In Israel, pressure builds to legitimize non-Orthodox weddings

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tel aviv | When Galit Weidman Sassoon became engaged last year, her thoughts turned to the kind of wedding ceremony she and her fiancé wanted — something meaningful, egalitarian and Jewish.

As secular Jews, the couple felt alienated from Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment, Weidman Sassoon said, and wanted a ceremony in which they both could participate fully, from drafting the ketubah to blessing each other while exchanging rings.

In Israel, however, the only Jewish weddings recognized by the state are Orthodox. There is no civil marriage in Israel, and Jews who choose to marry in Conservative and Reform ceremonies are not considered officially married.

In recent years, however, there has been a groundswell of couples seeking alternatives to Orthodox marriage. About one-fifth of Israeli couples now are marrying outside of the rabbinate, according to Freedom of Choice in Marriage, a Jerusalem-based umbrella organization of civil rights groups.

“I was not prepared to even think of having someone from the rabbinate marry us, because it binds me to a ceremony that discriminates against women,” said Weidman Sassoon, 33, a doctoral student in linguistics at Tel Aviv University. “It’s hard to comprehend in a democratic country that one of the most basic rights people have — that of marrying according to their beliefs — is denied.”

Israel’s big wedding season begins in mid-May, following Lag B’Omer. The debate over marriage is especially urgent given that an estimated half-million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not considered Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish religious law, cannot marry in Israel.

Also affected are male Kohanim, or descendants of the priestly caste, who are forbidden under halachah to marry divorced women. The halachah also places marriage restrictions on the children of adulterous unions.

Largely because of the conundrum posed by the immigrants, pressure is building on politicians and a Knesset committee for change that may pave the way toward civil marriage.

Many Israeli couples fly to Cyprus and marry in civil ceremonies now so common that they have become a booming business for the Cypriot economy. But such travel often is too expensive for young couples, and new immigrants in particular.

Civil ceremonies performed abroad are recognized in Israel, as are marriages performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis overseas.

Though marriages by non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel aren’t legally recognized, courts often give the couples common-law status. Still, many Israelis, like Weidman Sassoon and her fiancé, choose to have two marriages: one in Israel with a non-Orthodox rabbi, that is personally meaningful, and a civil ceremony abroad that is legally binding.

“It’s absurd that a person married by a Reform rabbi has to then be married by a non-Jewish clerk abroad,” said Rabbi Meier Azri, the senior rabbi at Beit Daniel, a large Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv.

But figures in the country’s Orthodox establishment argue that because Israel is the Jewish state and sets the standard for Jewish observance around the world, only Orthodox Jewish ceremonies can be legally sanctioned here. If other marriages are recognized by the state the way Orthodox marriages are, Israel would be “conveying a distorted message in regard to Jewish law,” said Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Am Echad, an Orthodox media resource organization.

He said Conservative and Reform movements “may be movements made of Jews, but they are not Judaism as traditionally understood because of a lack of allegiance to Jewish law.”

Azri, however, said he has seen a “revolution” in the demand for Reform marriages. His synagogue marries 600 to 700 couples a year, and the number keeps rising, he said.

The law doesn’t just impact Jews. Only people of the same religion can marry each other in Israel, a legal practice that dates to the time of Turkish rule and then the British Mandate. Under both regimes, religious authorities — whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim — had sole jurisdiction over marriage.

To date it has been impossible to pass legislation endorsing freedom in marriage ceremonies, in part because of the clout of Israel’s religious parties. In March, another such bill was defeated on the Knesset floor, but advocates insist they will not be deterred.