Here and there: A ‘guide’ for the perplexed

(With apologies to Maimonides.)

Wedding  (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE PHOTO: REUTERS)
‘Shooting ourselves in the foot” came to mind, recently while enjoying a cruise holiday where we met travelers from a diversity of backgrounds.
Seated for dinner with others, the first question often asked was “where are you from?” For us it was easy to spot the Brit, American, South African or Australian. Conversely, however, we proved to be a surprise for our table companions as we sounded decidedly British but came from Israel.
On one occasion we were seated with a couple from middle England – ardent cruise lovers sailing the seas three or four times a year. Both were recent retirees – he was a sports teacher and she created special courses in interior design. On hearing that we were from Israel their negative body language prompted me to ask if they had ever visited the country. They looked at each other – hesitating to reply – but with a little encouragement admitted that, on a previous cruise, they had taken a oneday tour of Jerusalem.
As Christians they had appreciated seeing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Via Dolorosa, but were disappointed overall, perceiving the visit to be politicized. They were left with uncomfortable feelings about their guide, who spent more time denigrating the Arabs than explaining the history and chronology of the places visited. The driver of the tour bus was an Arab, which made the situation even more embarrassing. Their hope was that he did not understand English. It was clear that their Jerusalem visit – a first and likely last contact with Israel – left them with negative vibes.
Returning home I contacted the tour company responsible for organizing the Jerusalem trip for our seaborne friends. I spoke to Leo, who remembered the couple very well. When I told him of their reaction he was very surprised and said, “The guide they had is one of our best!” a response evoking even more anxiety on my part for if this guide is “one of the best,” what kind of messages are the others giving?
Another time, seated with a Jewish couple from New Jersey, the first question they asked was: “Are the non-Orthodox still having to go to Cyprus to marry? On our last visit to Israel, in 1998, our guide told us that you have to be an Orthodox Jew to marry in Israel.” I began to explain a highly complex situation. Any Jewish couple can marry in Israel provided they are Jewish according to Halacha – the couple need not be observant or belong to an Orthodox community. However, for those who are Jewish there is only one recognized form of marriage, which is under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate.
Israel inherited the system of marriage from the Ottoman Empire via the British. Civil marriage is not permitted here. Those married by a Reform or Conservative rabbi will not have their marriage validated by the Chief Rabbinate, leading many to choose a civil ceremony abroad (often in Cyprus because of its proximity). In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that civil marriages of Jewish couples will receive full legal recognition. Hitherto the decision was that of the religious body alone.
Israelis marrying in Cyprus have contributed toward an outstandingly successful business venture for the Cypriots. Each year around 20,000 Israelis marry in Larnaca. A number could have married in Israel but feel alienated from the Chief Rabbinate. Many others, not Jewish, originate from the former Soviet Union. They (or their parents or grandparents) qualified for citizenship by virtue of a Jewish grandparent but they themselves are not Jewish according to Halacha. While able to serve in the IDF – and being prepared to give their lives for the country – they are denied a Jewish nuptial.
The army endeavors to help those who wish to convert, but for others there are too many obstacles to overcome. One is the right of a rabbi to check up on a convert – sometimes years after the conversion – to ratify whether he or she is keeping all the commandments. If not, the conversion can be revoked, which, to the devastation of some, has happened in the past.
I spoke with Gilad Kariv, director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism in Israel. He confirmed that while it is possible for a Jewish couple to have a wedding ceremony conducted by a Reform rabbi it would not be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate; a civil marriage remains a necessity. Some choose this method but problems arise should they wish to divorce, as the only means of divorce in Israel is through the Chief Rabbinate, which not having authorized the marriage is unable to grant a divorce.
Kariv explained that because of these complexities many couples opt instead for a common law-type union with a legal protective document offering virtually the same rights as a married couple. The advantage being that as the couple is not married there is no need for a Chief Rabbinate divorce.
Back to the beginning and our holiday experience endeavoring to explain to our fellow travelers the inexplicable. Whether it is in terms of the guide who manages to alienate tourists or whether it is the manner in which our fellow Jews in the Diaspora perceive our marriage laws, both amount to us shooting ourselves in the foot.
With an increasing rate of outmarriage and assimilation worldwide, the greatest challenge has to be how to preserve our Jewish identity while simultaneously reaching out to become inclusive.
We have just celebrated Shavuot when we read the Book of Ruth – the story of Judaism’s most famous convert who went on to become the great-grandmother of King David. Ruth’s response to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi, on suggesting she return to Moab following the death of her husband, was “Whither thou goest I will go….Thy people will be my people… and thy God my God.” This was the essence of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism. Fortunately she was spared the challenges of today’s conversion process.
Has the time arrived for the establishment of a Sanhedrin to take a look at our Halacha specifically in relation to the marriage, divorce and conversion laws? It could well contribute meaningfully toward the strengthening of our Jewish tomorrow.
■ The writer is active in public affairs and is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.