Todd Berman

I am against non-Orthodox marriage and why you shouldn’t care!

I recently submitted a request to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for permission to perform a wedding here. As in the past, I suspect that receiving the coveted permit won’t be a major hurdle. I have performed several weddings in the Jewish State and equipped with my Orthodox semikha it probably won’t be much of an issue. I only perform weddings following the strictest Orthodox standards and only for former students so there are neither legal nor power issues with the Chief Rabbinate. Everything is by the book and all should be easy.

And therein lies the disgrace. I don’t agree with many of the approaches of non-Orthodox Judaism and I certainly would not collaborate in a secular marriage ceremony. I could list a host of disagreements I have with my non-Orthodox friends and, indeed, I think that would make an interesting religious discussion. But my Israeli friends shouldn’t care. That is called democracy. People should be entitled to their own religious (even non-religious) positions.

Constantly, news stories run about couples who opt to marry outside of Israel either because of legal complications or out of desire not to be forced to follow Orthodox Jewish law. In the latest case, as reported in Ynet, a couple lamented that the issue of personal freedom doesn’t have a larger place in Israeli political discourse, “We had the option of a religious wedding in Israel, but we don’t believe in involving religion in the ceremony.”

And although, as an Orthodox rabbi, I don’t think they are ultimately “right” according to Jewish law, I do think they should have the “right” in a democracy. Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona (Ran, 1320-1376) presents one of the clearest traditional sources for dividing the rule of law of state agencies and Halacha. In his famous sermons (sermon no. 11) he argues that the ideal Jewish political structure consists of both a non-Halachic authority (the King) and the pristine rabbinic courts. “Therefore, the appointment of [religious court] judges was to judge strictly according to the laws of the Torah, for they are just in their own right…and the appointment of the King was to complete fixing the national order and everything that was appropriate for the period.” To be sure, the Ran’s vision is ultimately of a Jewish religious state with a king descendant of David; however, that messianic vision hasn’t yet arrived and instead we live in a modern democratic state. I believe it is time to act like it.

Many claim that secular marriage or civil unions will devalue traditional marriage or increase mixed marriages. Even if either of the positions were valid in a democracy, which I don’t believe they should be, they are false. On the one hand, the vast majority of Jews marrying in the State of Israel are marrying from the dominant cultural group of other Jews. The limited potential for such marriages stems primarily from citizens whose Jewish status is denied by the Rabbinate. The irony, as Rav Amsalem and others have argued, is exacerbated by the intransigence of the Chief Rabbinate regarding conversions. So the political system denies many people the ability to join the Jewish people and then refuses to allow them to marry because they have not converted. It is simply absurd.

On the hand, forcing people against their will to participate in marriages according to Orthodox Jewish law repells many. Despite the wonderful efforts of organizations such as Tzohar and Itim, both in their own way making marriage easier, the central problem for many non-Orthodox Jews remains: either those who qualify for Jewish marriage are insulted by the process or they go abroad as the couple in the Ynet article did. How does this raise the stature of tradition and Orthodox marriage in the eyes of Israelis? I once heard the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Baron Jakobovits of blessed memory, suggest that rabbis are given the choice between power and influence. He confided that while he had no power, he felt he wielded a tremendous amount of influence. He lamented, however, that the rabbis in Israel have chosen power, and hence do not influence the lives of many Israelis.

In a few days, we stand to elect parties to the next Knesset. There are many pressing issues at hand: Iran’s nuclear ambitions, defense of our borders, the relations with the Palestinians, the cost of food, and a very real housing crisis. While poverty and defense should be major priorities, creating a society where all citizens can live free is the backbone of the country. It’s time for all parties in the election to acknowledge this reality, move towards full recognition of our democratic potential and separation of religion and state.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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