The amount of misinformation and misleading information in media reporting on this past Thursday’s episode involving Rabbi Dov Haiyun, the Israel Police, and the Haifa Rabbinical Court is troubling for many reasons. It is troubling because it demonstrates how little the reporters actually understand and how reliant they are on the press releases and social media posts of individuals and organizations. It is troubling because it gives a false sense of who the “good guys” and who the “bad guys” are. But it is most troubling because it may actually undermine efforts to make real change.
Let us start with the 2013 amendment to Israel’s marriage legislation ordinance. Section 7 prescribes:
Anyone who does not attempt to register his marriage or divorce, or to register a marriage or divorce that he officiated for another—his penalty is two years imprisonment.
Nowhere in the ordinances are Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox weddings mentioned. The law applies equally to any marriage that takes place outside of the auspices of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, the body tasked by Israeli law with registering the marriages of Jews. In fact, given that the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize marriages that do not comport with its interpretation of “the Law of Moses and Israel,” it is likely that the law applies only to Orthodox weddings performed outside the Chief Rabbinate. This is the interpretation of Rabbi Uri Regev, Haiyun’s attorney and the president of Hiddush. It is impossible to know the scope of the law for certain because, in the five years since the passage of this law, no one has been imprisoned, fined, tried, indicted, or even arrested for violation of this law.
This leads us to the misleading reports. Haaretz’s headline, “Israel Detains Conservative Rabbi for Performing Non-Orthodox Weddings,” implies that the problem with the wedding is that it was not Orthodox. But the problem is not that it was not Orthodox, but that it was performed outside the Chief Rabbinate.
Ben Sales of JTA reports: “News of the incident…has highlighted an obscure law threatening non-Orthodox rabbis with arrest. And it has ignited a wave of protest in Israel and abroad against the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish practice there.” This, too, is misleading. The law threatens Orthodox rabbis who defy the Chief Rabbinate with arrest as much as, if not more than, it threatens non-Orthodox rabbis. Moreover, Israel has no “Orthodox monopoly over Jewish practice,” though the term frequently appears in writing on religion and state in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate has a monopoly over kosher certification and registration of marriage and divorce involving Jews. These two areas are hardly “Jewish practice” writ large, and, more importantly, the Chief Rabbinate is an arm of the State of Israel and does not represent “Orthodoxy” or any subgroup therein.
The “reporting” of various organizations was just as misleading. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, in a statement titled “Statement on Arrest of Israeli Rabbi Dov Haiyun” expressed outrage at “the arrest this morning of Rabbi Dov Haiyun.” A blog post by Hiddush’s Regev is titled: “Hiddush Represents Masorti Rabbi Arrested for Conducting Wedding.” The problem? Haiyun was not arrested! In the end, he was not even interrogated or questioned. By the time people in New York woke up, Israel’s (Orthodox) Attorney General had already intervened to shut down the investigation.
The narrative that drives all these reports is that in Israel an increasingly empowered and extremist (“ultra-Orthodox”) Chief Rabbinate has begun persecuting Reform and Conservative rabbis. A witch hunt is underway. As USCJ executive director Rabbi Steven Wernick wrote, “These are the actions of Saudi Arabia and Iran,” later clarifying, as though to explain his admittedly emotional outburst, “the risk of theocracy in Israel is not just hyperbole.” Or, as Haiyun wrote in the Facebook post that started it all: “Iran is here!”
Had anyone bothered to investigate even the most basic facts of the case, this would have been easily exposed as hyperbole. Much has been made of the fact that the police knocked on Haiyun’s door at 5:30 in the morning. Anyone who cared to do a little digging would have found that this is standard operating procedure for the Israeli Police in cases, like the present, where someone ignores the initial summons for questioning.
Had anyone bothered to investigate the panel of three judges from the Haifa Rabbinical Court who ordered the investigation—and whose names Haiyun posted—they would have found that they have a record of pioneering rulings in favor of women, such as permitting divorce proceedings to continue even if the husband is absent and ordering the criminal prosecution of recalcitrant husbands. The chief judge, Rabbi Daniel Edri, is one of the judges who annulled the marriage of Dr. Oded Guez just a month ago, to widespread praise. He also has remanded a husband he deemed a flight risk to four days in custody, to ensure that he would divorce his wife. Moreover, two of the three judges, Rabbis Edri and Elad Eli, are from the Religious Zionist community, not the “Ultra-Orthodox” community deemed to be driving Israel creeping theocracy. It seems that today’s journalists can’t be bothered to investigate, even by Googling.
