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Running the Orthodox Rabbinic Gauntlet in Israel

When I first visited Israel during the summer of 1978, I was struck by how effortless it was to live a religiously observant life in the Jewish State. In Jerusalem, where I moved from New York 12 years ago, kosher restaurants outnumber non-kosher ones, and almost every street boasts a synagogue. Yet as much as I cherish the quiet of a Jerusalem Shabbat afternoon and the lilting sound of Hebrew everywhere I go, there is no denying that some things in Israel are more difficult than they were in the Old Country.

Getting married is one of them.

Just over a year ago, I met my husband to be, “Fiddler on the Roof” style, through two local matchmakers. A few months ago, we held our wedding in a garden overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. Marrying in Israel meant that before we could hold our ceremony, before we could integrate the best of Jewish tradition and modern enlightenment, we first had to deal with the Rabbinate.

An Orthodox institution of the Israeli government, the Rabbinate has sole authority over Jewish marriages in Israel. Only Orthodox rabbis approved by the Rabbinate may perform a wedding, and they are forbidden to officiate at a mixed marriage. Furthermore, any Jewish marriage performed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi isn’t recognized by the state.

Several of our friends had shared their experiences in running the rabbinic gauntlet. Most had warned of endless red tape, running from office to office, days spent trying to prove that they really were Jewish and/or truly single. And so we prepared ourselves for the worst.

Our first stop was the Beit Din, or rabbinic court, in Jerusalem, whose clerks are notoriously slow and often sexist. To prove my Jewishness, I was armed with my parents’ ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) and a note from my childhood rabbi. Sid, whose divorce had been processed by this very Beit Din, brought along his divorce papers.

A clerk, approving our papers, instructed us to return with two male witnesses each, to testify before three rabbinical judges that we were Jewish and single. Sid, who is a modern-Orthodox rabbi, insisted that women could serve as witnesses in such matters; the clerk refused to listen. Sid persisted with a supervisor, and finally we prevailed.

After receiving the Beit Din’s official stamp of approval, our next stop was the Rabbinate’s marriage licensing office. To our delight, the clerk okayed my childhood rabbi’s request to perform our wedding. This was a triumph, since my rabbi leads a traditional, not Orthodox, congregation, and we had worried that the agency might not find him “kosher” enough for their approval. Less delightful was my mandatory meeting with a female clerk, who insisted on knowing whether I would be menstruating on my wedding day. Although Jewish law permits marriages while a bride is in “niddah“—ritual impurity—the Beit Din sometimes refuses to permit the wedding on that date. I pre-empted the clerk before she could whip out her calendar and told her what all savvy Israeli women tell these clerks: “My gynecologist has put me on the pill, so I won’t have my period on my wedding night.”

The next hurdle was the court-mandated pre-nuptial bridal classes, to learn the laws of taharat mishpacha, family purity. These laws govern when a woman may or may not have sexual relations with her husband. All Jewish brides-to-be in Israel must take these classes, regardless of their level of religious observance. Grooms do not have to attend. The Rabbinate will not permit a marriage to take place unless a teacher provides a note stating that a woman has completed the course.

Overall Sid and I were treated with respect, perhaps due to my intentionally modest dress and Sid’s rabbinic title; others we’ve met were accorded far less courtesy. Still, there were many hoops to jump through before we could get down to the business of planning our actual ceremony, one that was traditional but respected the bride’s integrity (mine!), and figuring out how we wanted the state to label us afterward. I decided to circle Sid seven times under the wedding canopy, as my foremothers, of blessed memory, had done before me, despite the fact that some consider this ritual sexist. I may have created a new tradition at the bedeken, the ritual at which the groom comes to the bride and peers under her veil, by greeting my groom in a Minnie Mouse mask. Fortunately, I was able to retain my surname following the wedding. Until relatively recently, Israel’s Ministry of the Interior automatically changed a bride’s name to her husband’s. That practice, thank goodness, is a thing of the past.

Michele Chabin is a journalist based in Jerusalem.


A Reform Rabbi in Jerusalem Tells How She’s Changing Things

by Sarah Blustain

The majority of Israelis who wed still abide by the strict rules of the Orthodox Rabbinate. But, according to one Reform rabbi in Israel, that won’t last long.

“I think there’s a major shift that’s almost glacial in its implications,” Rabbi Naamah Kelman, of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, told LILITH. “Basically for the past five year’s, Israelis couples are voting with their feet and opting out of official Rabbinate weddings.”

According to Kelman, working on a doctoral thesis about Israelis who have “taken back” life-cycle rituals from Orthodox authorities, Israelis are choosing secular, Reform and Conservative weddings over Orthodox ones. Because these have no legal standing in Israel, they must be paired with a civil service held abroad. Despite these hurdles, says Kelman, rabbis in liberal Tel Aviv are “overwhelmed,” some performing as many as 150 weddings a year.

“People who can choose a range of life experiences are beginning to say, ‘Wait a minute. I can’t choose how I’m going to get married and who’s going to do it?…I choose my DJ, I choose my caterer and I want to choose my rabbi as well.'”

There’s a feminist piece as well. “I think Israeli women increasingly refuse to buy into the charade of going to the mikvah, being a nonentity at the wedding and so on.”

Now that people are taking control over their weddings, what are the radical innovations? “They’re not at all radical,” says Kelman, the first woman to be ordained in Israel by Hebrew Union College. “To most Americans they would seem laughable.” She lists an egalitarian ketubah, the fact that men and women can hold the huppah, the presence of a personable rabbi who relates to the couple. “I’m willing travel all over the country for these [weddings] because of the impact. It’s aesthetic, it’s meaningful, it expresses who the couple is—and this [in Israel] is revolutionary.”

Kelman recounts a wedding she did, held on a moshav. Kelman read from the Song of Songs, spoke comfortably to the couple, made it personal. The entire time, she says, the bride’s mother stood under the huppah with her jaw dropped. “I wondered, did I have a stain on my suit, what?…When the wedding was over, she grabbed me and said, ‘I want to thank you. You gave me back Judaism today.'”