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Focus on Issues in Israel, Pressure Builds to Find Alternatives to Orthodox Marriage

May 10, 2004
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When Galit Weidman Sassoon got engaged last year, her thoughts turned to the kind of wedding ceremony she and her fianc wanted — meaningful, egalitarian and Jewish.As secular Jews, Weidman Sassoon said the couple felt alienated from Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment and wanted a ceremony in which they both could participate fully — from drafting the ketubah to blessing each other while exchanging rings.

In Israel, however, the only Jewish weddings recognized by the state are Orthodox. There is no civil marriage in Israel, and Jews who choose to marry in Conservative and Reform ceremonies are not considered officially married. In recent years, however, there has been a groundswell of couples seeking alternatives to Orthodox marriage. About one-fifth of Israeli couples now are marrying outside of the rabbinate, according to Freedom of Choice in Marriage, a Jerusalem-based umbrella organization of civil rights groups.

“I was not prepared to even think of having someone from the rabbinate marry us, because it binds me to a ceremony that discriminates against women,” said Weidman Sassoon, 33, a doctoral student in linguistics at Tel Aviv University. “It’s hard to comprehend in a democratic country that one of the most basic rights people have — that of marrying according to their beliefs — is denied.”

Israel’s main wedding season begins this week following Lag B’Omer. The debate over marriage is especially urgent given that an estimated half-million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not considered Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish religious law, cannot marry in Israel.

Also affected are male kohenim, or descendants of the priestly caste, who are forbidden under halacha to marry divorced women. The halacha also places marriage restrictions on the children of adulterous unions.

Largely because of the conundrum posed by the immigrants, pressure is building on politicians and a Knesset committee that may pave the way toward civil marriage.

Many Israeli couples fly to Cyprus and marry in civil ceremonies now so common that they have become a booming business for the Cypriot economy. But such travel often is too expensive for young couples, and new immigrants in particular.

Civil ceremonies performed abroad are recognized in Israel, as are marriages performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis overseas.

Though marriages by non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel aren’t legally recognized, courts often give the couples common-law status. Still, many Israelis, like Weidman Sassoon and her husband, choose to have two marriages: One in Israel with a non-Orthodox rabbi that is personally meaningful, and a civil ceremony abroad that is legally binding.

“It’s absurd that a person married by a Reform rabbi has to then be married by a non-Jewish clerk abroad,” said Rabbi Meier Azri, the senior rabbi at Beit Daniel, a large Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv.

But figures in the country’s Orthodox establishment argue that because Israel is the Jewish state and sets the standard for Jewish observance around the world, only Orthodox Jewish ceremonies can be legally sanctioned here.

If other marriages are recognized by the state the way Orthodox marriages are, the state would be “conveying a distorted message in regard to Jewish law,” said Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Am Echad, an Orthodox media resource organization.

He said Conservative and Reform movements “may be movements made of Jews, but they are not Judaism as traditionally understood because of a lack of allegiance to Jewish law.”

Some matters in Jewish law are not up for debate or interpretation, he said, citing marriage and prohibitions on driving on the Sabbath.

Azri, however, said he has seen a “revolution” in the demand for Reform marriages. His synagogue marries some 600 to 700 couples a year, and the numbers keep rising, he said.

The law doesn’t affect only Jews. Only people of the same religion can marry each other in Israel, a legal practice that dates to the time of Turkish rule and then the British Mandate. Under both regimes, religious authorities — whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim — had sole jurisdiction over marriage.

To date it has been impossible to pass legislation endorsing freedom in marriage ceremonies, in part because of the clout of Israel’s religious parties. In March, another such bill was solidly defeated on the Knesset floor, but one of its initiators said advocates would not be deterred.

“We will keep pushing for our legislation, even if it has a slim chance of passing, because it gets the issue on the public agenda,” said Zamira Segev, Freedom of Choice in Marriage’s coordinator.

The issue was prominent on Shinui’s platform last year when the party won a whopping 15 Knesset seats.

Ronny Brison, Shinui’s coordinator for issues of religion and state, now is on the Knesset committee seeking a solution for the marriage issues of some 300,000 to 400,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to halacha, or do not have documentation to prove their Jewishness.

“It’s hard to change the Orthodox monopoly because it’s enshrouded in much psychology and mysticism. Those who are against it are those who say it will end the Jewish nation, that it’s breaking up the country,” Brison said. “These are not arguments that stand the test of logic or law and a pluralistic democratic outlook,” but they carry weight “in a country that struggles with how to define itself.”

As alternatives to Orthodox weddings become more socially acceptable, so too do their place in popular culture. The women’s magazine “L’Isha” featured information on ceremony options in its most recent issue, and information booths by civil rights organizations now are a standard feature of wedding fairs where couples shop for caterers and DJs.

Rabbi Ehud Bendel, president of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement in Israel, said couples are looking to inject meaning into ceremonies that in some cases have become afterthoughts.

“For most Israelis, the chuppa takes place in a corner where some pay attention but most people are chatting, drinking, and smoking,” Bendel said. “We are trying to bring the ceremony into the center of the evening and have the couple be active partners in shaping the character of the ceremony.”

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