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New Religious Controversy Emerges in Israel over Divorcee Civil Wedding

A new religious controversy emerged here today as an earlier one that threatened a Cabinet spilt on the issue of conversions was being quashed. The Supreme Court held by a four-to-one majority today that a civil marriage contracted between a Coben and a divorced woman was legally valid. Religious law, which according to the Orthodox rabbinate is the only law applicable to marriage in Israel, expressly forbids such a union. A Cohen is a Jew presumably descended from the priestly tribe of Levi. The couple involved underwent a civil ceremony performed by a lawyer in his office. They signed the standard marriage contract form and followed the halachic (religious law) ritual that requires the passing of an object of value (ring) from bridegroom to bride. But the Ministry of Interior refused to recognize the marriage and the couple was forced to appeal to the Supreme Court. Observers here said the Ministry will now have to comply with the court’s verdict or precipitate a new cabinet crisis.

The Supreme Court meanwhile accepted the petition of Mrs. Helen Zeidmann, an American-born convert to Judaism, to withdraw her suit against the government for registration as a Jew. Mrs. Zeidmann was originally converted by a Reform rabbi in Tel Aviv. The Orthodox National Religious Party threatened to leave the coalition Cabinet if her conversion was upheld by the Supreme Court which was to render its decision tomorrow. Mrs. Zeidmann, under severe pressure from high government echelons, underwent a second conversion yesterday according to Orthodox rites and the matter was settled, at least for the time being. Her lawyer, A. Ben Menashe, withdrew from the case today. He said he had reason to believe that his client did not act of her own free will but under coercion. She was urged personally by President Zalman Shazar to accept Orthodox conversion, was visited by a delegation of Knesset members and other personalities yesterday and was apparently pressured by her neighbors at Kibbutz Nahal Oz to comply to avert a cabinet crisis. Sources here said Premier Golda Meir was behind the pressure campaign directed against Mrs. Zeidmann.

But the issue of non-Orthodox conversions has not been settled. Conversions performed by Reform or Conservative rabbis are not ruled out by Israel’s Law of Return as amended by the Knesset last March and the Labor Party has so far refused to give in to Orthodox demands that it initiate new legislation. The issue now developing shapes up as a contest between the Orthodox religious establishment which insists on its exclusivity in matters of marriage, divorce and conversion, and the Israel Supreme Court whose decisions so far have upheld the rights of individuals in such issues.

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