JERUSALEM (AP) — Rabbi Chuck Davidson is a criminal in the eyes of Israeli law. However, he wouldn't be put behind bars for his crime in most countries. His offense: conducting rogue weddings in defiance of Israel's Chief Rabbinate.
Even though Davidson belongs to the officially recognized Orthodox stream of Judaism, he is among a growing cohort of Jewish groups running afoul of the law by performing weddings without the rabbinate's sanction. Critics like Davidson believe the rabbinate has grown too strict in its interpretation of religious law, making it unnecessarily difficult for Jewish couples to marry.
"More and more Israelis are getting married outside the rabbinate," said Michal Berman, chief executive of Panim, an umbrella group representing Israeli Jewish pluralist organizations. Its affiliates perform Orthodox, liberal and secular weddings in defiance of the rabbinate.
Berman said that an estimated 20 percent of Israelis are getting married outside the rabbinate, compared to 16 percent in 2010. She expects that number to keep growing, which she considers a sign of a growing lack of faith in the religious body. "There are plural ways of being Jewish and it's better to acknowledge it," Berman said.
Israel does not have a system of civil marriage, and Israeli law mandates that Jewish marriages must be conducted by a rabbi authorized by the Chief Rabbinate. That means Jewish couples wanting to marry in Israel have little choice but to undergo an Orthodox marriage.
An amendment to Israel's marriage law passed in 2013 made the punishment for anyone performing or taking part in an unsanctioned wedding two years in prison. Shortly thereafter, Davidson, a 58-year-old American-born Israeli rabbi, started performing renegade weddings. He said he has conducted over 170 since then.
"An Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas has more meaning to the state than me, an Orthodox rabbi," said Davidson.
The existing marriage law prevents interfaith and same-sex weddings. It also rejects ceremonies conducted by more liberal streams of Judaism popular with American Jews.
Interfaith, same-sex and civil marriages performed abroad, however, are recognized retroactively by Israel's Interior Ministry, making nearby Cyprus a popular destination for secular Israeli weddings. Israel also recognizes common law spouses who share a home, though they don't have the same rights as married couples.
A poll conducted earlier this year by Hiddush, an organization pushing for religious pluralism in Israel, found that over 70 percent of Israelis support civil marriage.
Davidson has moved into an area where even Jewish men and women who ostensibly meet the rabbinate's standards run into problems trying to get hitched.
Such couples may lack documentation, such as their parents' wedding certificate, proving their Jewishness. Some turn to the rebel rabbi out of frustration with dealing with the rabbinate. Others may do it on principle.
He estimates around 400,000 Israeli Jews — or roughly 6 percent of the Jewish population — have "no marriage options" because they do not meet the rabbinate's stringent standards.
One Ethiopian Jewish woman who was married by Davidson in October said she objected in principle to the manner in which the rabbinate demands proof of Judaism.
"We're both certifiably Jewish," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for possible legal complications. She and her husband could have legally married through the rabbinate, "but we don't believe in the institution itself," she said. "I have no problem in principle with proving someone's Judaism, but the very concept of how the rabbinate perceives Ethiopian Jews is problematic for me, and I'm not willing to cooperate with an institution that doesn't consider me Jewish." Nonetheless, she said it was important for them to marry according to Jewish tradition.
The group Havaya helps Jewish couples marry outside the rabbinate by organizing wedding ceremonies for partners who are recognized as common-law couples.
Havaya Director Inbar Oren said the organization has conducted several thousand weddings since it was established in 2007, allowing interfaith and same-sex couples in Israel to enjoy more egalitarian or secular ceremonies than the rabbinate permits.
"People are looking for a solution to their situation," said Oren.
While sending a defiant message, these weddings are not a complete solution. Because they are not legally binding, the couples must still either go abroad or go to the rabbinate for a private ceremony. The Ethiopian woman, for instance, said she and her husband are weighing recognition as a common law couple or flying to Cyprus for a civil ceremony.
No one in Israel has been arrested or charged with participating in an illegal marriage, but Oren and Davidson wish someone would.
"I don't hide this, I do this over the radar, I am hoping to be arrested," Davidson said, saying it would raise awareness "of how insane this is."
He said he's confident the Supreme Court would rule against the law: "If not I'll sit in jail."