From the workshop of Hashgacha Pratit – the organization that brought about a revolution in kashrut supervision – comes a new framework for Orthodox marriage which seeks to challenge the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over the institution.
The new wedding service has been established by Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, the founder of Hashgacha Pratit, and will be headed by Rabbi Chuck Davidson who has been active in the realm of private, Orthodox weddings for many years.
The service constitutes the latest challenge to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious services in the Jewish state. With increasing numbers of couples already marrying outside of the rabbinate in one form or another, it could quickly gain traction.
The service, which has not formally been named yet, will begin operating at the end of July, and is aimed at three main population groups: immigrants from the former Soviet Union, or their children, who cannot get married in Israel because they cannot prove they are Jewish; Orthodox converts not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate; and people who want to have a religious wedding but refuse to have one under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate on ideological grounds.
Among the immigrants from the former Soviet Union are many people who cannot prove they are Jewish because the Soviet suppression of religion meant that no religious marriage certificates or similar documentation can be produced.
Leibowitz says the Chief Rabbinate has “discriminated and harmed” such people, as well as converts, women and secular people.
“This attitude is a result of policy, not Jewish law. This policy has led to the public crisis of confidence [in the Chief Rabbinate], and the monopoly of the rabbinate on religious services in the state distances these couples from Judaism,” said Leibowitz.
He said there exists a groundswell of support for wedding ceremonies outside of the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, and the new wedding service would be “an appropriate response” for Israelis who cannot get married through the rabbinate, or who do not want to do so.
Leibowitz and Davidson say their wedding service will be based on the ruling of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late, revered arbiter of Jewish law who wrote a lengthy decision in his work titled Yabia Omer, in which he states that immigrants from the former Soviet Union who claim to be Jewish should be believed, unless there is a good reason to suspect otherwise.
Thus, anyone who seeks to marry through the new wedding service and says they are Jewish will be accepted by the seven rabbis, including Leibowitz and Davidson, who will be conducting the wedding ceremonies, unless there is good reason not to believe them.
“For the last 2,000 years, there was a principle that someone who says they are Jewish is believed, unless there is good reason to believe he is mistaken or lying,” says Davidson.
“The [Chief] Rabbinate cannot take a monopoly on Jewish law. There has never been such thing since the Sanhedrin was destroyed. I don’t know where they got it from, maybe the Catholic Church,” he quipped.
In addition to citizens from the former Soviet Union, the new wedding service will serve anyone who converted in an Orthodox rabbinical court anywhere in the world, “no questions asked,” says Davidson, although their conversion documents will be checked.
In order to avoid complicating issues of Jewish law, the new wedding service will insist that couples being married through them sign several documents.
The first is a declaration that both partners are indeed Jewish, not married to anyone else, and that the couple does not comprise a man who is a Kohen – a member of the priestly class – marrying a divorcee, which is prohibited by Jewish law.
They will also need to sign an agreement, enforceable through financial sanctions, that if they eventually separate they must obtain a religious divorce. This is a critical requirement to avoid a mamzerut – a highly problematic status in Jewish law which is given to children born through illicit relationships.
Finally, they are required to sign a halachic (according to Jewish law) prenuptial agreement stipulating financial sanctions if one partner refuses to consent to a divorce to prevent incidents of “chained” women, or men.
One severe impediment to conducting Orthodox weddings in Israel outside of the Chief Rabbinate is that an amendment to the Law for Marriage and Divorce passed in 2013 stipulates that a person who fails to register his marriage with the Chief Rabbinate, and an individual who conducts a wedding ceremony for a couple, are liable to a two-year jail sentence.
Hashgacha Pratit says, however, that couples the Chief Rabbinate refuses to marry would not be included in the terms of this law, since according to the Chief Rabbinate, they could not marry in a Jewish ceremony anyway.
Another loophole relates to a couple who married in a civil ceremony abroad, registers their marriage with the Interior Ministry and then seeks to marry through the new wedding service. Such a couple could also not be prosecuted, Hashgacha Pratit says, since they are already registered as married.
Couples who do not marry in a civil ceremony abroad, but seek to simply marry through the new wedding service in Israel, could face more difficulties. However, Hashgacha Pratit has various practical solutions to circumventing this problem, which it does not wish to publicize at this stage.
The new initiative is undoubtedly a challenge to the Chief Rabbinate. Davidson says he is not seeking to bring down the institution, but rather to provide an alternative – something that has always been available in Jewish history.
“The Chief Rabbinate has a right to its halachic opinion, and I don’t want to force my opinion on them, but they don’t have a right to force their opinion on any other rabbi.
“Should the state decide for me who my rabbis is?” he demands. “Not for me. Those who accept the rabbinate – that’s fine. But others have a right to their opinion, too.”
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