A recent item in Haaretz reported that 20,000 Israelis spurn the rabbinate and marry abroad annually. A source in the article suggests that 40 percent of those couples were eligible for marriage by the chief rabbinate and chose otherwise. Also quoted in that article was a representative of the trend: "We have nothing against religion We wanted an experience, not a complicated procedure." It seems it was not the religious nature of the ceremony that she was rejecting, rather it was the bureaucratic and technocratic procedures required by the Israeli rabbinate.
It may not only be the rabbi behind the desk at the registrar who is more clerk than cleric; many rabbis focus exclusively on the technical halakhik requirements of the wedding under the chuppah, too. This is not surprising when we note that, as opposed to thousands of years of Jewish history where weddings were performed by the local community rabbi, here in Israel the rabbi may not have ever met the couple before. Certainly the bylaws governing the system assume that there need be no emotional nor spiritual affinity between the rabbi and the couple - after all, the list of approved rabbi’s for performing weddings is very specific and limited. This limitation does not only affect secular Jews in Israel; it has painful effects on Orthodox couples as well. I remember the forlorn face of a close student when I had to break the news that I could not perform his wedding because he had opened his file in Tel Aviv, and not in Jerusalem where I was approved.
The rabbinical organization Tzohar has made some progress addressing these gaps. By facilitating weddings with friendly rabbis who volunteer their time in the interest of improving the public image of Torah, they have at least shifted for many the experience under the chuppah. But the voluntary nature of the project does not present a model that is sustainable as a true alternative on a national level to the Chief Rabbinate It will take a lot more than a nicer option to bring about real change there.
The most heartbreaking part of this story is the loss of a golden opportunity to connect people to their tradition. After all, a wedding is about love, and who does not want their wedding to be beautiful and meaningful? As a rabbi who performs weddings regularly, many for a non-religious crowd, I have found that there is an open and engaged posture towards tradition at this special time. There is hardly a moment when hearts are more open than that holy moment with a bride and groom under the wedding canopy. It is a time of joining, and if the rabbi is attuned to the spiritual energy and potential at that moment, he can work a very special magic, bringing a bit of holiness and closeness to everyone there.
But, alas, many rabbis know little about making connections with others - maybe they care little for it. They have been taught and tested on the laws of weddings, and their institutions have been taught and tested in the hall of politics and administration. Instead of bringing the light and love of God to this holy covenant, they bring the ledgers and the law. I do not imagine God feels well represented.
The ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, is a legal document regarding the fiscal commitments of the marriage. It is procedural, legal, cold. It is required, but it is not the essence. The true document to the bond of marriage is to be found in the eyes of the bride and groom, in the timbre of their voices, in the shining faces of their family and friends. That ketubah is needed, but what every rabbi and rabbinate needs to remember is that after all is said and done, it is not about the words in the ketubah, rather it is about that ineffable mystery that lies between the lines.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.