Monday, June 19, 2006

It's Time to End Civil Marriage

Here we go: a rare political post from me.

As you may know, I am a religious Jew. For some reason, many people assume that that means that I am in favor of imposing my religion on other people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Jews and Missionizing

The Jewish religion is perhaps unique in not only not caring whether other people are Jewish, but actively discouraging them from being so. Why? Because it isn't necessary.

Consider the following: Jews consist of priests (cohanim), levites, and lay persons. Only those descended from the tribe of Levi become either levites or priests, and only those descended from Aaron become priests.

The priests and levites have a very specific role in Judaism: to serve in the temple. Without a temple, the modern day distinctions between priests and lay people is that priests ascend before the congregation at prayer time and give over a blessing to the congregation, acting as a conduit for God's blessing. The levites job is simply to wash the hands of the priests before the blessing.

In return for this service, priests and levites get first crack at being called up to the torah during public torah reading. That's it.

I don't know a single lay person who has every said "I wish I was a priest". Do you know why? Because being a priest means being chosen to do more work. It doesn't earn them a higher place in heaven, and the small honor given to them at torah reading is not worth fighting over. Anyway, the priests minister to the people. If everyone is a priest, there are no people to minister to.

Jews consider themselves a nation of priests, who have special work to do in order to minister to the world. It's just a job, given to us by birth. It's like if a father asks one of his kids: go out and fetch me a chair. Ten kids fetching the chair doesn't do him any good, nor does it mean that the other nine kids who didn't fetch the chair are being neglected. OK, we may get a pat on the head afterwards for doing the work. But we also risk all that is associated with bungling the job.

Why on earth would you want to volunteer for that?

I tell you all this only to prove to you that I have no interest in imposing my will on others. Especially as a Jew, a religion whose people who have had others' wills painfully forced on theirs so often, I can tell you that I am a firm believer in the separation of church (or synagogue or mosque) and state.

That includes right here in Israel.

Marriage in Israel

One of the sad things about Israel is that it does not have rigorous separation between church and state. This is a huge problem, and stems from the dual nature of being both a democracy, yet having to ensure that the country remains a place where no majority will ever be able to make Jews and their practices feel unwelcome.

In Israel, there is no civil marriage, but the state forces anyone who wants to get married to do so via state sponsored religious unions. If you are Jewish, you must go through the rabbinate, and if you are Christian, through a church accepted and overseen by the state.

Unfortunately, the rabbinate is entirely religious, what you may call Orthodox. Other forms of Judaism, such as secular or Conservative, are not recognized by the rabbinate. So to get married if you're Jewish, you have to get married in a religious Jewish ceremony.

Various politicians have tried to change that over the years, and a new initiative is trying to claim that absence of civil marriage is a violation of human rights.

In my opinion, this is not addressing the heart of the problem, which is the tight linkage between church and state in Israel. If the state did not force everyone to go through a religious ceremony to get married, then there wouldn't be a problem. So the best solution is to introduce yet another state sponsored ceremony, a secular ceremony, right?

Civil Marriage


The best solution is to once and for all separate church and state, and end the state's hand in enforcing, deciding, or recognizing marriage, altogether. In other words, I propose the following, and not just for Israel, but for every country in the world:

End civil marriage.

By what right does any country or any state have the right to care or declare whether or not you are married? Why should they give a damn, or have any say in the matter?

Marriage is no business of government. People have sex and have babies, married or not married. Why should any government care whether or not you are married?

Marriage is a religious or a personal ceremony. It has nothing to do with what anyone thinks other than the people themselves or whatever personal religion, family, or organization that the people belong to.

Adultery and infidelity are religious and personal issues, not governmental ones. Excepting minors or rape, why should the government care whom you are sleeping with? If you want to sign a non-promiscuity contract when you get married in a religious ceremony, then it becomes a contractual issue, which the government can deal with.

The government doesn't interfere with property when you live together with roommates. Why should it suddenly interfere when you live together after a religious ceremony? If you want to sign an agreement indicating property rights when you get married, that's your business. If not, then the same laws for all property disputes should apply.

Homosexuals are fighting for civil rights to have state recognized civil marriage. Without civil marriage, you have no more problems with homosexual marriage. Do what you want, just as you do anyway.

The only thing that civil marriage does is ensure that two people are committed to continue to support a child after the sad event of a marriage ending. But consider the following.

One, it's not as if only formerly married people have obligations to children right now.

Two, we can end the stupidity of a husband being obligated to support children born by other men. A woman should take responsibility for having multiple sex partners and then not being able to identify the father of a child. Even if you want to offer some solution to alleviate impoverished women, it surely shouldn't automatically fall on the poor sap she is married to.

Three, religious marriage documentation can continue to be used as evidence of paternity until proven otherwise. Couples who have children without being married are no worse off than they are now.

All of the ridiculous rights given by the state to married people, like citizenship, tax relief, housing subsidies, and so on have no place in a secular society with a separation of church and state. A whole lot gets made much simpler.

