two strangers marry on their first date? Not when the rabbis are calling the shots.

Eylon Aslan-Levy
November 06, 2017
Courtesy Keshet
Courtesy Keshet
Courtesy Keshet
Courtesy Keshet

Jews are no strangers to matchmaking, and now one Israeli TV show is putting a modern spin on that timeless tradition by matching up young couples—who meet for the first time under the chuppah. But unlike most of the countries where the reality show Married at First Sight has run, the weddings in the Israeli version are not legally binding, because there is no way for Jews to legally marry in Israel outside the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

It was never even considered to require participants to marry through the Rabbinate, chief producer Assaf Gil told Tablet Magazine the day after the season premiere, because it would be too complicated for the couples to divorce through the Rabbinate if the matches failed. Under Jewish (and therefore Israeli) marriage law, the TV-husband would have to pay his TV-wife alimony from their separation till divorce, including covering her rent; and if the TV-wife forgoes this right, she could be declared a “rebellious wife”. Following the divorce, the woman could never marry a Cohen. What is more, whereas in most jurisdictions a divorce can be granted by a judge against one partner’s will, Jewish divorces require the husband’s approval. As such, the bride would risk being “chained” in an unwanted marriage if the groom refuses a divorce.

Nor could the show perform halakhic Jewish weddings without following the dictates of the Chief Rabbinate. The weddings on the show, then, feature a chuppah and have the groom stepping on a glass, but there’s no ketubah or ring.

Bizarrely, even though Israel does not recognize Jewish marriages performed in the country without the consent of the Chief Rabbinate, the Rabbinate does recognize them for the purpose of divorce. If 34-year-old Tal, the show’s male protagonist, had placed a ring on 32-year-old Ahva’s finger and declared her betrothed “according to the laws of Moses and the Jewish people” in front of a mass television audience, the couple would still have to dissolve their technically unrecognized marriage through the Rabbinate if they decide to part ways.

Even more absurdly, it is a criminal offence in Israel to get married in a halakhic wedding without the Rabbinate’s consent, or to officiate such a wedding. Under a 2013 law, Jewish couples who wed in halakhic ceremonies outside the Rabbinate can be imprisoned for up to two years, along with the rabbi who ministered the wedding. Had Married at First Sight broadcast such a wedding, it would have exposed its participants to possible criminal prosecution.

In any case, it is impossible for Israelis to marry on the same day they meet, because they must open a marriage file together no later than 45 days before the wedding.

Even though the producers did not ask the Rabbinate for its approval, the Rabbinate made its disapproval clear anyway. During production, the Rabbinate said it viewed the show as “a kind of desecration of the supreme value of family life and marriage,” warning that the show’s participants were liable to place their own personal status, as well as that of their children, under serious “halakhic doubt.”

Adapting international television formats to the local screen always means dealing for the quirks of a country’s peculiar culture. For the producers of the Israeli version of Married at First Sight, the big surprise was just how many Israelis were willing to take part in the televised social experiment of using expert biologists find them a spouse.

Speaking to Tablet, producer Assaf Gil revealed that in the first stage, members of the public were invited to take part in a matchmaking show; only in the second stage were they told they would tie the knot at first sight. “Here we encountered something different from abroad: People were surprisingly willing to take part,” said Gil. “We thought that about a third or so would say, ‘Thank you and goodbye, not interested.’ That didn’t happen.” Instead, very few participants walked out of the show at this point.

Part of the reason, according to Gil, is that Israelis are substantially more open to things “outside the box” than Europeans—they are more easygoing and willing to take their chances on exciting but risky ventures. But producers also vastly underestimated the gravity of the dating crisis in Israel. “There are people who really want to get married, and it just doesn’t happen,” he explains, saying that even “wonderful people with a successful career” struggle to form serious relationships. He pins the blame largely on dating apps, such as Tinder, which give people the illusion of vast choice and which make it more difficult for young people to be satisfied with available potential partners. In such a tough dating scene, marriage at first sight is hardly the worst option.

Episode 2 of “Married at First Sight” will be broadcast tonight on Keshet (Channel 12).

Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.