Avi Novis-Deutsch

‘Not with the Rabbinate’

The Masorti Movement is offering wedding ceremonies that are meaningful, personal and in keeping with Jewish law

Apart from my own, there was one other wedding I’ll never forget: It took place in my living room. Sveta and Mark (not their real names) came over one afternoon, nervous and excited, with only their immediate family and my own surrounding them. We’d put up decorations and balloons and baked a cake, and for a short time, our apartment living room was transformed into a sacred wedding space. But why did this couple marry in my living room? And where were all the guests?

This couple lived in a religious community. Mark’s family name connected him to the “Cohenic” lineage, Sveta was divorced and the two of them were in love. The rabbinate could not find a solution for them, and the rabbi of their town, upon hearing that they planned to be married, forbade any of his congregants from attending their wedding. Fearing that they would have a wedding with no guests, the couple canceled the wedding-hall Chupa they had planned.

I’m a Masorti rabbi, and I used a time-honored Halachic method of annulling the groom’s status as a Cohen due to a reasonable doubt in his lineage. Thus, the couple was married in a moving and intimate ceremony, which was religiously Halachic as well, as befitted this couple’s personal beliefs.

This is one example of what the Masorti Movement in Israel meant when it recently launched its public campaign under the slogan “A Jewish religious Halachic wedding – just not with the rabbinate.” Let us consider the words “Halachic” and “rabbinate” in turn, to understand the full meaning of this message.

Rabbis in the Masorti Movement are committed to Halacha. They officiate at weddings only according to Halachic Jewish tradition, and only when both partners are Jewish. As Jewish tradition teaches us, there are many different interpretations of what is Halachic. Rabbis within the Movement diverge on issues such as same-sex partners, the role of women as witnesses, whether it is possible to change the Ketubah to an egalitarian financial contract and whether the wording of certain blessings can be changed.Nevertheless, a ritual officiated by a Masorti rabbi is Halachic because it is based on earlier precedents and on one of various thoughtful and legitimate interpretations of the ancient traditions. This explains the use of the term “Halachic wedding” in the slogan.

The essence of the campaign, however, is the phrase “Not with the rabbinate.” In Israel, the rabbinate does not mean individual rabbis, but rather an institution financed by the state, whose officials are nominated on the basis of political power. Over the years, the rabbinate and the local religious councils have morphed into a system that has been harming the status and accessibility of Judaism to the general public.

A secular Jew in Israel interacts with rabbis around issues of life-cycle events, as well as kashrut, conversion and, at times, on holidays. In many cases, the encounter involves minimal personal contact and is based on distrust. It brings together the all-powerful authority and the powerless subject.

Let us take the case of marriage as an example. When couples approach the local religious council to arrange a wedding, they often encounter obstacles and unwelcoming bureaucracy. In many cases, the rabbi will dictate the way the ritual is to be performed, giving little attention to the desires of the couple. There is rarely an attempt to work together with the couple in order to create a ceremony that is meaningful to them. Rather, the attitude is “I, the rabbi, know how this must be done, and you, the couple, must concede to my authority.” In some cases, the experience is even worse: Some rabbis have been known to come late to weddings, take excessive payments or payment without an invoice, or get basic personal details about the bride and groom wrong.

Needless to say, there are just as many empathic and caring rabbis in the Orthodox establishment as in Liberal Jewish streams. The difference in the wedding experience and interaction stems from the structural inequality that the Orthodox rabbinate promotes. In situations where one side has all the power,abuse is just too easy.

In contrast, when the couple chooses a rabbi from outside the Orthodox establishment, the relationship is based on equality. The couple chooses the rabbi based on their needs. They are encouraged to become involved in the details, in order to make the ceremony personally meaningful to them. They can ask for changes in the ritual (within the limits of Halacha) and add their own words, poems or songs to the ceremony.

Years ago, when I was a rabbinical student at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, I had a colleague who became a rabbinical student after many successful years in the field of theater. He taught me something that I never forgot: the role of the rabbi at a wedding is very much like that of the director in a play. Like a director, the rabbi controls the ritual, but his real goal should be to place the bride and groom at the center. By taking a step back, the rabbi empowers the real stars of the show and highlights the true drama of it: a celebration of union and love.

This is the reason I feel privileged to officiate at a wedding. I see the preparations for a wedding as a journey that allows the rabbi to help the couple articulate and express their wishes and values, hopes and commitments. In order to do that, no Halachic boundaries need be crossed. All that is required is empathic listening and a supportive attitude on the part of the rabbi, and a willingness to reflect and engage in making meaning on the part of the couple.

What I believe the Masorti movement is trying to convey in their slogan “A Jewish religious Halachic wedding – just not with the rabbinate” is that the Orthodox establishment should not have a monopoly on Jewish religiosity. Moreover, as in the world of economics, breaking up monopolies is beneficial for all sides involved. The greatest benefiters from a plurality of wedding choices, however, are the couples themselves.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi-Novis Deutsch is Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, which trains Masorti/Conservative spiritual leadership for Israel and the world.
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