The Shabbat elevator. Considered by some ingenious. Considered by others a symbol of religious hypocrisy. No matter your opinion, the automated lift, stopping at every floor with no need for a rider to press a button, is an iconic loophole in Jewish law. Rabbinical experts invent many loopholes: the eruv virtual boundary that permits carrying on the sabbath, the “shabbos goy” who can perform forbidden labor on sabbath, and, on Passover, the ritual selling of hametz.
These loopholes make being religious easier and help keep observers observant. Rabbis who excel at finding loopholes are the most respected among their ultra-Orthodox communities. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Halperin, founder and executive director of the Institute for Science and Halacha, is a highly respected rabbi on Halachic analysis. Considered a modern sage, he invented the Shabbat elevator, disappearing-ink pens for Shabbat, and other technologies that circumvent biblical injunctions.
While such circumnavigation has historically been inside the purview of the religious authorities, rank and file Israelis are increasingly resorting to work-arounds in order to to deal with today’s rabbinate, which rules with a very narrow interpretation of Jewish law. While the debate continues over Israel’s fate as a religious versus democratic country, Israelis are getting better and better at leveraging the loopholes.
‘Ephraim’ (the names are changed in this post to protect identities), a religiously-observant American who immigrated to Israel twenty-five years ago, has been asked several times to be a witness at weddings. In contrast to the U.S., being a witness in Israel is complex. The Israeli rabbinate requires two male witnesses unrelated to the bride to testify to her Jewishness and singleness/virginity. The witnesses must be men, must have known the bride and her mother for an extended amount of time in order to corroborate the bride being born of a Jewish mother, and they are sometimes required to be observant.
The first person who asked Ephraim to testify was Sheila, a friend of more than fifteen years. Sheila and Ephraim had grown up together in Young Judea, were active at their campus Hillel, and had made Aliyah within a couple months of each other. The problem – Ephraim had never met Sheila’s mother. Ephraim knew that when the rabbinic judges would ask if he knew Sheila’s mother they would disqualify his testimony if he said no, and Sheila would not be able to get married in Israel with her Jewish identity in doubt.
Not wanting to be a false witness, but wanting to help Sheila, Ephraim found a loophole. From northern Israel, Ephraim called Sheila’s mother in the U.S. and they had a quick conversation. A week later, Ephraim testified at the Rabbinate for Sheila. The Rabbis asked Ephraim a series of questions about his relationship with the bride-to-be. Finally when asked “Do you know the bride’s mother?” Ephraim was able to truthfully respond, “Yes, I just spoke to her last week!”
For new immigrants, finding someone to testify can be difficult because many don’t have deep roots or long-term friendships in the country. However, by leveraging loopholes it is possible. Sheila was married a couple of weeks later and her mother brought Ephraim a thank-you present.
Weddings are not the only situations in which Israelis need to find loopholes in the Rabbinate’s system in order to proceed with their lives. Divorce can also require creative thinking. There are the horror stories of women being denied a get, the religious decree of divorce; however, there are other issues that can arise around divorce, such as the following instance with a modern-Orthodox couple.
Even though they were immigrants from the U.S., Uri and his wife, Sara, had a simple marriage process. Their divorce was smooth, but problems arose when Sara wanted to remarry. Following their divorce, Sara got engaged to a Cohen, but she couldn’t legally marry him, because Halacha forbids Cohens, descendants of high priests, to marry divorcees. They considered a Cyprus wedding, which would give them the foreign marriage license that Israel is legally bound to recognize, however, this would leave their future children in a seriously compromised status from the halachic standpoint. It was important to Sara that her children be considered Cohens and therefore Sara needed a loophole to invalidate her previous marriage.
Uri, Sara’s ex-husband, explained there are many ways to annul a marriage: Claim that the wedding wasn’t valid, claim that we weren’t married, that I wasn’t Jewish, that I wasn’t a male, that one of the witnesses made a mistake, that the witnesses weren’t kosher or weren’t observant. In the end, Sarah got her first marriage annulled with a combination of loopholes transferring her file to a different city’s rabbinate, and leveraging a significant political connection that pressured rabbis.
Being observant, Sara felt it was important that Jewish law, in its formality, be maintained. Sara vaguely explained the loopholes to Uri, by saying, “There are seventy faces to the Torah. It is just a matter of who you know that is willing to apply that specific interpretation that helps you.”
These loopholes are not only necessary in life, but also in death – as Mark and his wife discovered. Mark, also an immigrant, explained that his wife’s grandmother was distressed at the prospect of being buried without her dentures. “I suppose she felt that she was incomplete or perhaps helpless without them,” Mark told me. When Mark’s wife inquired whether her grandmother could be buried with dentures, the Hevra Kadisha (society that prepares bodies for burial according to Jewish tradition) said that this was not allowed since the body leaves the world as purely as it entered. However, the representative continued to say that if someone at the graveside accidentally dropped the dentures into the casket, the gravediggers would not notice.
As Israelis become more secular, the Rabbinate becomes more stringent. Many are looking for ways to work around the Rabbinate and to make the institution irrelevant. But until the institution is either disbanded or becomes more inclusive, individuals will continue to find ways to outsmart the Rabbinate within the same system that the institution claims for itself. Working with the Rabbinate simply becomes a matter of finding ways to use Jewish law against the institution, of beating them at their own game, of finding ways to out-rabbi the Rabbis. If excelling at finding loopholes is a mark of being an excellent Jewish thinker, then someone who gets around the Rabbinate’s strict laws could be our generation’s next great sage.