In Israel, there is no true freedom of religion. Instead, religion and state are inextricably intertwined, and citizens who object to the coercion that causes are often singled out and punished – as appears to be the case here.
Above: Nathalie Lastreger
Eleven years ago, Nathalie Lastreger married for the second time, her first in Israel.
But unlike what most Israelis do because the law demands it, the Paris-born Lastreger did not marry through Israel's official state Chief Rabbinate, which is haredi-controlled. Instead, she married in a private illegal ceremony in Israel conducted by a Conservative rabbi. Part of her goal in doing that was to remove any potential divorce from the control of the Chief Rabbinate's rabbinical courts, which are notoriously hostile to women.
But Lastreger, now 48-years-old and about to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi, got the surprise of her life when she received a court summons from the Chief Rabbinate's Jerusalem Rabbinical Court in June, demanding she present herself and proceed with her divorce through the Rabbinate's auspices.
At first, Lastreger ignored the summons. After all, what control does the Chief Rabbinate legally have over the dissolution of an illegal private marriage that was never registered with it and which it does not recognize as valid?
But it turns out that a law passed in 2013 gives the haredi-controlled Chief rabbinate absolute control over Lastreger's divorce, no matter where she was married and who married her, and refusal to follow the Rabbinate's orders is a crime. Lastreger could be jailed for as much as two years for refusing to litigate her divorce in the Rabbinate's court.
A restraining order preventing her from leaving the country was issued. Then on July 3, the rabbinical court issued a warrant for Lastreger's arrest.
What many people including Lastreger agree on is that she is being singled out for especially harsh treatment by the haredi rabbis because of her connection to the Conservative Movement and because she was at one time reportedly the Director of Education and Public Policy for Women of the Wall (WoW). But that mistreatment could – and actually does – happen to many other people for a whole variety of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with the Conservative Movement, the Reform Movement or WoW.
Lastreger adamantly refuses to appear before the Rabbinate's rabbi-judges. She told the Times of Israel last week she is ready to go to jail if necessary. What is important her are the causes of true religious freedom and separation of religion and state.
She wrote a Hebrew-language Facebook post about her situation. It has been viewed more than 700,000 times, and Lastreger has been profiled in mainstream Hebrew media.
“People are talking about this. They’re saying, ‘rega, rega, rega [wait a minute], what does this mean for me?’ It’s unbelievable the number of people who are coming forward with their own horror stories. I’m against anarchy: there must be a civil path to marriage to prevent chaos. But if I’m already here in this situation, I’ll be civil marriage’s Rosa Parks,” she told the Times of Israel, which continues the story:
…[I]n June, Ella Cahan, the lawyer Lastreger had employed to oversee the breakup of the couple’s mutual property, tipped her off as to the seriousness of her case. Cahan advised Lastreger to immediately file for divorce in a civil court to avoid possible rabbinical jurisdiction on the couple’s capital.
“She warned me, based on other cases she had been involved in, that the rabbinate is going to go after me. She saved me,” said Lastreger.
Now, as Lastreger is preparing to face jail for her principles and to raise public awareness, lawyer Batya Kahana-Dror, head of Mavoi Satum, an organization that largely deals with agunot — women whose husbands refuse to give them a get — is negotiating Lastreger’s warrants and preparing an appeal to the Supreme Court.
“Nathalie’s struggle isn’t a private battle. This struggle highlights the impossible situation that Israeli citizens are living under in which their wedding ceremonies, whether religious or private, are rejected,” wrote Kahana-Dror, who is Modern Orthodox, in an email.
“Absurdly, the fact that Nathalie married in a halachic ceremony caused her to become a criminal because she didn’t cooperate with the state’s institutions,” she said.
“The State of Israel must understand the need for an immediate civil marriage registry which will grant citizens the religious freedom to choose the way in which they wish to commit to one another,” said Kahana-Dror.
Head of Itim Rabbi Seth Farber echoed Kahana-Dror’s outrage and said Lastreger’s case is “a great example of a broken system.”
Speaking from New York, Farber said the government passed a “ridiculous law” in 2013 making a private chuppa illegal. (There is a growing trend, especially among modern Orthodox, of couples choosing to bypass the rabbinate with alternative wedding ceremonies. Taking the issue into Israel’s mainstream, Channel 2 reported last week that both the couples and those performing the ceremony could face up to two years in jail.)
“The consensus then was that it would never be applied. But having gone unchecked, the next government doesn’t even understand the original intent and pursues the letter, if not the law,” said Farber.
He warned, however, that if two Jews want to get divorced in Israel, it is legally entirely in the jurisdiction of the rabbinate to decide how. “Even if they were married in Cyprus, the rabbinate gets to decide.”