Yoav and Ayala both grew up in Jerusalem, and both their families were active in Kol Haneshama, a Reform synagogue here. They each celebrated their bar and bat mitzvah, respectively, at the synagogue, where they enjoyed the spiritual guidance of Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman. A romance between these two fabulous young adults developed, and when they decided to get married, they naturally wanted their rabbi to officiate at the ceremony. This event took place this week near Jerusalem.
But Yoav and Ayala's marriage by Rabbi Weiman-Kelman will not be recognized by the State of Israel, which sanctions only Orthodox marriage ceremonies presided over by Orthodox rabbis authorized by the Chief Rabbinate. Yoav and Ayala's wedding ceremony was rich in Jewish tradition, liturgy and spirituality - nevertheless, it will not render them legally married here in the Jewish state.
And so, before this week's wedding, Yoav and Ayala did what many couples either choose or are forced to do: They had a civil marriage abroad, as civil marriages from abroad are recognized by the state. Not only are Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or other Jewish alternative ceremonies not recognized in Israel, but there is no option for civil marriage, either. Among the Russian community living in Israel, the approximately 350,000 of whose members are of uncertain religious Jewish status have no choice but to marry abroad. There is new legislation that offers one exception to this rule: In cases where both members of the couple do not meet halakhic standards of Jewishness (even if they legitimately came to Israel under the Law of Return ), they are permitted to marry here according to a category defined by the Interior Ministry as a "civil partnership agreement."
Ironically, these presumed non-halakhic Jews have to have that status certified by the rabbinate - in and of itself a humiliating bureaucratic ordeal. However that may be, this policy may ease the way for a handful of couples in Israel each year. It clearly does not solve the basic problem.
Yoav and Ayala had a beautiful civil ceremony in Washington, D.C., in late June, at the residence of the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren. Michael is Yoav's father. So it turns out that the son of Israel's ambassador to the United States could not be married in Israel by the rabbi of his choice because that rabbi belongs to the Reform movement. Is this a big deal? I think so. Any couple may opt to have a wedding party overseas for personal reasons - but they should not have to do so.
How much longer are we going to put up with this absurd situation? Approximately 20 percent of Israeli Jews do not marry under the auspices of the state rabbinate, most of them through lack of choice. The most popular destination for Israelis who opt for or are forced into a civil ceremony is Cyprus, and the Hebrew-language Internet is chock full of Cyprus marriage packages. It's a phenomenon.
The late Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, with his Shinui party, and more recently Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitenu, in their campaign platforms, both pledged to bring civil marriage to Israel. Neither succeeded (aside from the recent minor exception mentioned above ). Coalition politics and the power of the ultra-Orthodox parties blocked them. Most of Israel's Jewish Knesset members are secular or somewhat traditional, but that majority has done nothing to change the status quo. Why do we allow this non-democratic situation to continue?
People may feel irritated by the restrictions, but when they are immersed in other marriage preparations, they usually just take a deep breath and either opt to accept the dictates and authority of the Orthodox rabbinate (many now use the slightly more user-friendly Tzohar rabbis ), or choose another option. Some may decide on a common-law partnership. Some couples will marry with an Orthodox rabbi and then supplement the ceremony with the rabbi or spiritual leader of their choice. Or they go abroad for a civil marriage, and then have the meaningful Jewish ceremony when they return home.
Those who opt for a civil marriage abroad and later decide to divorce cannot do even that in a civil court; the divorce has to go through the Chief Rabbinate, which is predominantly ultra-Orthodox and has a poor track record regarding women's rights. This leads to a not insignificant aguna problem (literally, a "chained woman," referring to women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce ).
I myself am Orthodox, but I hope that my kids, when they get married, will opt for a ceremony in which they combine traditional and original elements. The Jewish wedding ceremony is a ritual that connects us to the generations of our ancestors and resonates deep in our souls. But I also hope that my children will bring, for example, a bit more egalitarianism to the ceremony. Depending on what they choose, they too may require a civil ceremony abroad and only then a modified Orthodox wedding here. For even those Orthodox rabbis who are inclined to allow certain alternative elements in the ceremony are being watched, and have to be careful about what they do and don't do to avoid risking their eligibility to officiate.
The "Take 2" wedding event this week for Yoav and Ayala was truly lovely and moving. But if circumstances in this country were different, this should have been the only wedding they had.
Naomi Schacter is associate director of Shatil, an initiative of the New Israel Fund.
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