Reform, Conservative Challenge Orthodox Grip on Israeli Marriage

The Reform and Conservative movements are joining forces to challenge the monopoly of Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate to perform marriages.

The movements’ leaders announced this week that they will perform marriages that are outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.

While they already do so in individual cases, the announcement represents what the movements say is the first, “stopgap” measure in a steppedup campaign to change Israel’s matrimony laws.

They also acknowledge that the struggle against one of the state’s legal underpinnings will be difficult.

“We certainly know there’s going to be a long fight,” said Pinhas Vardin, president of the Conservative movement in Israel. “But if we managed to sit down with Yasser Arafat, then anything is possible.”

The Orthodox monopoly perpetuates a denial of basic human rights and of religious freedom, charged Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.

Israel’s Interior Ministry does not recognize Jewish marriages performed in Israel unless they are conducted under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate or of the fervently Orthodox.

Civil marriages, as well as non-Orthodox Jewish ones, are recognized only if they are performed abroad.

To marry, countless non-Orthodox couples, the majority of Israel’s population, must adhere to certain Orthodox traditions and rituals. These include determining a wedding date based on the bride’s menstrual cycle, classes on religious purity laws, a visit to the ritual bath and a traditional delineation of gender roles in the ceremony and marriage contract, the ketubah.

The Reform and Conservative movements said that in the last six months they have had about 150 requests for their ceremonies.

Some couples are drawn to their alternatives, they said, because they are forbidden by the Orthodox to marry, such as a Kohen, a member of the priestly class, and a divorcee.

‘DON’T FEEL THEY’RE PART OF THE CEREMONY’

An Orthodox marriage is also off-limits to an increasing number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are not considered Jewish by the Orthodox.

But most are drawn by the desire for a more modern and meaningful ceremony, they said.

“There are a growing number of young people with no (technical) difficulty in getting married at the rabbinate,” said Vardin. “But they don’t feel they are part of the ceremony and they want the feeling that it” belongs to them.

They are drawn to the two other movements, he said, “by the feeling that they are involved, even in writing the ketubah.”

“A majority of couples don’t understand the (Orthodox) ceremony,” said Conservative Rabbi Michael Gretz.

The Reform and Conservative representatives said the alternative ceremony they offer is unique, and proceeded to describe what many American Jews take for granted as an option.

They called it an integration of traditional style with egalitarian and personalized elements: The bride is able to participate actively in the ceremony and to give a ring to the groom; the ketubah has an egalitarian and personalized text; personal and creative motifs are permitted in the ceremony.

Regev, of the Progressive (Reform) movement, has argued in recent months that the problem of the Orthodox matrimonial monopoly will balloon as tens of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union are deprived of the “basic human right” to marry in the country in which they live.

And he has sharply attacked the Diaspora for not rallying to their defense and challenging the law on performing marriages.

In a recent interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, he called the Diaspora’s silence on the issue “hypocrisy,” particularly after its 1988 mobilization and battle over “Who is a Jew,” which succeeded in winning recognition of non-Orthodox converts as Jews under Israel’s Law of Return.

“The whole point (of the struggle) was to ensure their right not to be discriminated against in making Israel their home,” he said.

“I find it difficult to understand how these same individuals and groups can remain quiet in the face of these same people, for whom they fought, being denied the right (to marry and) establish families here,” he said.

Mean while, in their campaign for alternative wedding ceremonies, the two movements diverge on the question of the need for a civil marriage.

The Reform movement requires a couple to marry abroad in a civil ceremony as well as to participate in the Jewish ritual, so the couple will be registered in Israel as legally married.

The Conservative movement recommends it but does not require a civil ceremony.

The status of children is determined in Israel by the Jewish status of the mother and not affected by the performance of a civil marriage.

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