Guest Column: My wife is a bigamist

The interference of state-run religious institutions in our lives has reached dangerous proportions

marriage 88 (photo credit: )
marriage 88
(photo credit: )
I've been married eight years now, and have decided it's time to confess: My wife is a bigamist. That's when she's in Santiago. In New York, she's simply married. In Europe, she's single. Here in Israel, she's actually divorced. I suppose some explanation is in order. My wife's first wedding took place in Chile - a Catholic state that doesn't recognize the dissolution of matrimony. It does, however, abide by international law, and thus accepts the legality of her consecration to me following her divorce here in Israel. There, both of her marriages are on record. Our wedding in Jerusalem, though, was performed by a Conservative rabbi - meaning, of course, that in the Jewish state it is not recognized. So we also had to marry abroad in a civil ceremony. Looking for someone to officiate, we settled on my sister, a mainstay of her local synagogue. Conveniently, she also happens to be a minister of the Church of All Faiths. Some 35 years ago, living in Woodstock, she had applied for a mail-order ordination empowering her "with the authority vested in me by the State of New York" to perform weddings, and was only too glad to come to the rescue of a brother and sister-in-law who found themselves in a state of nuptial flux. So with her blessings, the well-wishes of our family and an outlay of $25, we reaffirmed our vows and walked away with a New York State Marriage Certificate, no questions asked. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the bureaucracy of our Interior Ministry. When we presented the embossed, watermarked, forge-proof document to the clerk here, she actually insisted we also bring in a letter of authentication. We've decided to do that only if the ministry is ever back in haredi hands - savoring the idea of Shas being forced to recognize our marriage within the Church of All Faiths while refusing to recognize a huppa sanctioned by the Masorti Movement. For the time being, we continue to appear as divorcees in the Population Registry. In the meantime, however, my wife - a child of Holocaust survivors - was able to apply for an EU passport, which for some reason she received in her maiden name, with no trace whatsoever of any men in her life to be found in its pages. (Traveling with her is a delight: with three passports, three different last names and fluent in four languages, she has the makings of a perfect spy, and never fails to be interrogated as such.) NOW THE sins of the fathers and mothers are also being visited upon the children. When my daughter was set to be married this year, she too ran into problems. Though her mother has a proper get, it was got from Israel's state-controlled Rabbinate, which saw fit to stipulate that her getting the get should not be construed as proof of her being Jewish, or of ever having really been married in the first place. The only ketuba my ex-wife was able to produce (as it was the only one she had), was from the Conservative Movement in America. If this were only a story of personal interest, I might not bother sharing it. But, sadly, it is also a story of national importance. The interference of state-run religious institutions in our personal lives has continued for far too long and has reached dangerous proportions, threatening the Jewish character of the state it purportedly exists to preserve. With the influx of some 300,000 olim from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Halacha, it has become increasingly clear that the monopoly of the rigid Orthodox establishment over life-cycle events was never only a parochial concern of Israel's Reform and Masorti/Conservative Jews. We're not talking only marriages here, but conversions as well, and when the venerable Orthodox Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the Conversion Authority, was fired a few months ago because of politically motivated haredi machinations, this finally became a concern of the modern Orthodox community as well. Thousands of perfectly legitimate conversions he had supervised were retroactively declared null and void, adding insult to the injury that this camp had suffered earlier in the year, when the Chief Rabbinate began challenging the legitimacy of conversions authorized by the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America. In the meantime, members of tens of thousands of immigrant families from the former Soviet Union, whose sons and daughters fight in the IDF, continue to be denied burial in Jewish cemeteries or the right to marry Jewishly, and no one is offering them any solution to their problem - which is also very much a problem for the rest of us. We have but one Jewish state; it is unfortunate that within it we appear determined to have several Jewish peoples. TEN YEARS ago, many of us involved in these matters thought we had indeed found a way forward. Under the leadership of Prof. Yaakov Ne'eman, a leading pillar of Israel's Orthodox community, the Reform and Masorti movements joined with Orthodox colleagues in giving their blessings to the establishment of a joint conversion institute. Rabbis representing all three streams would teach there but, we agreed, "for the sake of unity" the graduates would have to undergo state-sanctioned Orthodox conversions. To date, only a tiny percentage of those who have completed the course have been allowed to convert, and when Rabbi Druckman initiated steps to streamline the process, he was summarily dismissed, bringing about the institute's virtual closure. The only positive that has emerged from this is a measure of cooperation between the Reform, Conservative and modern Orthodox streams. At a recent session of the Jewish Agency Assembly, representatives of all three declared the situation a crisis in urgent need of resolve. The agency's leadership now needs to translate the organization's commitment to pluralism into deeds. Jews around the world - potential immigrants among them - need to know that they have someone here fighting for their right to be registered as Jews, marry as they wish and be buried where they desire - whatever their brand of Judaism. Fortunately, they will find in unexpected places that there are those prepared to join with them in combating the current insanity. When my daughter was ultimately given the state's blessing to wed, she and her fiance decided they wanted someone recognized by the Rabbinate to officiate. I was given the privilege of selecting the witnesses, and chose two Conservative rabbis. When it came to signing the ketuba and the officiating rabbi discovered who they were, he hesitated. "Frankly, I must tell you I'm embarrassed about performing this wedding." A moment of panic. "Is there a problem?" I asked. "Yes," he replied. "With gentlemen like these present, I shouldn't have to be here at all." Under the huppa, he took pains to declare that witnesses of such caliber added honor to the occasion. There is also an upside to all this on a personal level. Married eight years, I'm also celebrating my 32th wedding anniversary. The math is simple. My wife and I were married in Israel on the eve of Shabbat Bereishit; in the States, on Thanksgiving. We celebrate both, and the Gregorian date of each as well. One I dedicate to the single woman in my life, one to the married one, one to the divorcee and one to the bigamist. When you're in love the way I am, there's a distinct advantage to living in the sort of Jewish state we've somehow managed to create. The writer is a member of the executives of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, where he represents MERCAZ Olami, the Zionist arm of the worldwide Conservative/Masorti Movement.