It's time to reform Jewish weddings in Israel - opinion

Members of the Conservative and Reform movements are all too frequently depicted as demons and their rabbis as wielders of pitchforks.

 CHIEF ASHKENAZI Rabbi David Lau. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
CHIEF ASHKENAZI Rabbi David Lau.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The daughter of a colleague, a former Californian, and her fiancée were up to their ears, happily, in the preparations of their upcoming wedding. The song selections were decided on, the appetizers to be served were selected and the two agreed to abandon, reluctantly, the idea of a Cinderella theme. But just as the final touches were about to be applied, the young couple and their families, not unsurprisingly, ran into the inevitable snag.

It was hoped that an old and dear family friend, a Conservative rabbi from Los Angeles, would do the honors and function as the mesader kiddushin (literally the arranger of holiness, but means one who performs the nuptial ceremony). The Rabbinate, needless to say, thought differently. Only Orthodox rabbis that they specifically approve are permitted to officiate at weddings in Israel. Conservative rabbis – and most certainly those from abroad – cannot be given that authority or responsibility.

This was not entirely unanticipated so Plan B was set into motion. Nurit and Menny, who refused to be married by a rabbi who they did not know or with whom they had no connection, flew to Cyprus, wedded through a civil ceremony, returned to Israel where their marriage was duly recorded, and were then “married” again, this time under a huppah with the rabbi from the west coast – who had been ordained with honors from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America – ensuring that the proper procedures as defined by Orthodox tradition and law were being followed. I have been to many weddings over the years, but I must say I have never heard the smashing of a wine glass sound so joyous.

I’ve never stopped wondering, though, if Plan B was in fact necessary, and whether a compromise by the Rabbinate might have avoided the disruption and hassle that Nurit and Menny went through. While it’s true that the two who are getting married must be Jewish according to Halacha and the official witnesses to the marriage be God-fearing and observant, there is no absolute requirement that the mesader kiddushin be a rabbi, let alone an Orthodox one. As long as the protocols governing the two components of the ceremony – erusin (engagement) and nisuin (the actual wedding) – are in accordance with Orthodox law and strictly adhered to, it makes no difference who has control over the various components of the ceremony.

IN PRACTICE though, a rabbinical figure certainly adds to the sanctity of what is taking place, and the signature of an ordained rabbi on the Ketubah is, of course, a preferable option. Moreover, brief – and sometimes not so brief – words of wisdom and inspiration are often offered by the officiating rabbi to the bride and groom, and some high-level explanations of what is taking place may be provided for the sake of attendees not familiar with Jewish weddings. Nowhere, however, does it say that these have to be performed by someone who has been officially ordained as a rabbi by an Orthodox institution. In other words, there are no halachic demands regarding who functions as the mesader kiddushin.

An illustrative photo of a Jewish wedding in front of the Mediterranean Sea. (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)An illustrative photo of a Jewish wedding in front of the Mediterranean Sea. (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

They, the Rabbinate, provide the protocol defining the rituals to be performed and the blessings and prayers to be recited. The mesader kiddushin will, of course, be expected to be familiar with these procedures and ensure that they are rigidly followed. Any novelties or deviations – for example, having the Ketubah written and read in Hebrew rather than the traditional Aramaic – will be sorted out in advance. There will be absolutely no change to the time honored, Orthodox-based ceremony through which the two standing under the huppah become wed. The only change – and a positive one – will be that the mesader kiddushin need not be someone anonymous but can, instead, be someone familiar and close to one or both of the families. I can tell you from personal experience this makes a world of difference.

Members of the Conservative and Reform movements are all too frequently depicted as demons and their rabbis as wielders of pitchforks. Yes, there are most certainly differences in the theological and ideological foundation as well as in the day-to-day practices of the three major strands of Judaism. And I would, admittedly, feel more than a little nervous about eating in a restaurant whose kashrut certification comes from a Conservative- or Reform-trained supervisor. There are, though, areas of Jewish practice and policy far less narrow and rigid than kashrut.

IT’S HIGH time, I think, that an effort be made to ensure that no Jew in Israel feel isolated regardless of how observant he or she may or may not be. By no means am I suggesting any compromise to the Halacha as defined by Orthodox law and tradition, nor am I suggesting that the structure of Conservative or Reform Judaism with regard to a synagogue or prayer service be in any way officially recognized or adopted. But surely it should be obvious that providing space that can be shared by all Jews can only prove to be beneficial.

Not a day goes by when we are not reminded of the scourge of antisemitism, and how all too little is being done to eradicate this evil. And yet, there are within our own boundary cogent examples of the kind of hatred that can only be described as antisemitic. Rabbi Meir Mazuz of Shas very recently accused the Reform movement of having destroyed Judaism. MK Meir Porush publicly compared Reform Jews to pigs. And in a recent campaign, United Torah Judaism went so far as to suggest that canines would be accepted as Jews under Conservative and Reform conversion. I dare say that if the Third Temple had been in operation the baseless hatred taking place would have destroyed it long ago.

Weddings are for the most part structured in accordance with an official template. Although here and there variations are encountered, the format of the ceremony remains more or less the same. Now and then, though, the mesader kiddushin provides a bit of variety, which may or may not be welcome. In one case, I was taken aback when the officiant intermittently strummed a guitar and crooned to the newlyweds to be. The mesader kiddushin in another wedding I attended demonstrated that he could easily have a successful career as a stand-up comic. And I’ll never forget the rabbi who droned on and on with alternative reasons for smashing the wine cup. Another two minutes and I would have put my foot down… literally.

We’ve now elected a “change” government, although what that means has yet to be determined. In the area of reforms being debated over who can and cannot get married in Israel, let’s start with something easy, and let the Rabbinate break their monopoly on who orchestrates weddings in Israel. A small change, really, that will have a major impact.

The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting nonprofit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions and struggling to master the ins and outs of social media.