My wife and I are not legally married. A year and a half ago, we stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) and I placed a ring on her finger as two of my best friends looked on as our legal halachic witnesses. Overseeing everything was my father, an Orthodox American rabbi, who made sure that the ceremony was held according to Jewish ritual law and tradition.
The only problem was that my father was not recognized by the Israeli Rabbinate to perform such a ceremony. Despite serving as a community rabbi in the United States for more than a quarter of a century, and being a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, we knew from the get-go that he would not appear on the Rabbinate’s limited list of “approved rabbis, ” thus preventing our registering freely as a legally married couple in Israel.
There are ways of getting around this legal issue. An “approved” friend of my father could have signed off on the legal documents, serving merely as a “mashgiach,” overseeing that my father did not do anything against the Rabbinate’s standards. We could maybe have even tried networking to possibly receive temporary approval for this ceremony.
But after Rabbi David Stav lost the election (if it can be called that, I most certainly did not have the chance to vote) for Chief Rabbi, I began to lose faith in the institution.
As I wrote in the post linked above, I noticed that many of my secular friends often distanced themselves from anything that smacked of religion. I was shocked to discover how little people knew, or wanted to know, about Judaism.
It hurt to realize that a big reason for their shying away from Judaism probably had to do with the fact that in Israel, everything religious is in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. A body run largely by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinate has a monopoly over kashrut, weddings, funerals, divorce, and conversion.
The Rabbinate’s interpretation of Halacha is literally the law. Their version is very often much more stringent and unforgiving than what it ought to be, making Judaism undesirable — and in some cases — unattainable to many secular Jews. (And totally disconnected from Jews who choose to live a religious lifestyle according to the Conservative and Reform movements)
As my wife and I began trying to navigate our legal marriage conundrum, the absurdity of the situation became clear.
Why should my father, a recognized Orthodox rabbi in the United States, need a friend to oversee his performing of a religious ceremony? Why should any citizen of Israel be required to prove the worthiness of their certified rabbi for that matter — Orthodox or not? And why were we trying to bend over backwards to receive recognition from an institution that has denied recognition of conversion and marriage to many of our friends?
Jews have been getting married, and in general living a Jewish life, according to halachic law for thousands of years. To be sure, rabbis have served an important role as overseers and facilitators, but never as the law itself. Food prepared according to the laws of Kashrut is kosher, and a couple married in a traditional halachic ceremony is married — with or without a rabbi’s seal of approval.
While it might seem convenient to have a central body overseeing the marriage process to prevent future (religious) marriage snafus, this should not be the job of Israel’s legal system. The halachic system is filled with its own legal mechanisms (i.e., the ketubbah and witnesses, ) that serve as proof of Judaism and marriage to anybody who cares to see them.
In a state that prides itself on democracy and its varied population, giving the final say on the legal status of the most personal moments in its citizens’ lives to a central religious body that doesn’t even recognize rabbis that adhere to its own Orthodox law is baffling.
As we prepared for our big day, my wife and I came to realize that we needed to separate ourselves from this system, in the hopes of effecting change. We opted out of a Rabbinate sanctioned marriage, preferring instead to be married by my father in Israel, and later by a United States judge in a civil ceremony abroad.
A close friend once remarked that the job of the Rabbinate is to serve as the surgeon general of Israel’s spiritual and religious life. Much as the surgeon general is supposed to keep the citizens of his or her country healthy, so too the Rabbinate is supposed to keep the citizens of Israel engaged in Judaism. If the citizens are obese and unhealthy, the surgeon general has failed. If the people are disconnected from their heritage, and uninterested in Judaism, the Rabbinate has failed.
More than anybody else in the world, the citizens of the Jewish State deserve to live with an accessible Judaism – something that seems even further away after last week’s roll-back legislature. Until this is made possible, my wife and I will sleep easy at night knowing that we acted in accordance with our ideals and are married in accordance with the ways of Moses and Israel.
Even if (the State of) Israel does not legally approve.
The author and his wife are currently in the progress of receiving the required paperwork to change their legal status to married, after having been married in a civil ceremony in the United States.