(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The Chief Rabbinate has been called on to regulate the practice of an obscure religious ceremony required by Jewish law to obviate the necessity of the ancient practice of Levirate marriage.
Levirate marriage says that when a woman’s husband dies and the couple does not have children, the brother of the husband is required to marry the widow. It is no longer performed, but Orthodox practice stipulates that the halitza ceremony, which symbolically releases the widow and her brother-in-law from the obligation of marriage, must still be performed in order to allow the woman to remarry.
The ceremony requires the widow to take off the shoe of her brother-in-law, known as the yibum, and spit in front of him.
According to ITIM, a group that lobbies and offers advice on religion, during the past 10 years, more than 200 widows in Israel have been required to perform this ceremony in order to remarry. The organization says, however, that there are no regulations for rabbinical courts to follow despite the fact that the ceremony is a necessity in Israel.
The Jerusalem Post last year reported on a case in which a widow was unable to remarry for 13 years due to a refusal by her dead husband’s family to allow the halitza ceremony to be performed. Even after it took place, the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court refused to allow the woman to remarry, a ruling that was eventually overturned by the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
“In the past year, ITIM received a number of phone calls from women who appeared before the rabbinical courts for the halitza rite and were surprised that outsiders were invited into the room, and in one case were shocked that they couldn’t have female representation at the rabbinical court,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM.
“We were more shocked when we discovered that the entire process is unregulated at the rabbinate, and no one is protecting the rights of women at this sensitive moment,” he said.
ITIM has issued a set of proposed regulations it formulated and submitted to the Chief Rabbinate.
The regulations call upon rabbinical courts to appoint a female representative who will accompany any widow to her hearing. In addition, they guarantee that the rite will be effected in private unless the parties agree to have others present. It also insures that if a woman needing the rite seeks to bring someone with her, she may do so.
“It is our hope that the chief rabbis will recognize the present lacunae and adopt our proposal, which seeks to uphold the halachic standards of the rabbinical courts but at the same time ensure the democratic rights of individuals who use those courts,” Farber said.