People can continue to marry, as they will, and according to their personal religious choice. The same rule should apply to America as well as it applies to Israel.

Marriage is a religious issue and should have no jurisdiction by any state. It's time to end civil marriage.


Update: Just found this article arguing the same thing from three years ago on Slate.

And another one on Slate from 1997. Apparently my position is a libertarian one.

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Coldfoot said...

Might I suggest that separation of Church and State, and a State policy on marriage are not mutually exclusive.

Even secular societies are better off in the long run if children are raised by a mother and a father. Children from traditional families are not always well adjusted, but they tend to commit less crime, both petty and violent crime, than children from traditional families.

There are other social advantages to promoting traditional marriages.

Society, and hence the State, does have an interest in creating incentives, such as tax breaks, to promote traditional families.

I would venture a guess that most atheists would agree that children raised in traditional mother/father families are better off for it and would further agree that children are worse off in societies where the institution of marriage has broken down.

Where this view breaks down is when there are no children involved. Yes, adults do have a right to privacy and a right to non-interference by the State.

Furthermore, States have the obligation to treat everyone the same under the law. It would be near impossible, as well as unfair, to start making distinctions between couples without children and couples with children.

If the State has a policy that the marriage ceremony can only be conducted by a religious figure, that small portion of the law might be tinkered with, the entire law should not be scrapped.

It does not stand that because some people do not want to live within the confines of a traditional marriage that the institution should be redefined.

As part of a broad policy to keep society from breaking down the State should take steps to generally ensure the stability of the traditional family.

If two people want to live together as if they were married, but not be married, let them. They don't need to bring down a very successful institution because they don't want to feel different from their married friends.

MaksimSmelchak said...

Omayn, Chaver!


Yehuda Berlinger said...


I agree that my position is somewhat radical, but I think it is inevitable.

1. Marriage - I am not against marriage; in fact I am all for it. But I am against a secular body sticking its nose into my marriage: how it is performed, with whom it is performed, whether it is peformed, and how it ends.

If goverment want to encourage family units, that is a different matter.

2. Better off for society - There are all sorts of things that are better off for society, better off for individuals, and better off for kids, that I don't want the goverment prescribing or proscribing.

We don't need laws ensuring the parent make their kids exercize or eat healthy foods, either.

3. Mother and father - Let's say that children need two, not one or three committed loving parents, and that these parents should be of opposite sex. That's hardly a given, but let's say.

This doesn't mean that these parents are better off married or not married. Only together.

If you want goverment to encourage parents to stay together for the welfare of the children, give them a child subsidy every year that they are together. Divorce it from the idea of marriage. It is parents that need help, married or not married, and not only those who have undergone a religious ceremony.

However, if some evidence points to children being better adjusted in the traditional family model, these measurements are being made in the context of a society that condemns non-traditional relationships. The families involved are treated as outcasts to begin with; of course the children are going to be less well adjusted. That is hardly a fair measurement.

In societies where non-traditional families were also a norm, such as indigenous cultures and kibbutzim in Israel, the children were also well adjusted.


Friendless said...

Wow, curious. I am against marriage partially because of the religious overtones :-). My first long-term relationship involved a civil marriage, and the wedding part was a complete waste of time and money. My second long-term relationship didn't involve marriage at all and was a whole lot more convenient and successful. Your idea has merit.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I agree entirely. I was going to ask whether you're a radical libertarian until I got to the update. Of course, you don't have to wait for the state to change its the laws in order to ignore its marriage laws, whether you're religious or not.

The Middle-Wing Wacko said...

I agree with coldfoot. Marriage should most definitely be a religious matter not addressed by the state. But there should still be some legal encouragement by the for people to pair up, etc., out of a purely social interest in preserving the future of the nation.

The solution isn't to abolish civil unions, but to make these the only type of union that is either addressed by or referred to by the state's laws.

Let matrimony be a church thing, and civil unions be an entirely distinct type of contract that is purely a legal thing. I've written an article on this if you're interested. Well, actually the second half of the article addresses this.

Anonymous said...

The last but one line neatly expresses what is in my eyes the fundamental error in this discourse: marriage is not a religious issue. Marriage is a personal issue, a commitment between two people - only if these two people (or even one of them) are religious and percieve that commitment in a religious way does it become so, but religion is certainly not an essential aspect of marriage.

Civil marriage is a non-religious alternative for people who want to officialize their commitment to each other in some way. And there are reasons why anyone might want to do so: tradition, for one. That alone should be enough not to abolish it.

That doesn't mean I approve of all the aspects and consequences of civil marriage (I don't), but I can make the distinction between a good idea and its flawed execution.

Which brings me to my second point: I agree with many of Yehuda's sentiments but they are not arguments against civil marriage, as they are expressed here. It's not a good idea to abolish civil marriage because there are (many) aspects of it you disapprove of. It's a good idea to address those aspects themselves. Civil marriage, in essence, connects two people in a legally binding way. This can make many issues a lot easier to deal with, just as it might make that harder - I simply prefer to look at it from a glass-half-full point of view.