A Jewish Wedding? (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. An ad on national radio for Jewish alternatives to Orthodox weddings sparks debate The voice mumbles un-clear, unfamiliar words. "You don't understand Aramaic?" the radio announcer asks, a bit of tease in his voice. "You can do it in Hebrew, too." He continues, "Hi, this is Rabbi Elisha, a Masorti rabbi, and I invite you to get married. I offer you the option of getting married in a wedding that is halakhic [in accordance with Jewish law], Israeli and inclusive." The 26-second ad, sponsored by the Masorti Movement in Israel (Conservative Judaism in Israel) ran dozens of times on Israeli radio for five days in mid-June. The advertisement concludes with a reference to a website of the Masorti movement that provides information for young, non-Orthodox Israelis looking for a Jewish alterntive to an Orthodox wedding. Within the five days that the ad ran on the radio, the website received more than 25,000 hits and the offices of the Masorti movement received dozens of phone calls. Literally, the word Masorti means traditional, and the strong response to the advertisement is a clear indication that there are many Israelis who are seeking a traditional, but non-Orthodox, wedding ceremony and, perhaps, a traditional, but non-Orthodox approach to their Jewish identity. But the advertisement has drawn the ire of the ultra-Orthodox Shas political party, a key member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's shaky coalition, proving that in Israel, where religion and state are officially and inextricably intertwined, marriage and divorce are often political, at least as much as religious, issues. Guli, 31, a high-school biology teacher who lives in Jerusalem, is one of the 25,000 people who clicked onto the Masorti website. Guli and her fiancé, Yossi, 32, a computer engineer, are planning on marrying in early August. They've already rented a large outside garden-like venue, selected a caterer, and met with the (Orthodox) rabbi assigned to them by the Chief Rabbinate. But when Guli heard the advertisement while driving home from school one afternoon, she says that the anger and bitterness she felt about the wedding ceremony which she and Yossi feel has been imposed upon them by the Chief Rabbinate, bubbled up into her awareness. "The rabbi was assigned to us. He barely met with us. The day of our wedding is supposed to be the most important day of our lives - but he didn't ask us what we wanted, he just told us what we will have to do. He would barely look at me, because I'm a woman, and I felt that the ceremony is very unegalitarian and even humiliating to me as a woman." Dressed in a snug tank top and low-cut jeans, wearing hoop earrings and turquoise Croc clogs, Guli is sitting with Yossi on an Ikea-issue sofa in the small Jerusalem, carefully decorated apartment that they have shared for three years. Their door sign announces that "Guli, Yossi and Tippy [their cat] live here happily." Increasingly emotional, as Yossi nods his head in agreement, Guli continues, "So when I heard the advertisement, I realized that this ceremony that we're supposed to be doing just isn't us. It's not who we are and it's not who we want to be. But we want to be married under a huppa (traditional Jewish wedding canopy). So we will be meeting with one of the Conservative rabbis next week, maybe even with a woman rabbi, which would be great, because that would be egalitarian, which is how we live." Officially, Jewish couples in Israel who wish to marry are presented with two wedding options - they may marry in Israel in a Jewish wedding, conducted by an Orthodox rabbi - the only rabbis recognized by the State - or they may forgo a Jewish wedding and marry in a civil ceremony abroad, most often in Cyprus, which Israeli authorities will then, by law, be forced to recognize as a legal, albeit not religious, marriage when the couple returns. Those who are barred from marrying by halakha, such as a cohen and a divorcée, may also marry in a civil ceremony abroad. As was already well-known, and as the massive response to the advertisements indicates, many citizens, like Guli and Yossi, are not pleased with either of these options. But rather than engaging in a political struggle against the Orthodox establishment, which is becoming increasingly more strict in its demands and growing ever-closer to the ultra-Orthodox parties, many give in and are married by state-appointed Orthodox rabbis in their area. Others find ways around what they view as the Orthodox imposition. At various times during the history of the State, and especially when the interior ministry, which has the authority to register the marriage, was held by representatives of secular parties, many Israelis who were also citizens of another country chose to be married in consulates or embassies of the other country where they hold citizenship (providing that that country recognizes consular marriages). And, according to data from the Masorti Movement, based on studies from the Central Bureau of Statistics, up to 20 percent of young Israelis are choosing to marry abroad without a Jewish ceremony or to not marry at all, especially since Israelis who live together in common-law marriages are entitled to all of the civil benefits accorded to married couples and there are no issues regarding children born "out of wedlock" in Israeli civil law, as distinct from Orthodox halakha. This distresses Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, an official with the religious services department at the Masorti movement, who comments, "It seems to us those couples are giving up on their own tradition because of their dislike for the Rabbinate, which is sad for both Israelis and our heritage." Yet an increasing number of non-Orthodox and secular Jewish Israelis, such as Guli and Yossi, want to maintain the Jewish tradition of a huppa, reject Orthodox dictates and still want their marriage to be legally registered. To them, the Masorti and Progressive (Reform) movements propose that after marrying in a civil ceremony abroad, the couple return to Israel to be married by a rabbi, albeit one who is not recognized by the Orthodox establishment. Furthermore, rabbis affiliated with the Masorti movement are authorized by the movement to perform a marriage even if the couple has not been married in a civil ceremony abroad. Such marriages are not illegal - Israel has few legal limits on religious observance or ritual - but it is legally and bureaucratically irrelevant, providing only for the couples' emotional and spiritual needs. (In contrast, the Israeli Progressive movement will only perform a marriage ceremony if the couple has been married in a civil ceremony abroad.) According to data provided by the Masorti movement, they performed approximately 150 marriages in Israel in 2007, while the Progressive movement performed upwards of 800. Believing that there are many more such couples in Israel, the Masorti movement launched the advertising campaign, the first such public campaign in Israel, under the title, "A Masorti Huppa - This Is How Israelis Get Married." The campaign also ran on Ynet, the website of the mass-circulation "Yedioth Ahronoth" daily and on postcards distributed in cafés and restaurants around the country. "Guli wanted me to listen to the advert," Yossi says, "and what really caught my ear was the saying, 'this is how Israelis get married.' Yes, I am a Jew but I am also an Israeli. I want our wedding ceremony to reflect who we are. Both of our families have lived in Israel for four generations. We speak Hebrew, we are part of this society. I don't want some rabbi who wears a long black coat and represents values that I reject to be the one who performs our marriage ceremony." And Guli adds, "The rabbi said he would read the ketuba [marriage certificate] in Aramaic. He said that Yossi wouldn't be allowed to say anything. He insisted that I would have to circle around Yossi seven times - and when I asked why, he said that 'it's the law.' Then he asked me what my wedding gown was going to be like and that it should be modest. He told me that I had to bring him a note that I had gone to the mikve [ritual bath] before my wedding, or he wouldn't marry us. We wanted my sister to sing a song to us under the huppa - but he refused. So what kind of a ceremony was he forcing us to have?!" What about the National Religious rabbis from Zohar, a religious-Zionist organization that seeks to bring Orthodox tradition to secular Israelis in a more acceptable manner? "That would be lying, too. We're not Orthodox-lite. We're searching for a way into religious experience, but we'll never be Orthodox." Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.