Another case heard by this panel can shed light on their concerns in the present case. In February 2017, these same three rabbis heard a case in which a wife claimed that her ex-husband remarried her, and her husband denied it. The claimed remarriage was officiated by a friend who was not a rabbi, and it was not registered with the rabbinate. The case broke open when the officiant, under interrogation by the panel, confessed, after his initial denial, that he indeed conducted the ceremony. The panel then excoriated him for lies that could have resulted in a married woman having children with another man—children that would have carried the taint of mamzerut (illegitimacy/forbidden to marry into the general community). They concluded their verdict by emphasizing: “Private [=unregistered] marriages generally hurt women.”
The February 2017 case had nothing to do with non-Orthodox rabbis, yet the court took the very same general approach: strongly deterring unregistered marriages when there is a risk of mamzerut. They ordered an investigation into Haiyun not because of his affiliation with the Conservative movement, but because, as Haiyun himself has said, he officiated at the wedding of someone whose status as a possible mamzer was under investigation by the Chief Rabbinate.
The fact is that Reform and Conservative rabbis have been conducting weddings in Israel for decades, with impunity. According to a recent report, the number of Orthodox weddings that take place in Israel outside the Chief Rabbinate has increased dramatically as well in recent years. All together, these constitute only about 4% of Jewish weddings in Israel, but the numbers are on the rise. All told, Israelis enjoy full religious freedom (or nearly). It is true that there are officially established, government-funded religious institutions, and these are indeed deeply problematic, Israelis who wish to live their lives without coming into contact with rabbinic officialdom can and do find ways to do so. There is no evidence that this is changing; on the contrary, as a recent video by Israel’s Foreign Ministry indicates, it is becoming increasingly mainstream and accepted.
There are many good reasons to avoid marriage under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. In the present case, it is outrageous that it took the Chief Rabbinate well over a year to dispel the suspicion of mamzerut, and I perfectly understand why Haiyun, having been convinced that there is no such taint in this case, decided to officiate.
In fact, I officiate at such weddings and encourage couples to marry outside the Chief Rabbinate. In some cases, I accepted evidence of Jewishness, whether by conversion or birth, that would have created a bureaucratic nightmare had the Chief Rabbinate been involved. I do not believe that my actions will ever be found to be criminal by an Israeli court (though I always tell couples that in the event we are arrested—it is illegal for the couple, too—I will request a separate cell so that I don’t interfere with their honeymoon). However, if I am ever summoned by a court by the police to explain my actions or testify, I will cooperate fully.
It is precisely because I encourage such weddings that I am baffled by the attempt, beginning with Haiyun himself, to turn this molehill into a mountain. I accuse those who equate Israel with Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have begun posting their own pictures as “WANTED” signs on social media, of distorting the reality that the Israeli authorities have clearly chosen to look the other way. By making themselves out to be heroes and martyrs, they are actually discouraging typical Israeli couples from taking this important step, introducing fear of arrest. By turning it into an issue of Conservative and Reform versus Orthodox, they undermine efforts to win the hearts and minds of traditional, observant, and Haredi Israelis, precisely those groups whose support is needed if there will ever be real change here.
Perhaps the greatest irony of this episode has been the invocation of Tisha B’Av, the day we mourn the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, by Rabbis Mikie Goldstein, Haiyun, and others. The implication is that it is others, not the ones who issue bombastic statements, who are fanning the flames of internal discord; others, not those who intentionally obfuscate and demonize Israel’s Jews, who are responsible for fanning the flames of hatred.
According to the Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) the Ninth of Av became a day of Jewish tragedy because it was on that day that the spies returned with a negative report of the Promised Land. They did not tell any lies; they merely distorted and slanted their report in a way that caused the rest of the Israelites to raise a great cry. God’s response was: “You wept for no reason!? I will establish this as a day of weeping for all generations.”
Let us continue our efforts to make Israel even better by winning the hearts and minds of those who care deeply about halakhah over to the view that the hybridization of religion and state in Israel does not implement halakhah but distorts it. Let us continue to protest and resist unjust marriage laws by disobeying them, and only them, without showing contempt for general law and order. Let us not demonize fellow Jews. Let us not sacrifice a complex truth in the interests of generating page-views and greasing the wheels of the fundraising machine.