On August 23, 1953, the government discussed a proposed law that would give the rabbinate a monopoly over the marriages and divorces of Jews. A few cabinet ministers, among them justice minister Pinchas Rosen, opposed granting exclusivity over marriages to Orthodox rabbis, on the grounds that they are unnecessarily strict.
Among other things, the cabinet discussed the demand by marriage officiants that the bride bathe in a mikveh (ritual bath) before the marriage ceremony. The deputy prime minister, Moshe Sharett, related that his mother, who got married in Ukraine, his own wife, who married in London, and his daughter, who married in the United States, were not required to do so, even though they were married in Orthodox ceremonies.
Golda Meir, the minister of labor, called the demand for ritual baths "savagery, and I don't know whether they ever observed this even in the Middle Ages." And she added: "Now I want to say that there is also proteksia (favoritism) in these matters. My daughter got married and she didn't go through this procedure. The whole procedure of the rabbi who performed her marriage ceremony was humane and simple and it dignified the occasion. But there are girls who don't have a mother or a father in the government, and they have to go through this whole path, which is a shame and a disgrace."
Meir continued: "I know that many Knesset members, and I among them, are facing a question of conscience: 'How is it possible to raise a hand and vote in favor of a law like this?" But in the end, both Sharett and Golda voted in favor of the law.
David Ben-Gurion himself said at the cabinet meeting that "we passed it [the Marriage and Divorce Law] with love. In so doing, we have not done the religious a favor, but rather we have done what is incumbent on the leaders of the Jewish people."
Eventually, however, he changed his mind and supported instituting civil marriage. In an interview with students who belonged to the Labor Party, he admitted: "I made a big mistake: marriage under the rabbis' law." Later on, he told them that his son Amos had married a Christian woman who was converted to Judaism by a Reform rabbi in England. When his granddaughter was about to get married, the rabbis "made trouble for her," but the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Shlomo Goren, officiated at her wedding.
One of the results of Ben-Gurion's mistake is the agreement that was reached by Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, which makes civil marriage possible in cases where neither member of the couple is Jewish under rabbinical law, but they are also not defined as belonging to any other religion.
First, this agreement makes outcasts of those who, in the minister's language, "might well be viewed by the secular public as Jews in every respect." Secondly, and this is far more serious, it grants the Chief Rabbinate exclusive authority in matters of conversion. The High Court of Justice has already ruled that the state is obligated to recognize conversions that are carried out abroad by non-Orthodox movements, and it is expected at some point to hand down a ruling that authorizes Reform and Conservative conversions conducted in Israel as well.
Under the new agreement, non-Orthodox conversions will not be recognized in Israel. Moreover, in response to the recommendations of the Ne'eman Committee, conversion institutes were established to implement conversion procedures that would be acceptable to all three streams in Judaism. Ariel Sharon, during his tenure as prime minister, also acted to advance friendlier conversion procedures. To this end, he set up the conversion system headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, who established rabbinical courts that acted strictly in accordance with rabbinic law, but where converts were accepted warmly and the rabbis did not impose unnecessary hardships. All of these innovations may come to an end as well.
The agreement does stipulate that nothing in it "changes the methods of conversion that are practiced today," but these words provide no consolation. A few months ago, Rabbi Amar published exceedingly strict rules for conversion, which at that time had no validity. Now, they will be granted legal validity.
Will the Friedmann-Amar proposal pass in the Knesset? We have already seen those who impose such heavy burdens on us are never hurt by it themselves. For them, a way to bypass the letter of the law will always be found.
The author is a lecturer at Tel Aviv University's law school.