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Leading Rabbi Faces Sharp Criticism over Proposal to Allow Civil Marriage

A proposal by one of Israel’s best-known rabbis to permit civil marriage has drawn a predictable flurry of criticism from most representatives of the Orthodox and haredi, or fervently Orthodox, establishments. Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Haifa and a likely candidate in the national Chief Rabbinate election next year, suggested the idea in an interview with Amudim, the periodical of the Religious Kibbutz Movement. He confirmed it during a radio interview by phone from Prague this week, in which he stressed that civil marriage is wrong according to halacha, or Jewish law.

But instituting it for those who wish it might help to prevent worse halachic tragedies, resulting from couples’ failure to dissolve their halachic marriages by halachic divorce.

Cohen made it clear he was raising the idea for further discussion by the Chief Rabbinate Council, the “Cabinet” of rabbis that functions as an advisory body for the two chief rabbis.

Israeli law provides for only religious marriage in Israel: Jewish marriage (exclusively by Orthodox rabbis) for Jews; Moslem for Moslems and Christian for Christians. The issue is a constant cause of controversy in the Orthodox- secular debate that runs through Israeli society.

The two chief rabbis of Israel, Mordechai Eliahu and Avraham Shapira, quickly distanced themselves from Cohen’s proposal, while Knesset member Avraham Ravitz, of the United Torah Party, termed it “shocking.”

The proposal was also strongly opposed by Cohen’s Sephardic colleague in Haifa, Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron (who is likely to be a candidate for Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel in next year’s election) and by the secretary of the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Eitan Eiseman, who said the 10-man Chief Rabbinate Council had never considered it.

Haredi circles linked Cohen’s move to his electoral ambitions.

It was welcomed, though, in non-Orthodox circles, where the present law has long been opposed as enshrining the Orthodox monopoly and denying pluralism in Israeli religious life. Amir Shaham, head of the Center for Jewish Pluralism, praised Cohen for his “courage.”

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