Analysis: On the precipice of a genuine haredi compromise?

For the first time, a senior ultra-Orthodox rabbi has agreed to any form of civil marriage in Israel.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
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The deal reached between Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to allow those not considered Jewish by the Rabbinate to wed by civil marriage doesn't look like much. It applies at most to about five percent of the population, and that is only when they marry among themselves. The other Israelis will have to continue marrying in religious ceremonies, each according to his creed. And if you don't like it, then you can still take a plane to Cyprus. It also seems that the Orthodox establishment has got the better side of the deal, with Friedmann ceding to the rabbinical courts more powers on matters of giyur (conversion). And that's what we know so far about the deal. It remains to be seen what surprises await in the new law's final draft. There are also rumors that Friedmann might have made concessions over the contested appointment of new rabbinical judges. But in the wider frame of things, this is still an important breakthrough. And even if for now it will benefit only a few, it is of symbolic significance. This is the first time a senior ultra-Orthodox rabbi has acquiesced to the existence of any form of civil marriage in Israel. For the first time in the country's history, officially recognized wedding ceremonies will take place not under the auspices of a religious authority. This can only mean that down the road, further compromises can be reached. To some in the ultra-Orthodox camp, that road looks like a slippery slope. That's why even a small-scale agreement like this hasn't happened before. Even now, there is a chance that some of the more powerful Ashkenazi rabbis might try and derail the new accord. In that context, the identities of those who brokered the deal are very interesting. On the one side is the ultra-secular Friedmann. He was an honorary member of the now defunct Shinui party, which was set up to battle religious coercion. Despite his views on the subject, or perhaps due to them, Friedmann has been adept at deal-making with the haredi politicians. On the other side is Amar, who, significantly, received Rabbi Ovadya Yosef's agreement to the deal. For the past 50 years Yosef has been almost singlehandedly fighting to establish his more open and lenient method of halachic ruling, against the staunch opposition of the Ashkenazi rabbis. He had few allies, even within his own camp. And while his party, Shas, might have grown powerful in politics, the Ashkenazim still held sway in the Torah world. But Amar is a faithful disciple, and like his 84-year-old mentor, fearless in wielding kocha dehetera (the strength of leniency). It is no coincidence that he is the first chief rabbi to have reached such a compromise with the government. Unlike the previous pair of chief rabbis and his colleague, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, Amar is widely acknowledged as being a halachic heavyweight. That is due in large part to the trust put in him by Yosef, who over the last few years has passed many difficult cases of religious law over to him for ruling. Coming from a poor immigrant background and growing up in a development town with nonobservant close relatives, Amar has an understanding of social problems that are outside the ken of many other senior rabbis. He also has the necessary credibility and backing to seek revolutionary solutions. It remains to be seen whether he has the will. He gave up very little ground in this last deal with Friedmann. But his agreement to make the smallest of cracks in the age-old taboo might just indicate we are in store for more progress in the future.