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A facinating cooperation between opposing groups
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Alternative wedding revolution underway in Israel
A real drama is taking place under the Chief Rabbinate's radar, as a secret movement of private halachic marriages is coming out of the shadows and turning into an open, organized system.
"It was important to me to have a feminist, yet halachic, wedding and under no circumstances through the Rabbinate," says 31-year-old Hannah, a doctoral candidate in law who was married about a month ago in an illegal private marriage. "It was also important to me to have women say the blessings as well under the chuppah (marriage canopy), and especially my mother, for whom I chose a special blessing."

 

 

And she had a special reason for that: Ten months ago, Hannah was chased by a knife-wielding terrorist near Jerusalem's central bus station while she was in the middle of a phone call with her mother in France.

 

"I screamed and ran to the road. My mother heard the screams on the phone. The terrorist stabbed another woman who was next to me, and she was wounded. There was chaos. Shots were fired in every direction because they thought there was another terrorist. It took 20 minutes for things to calm down, and then I remembered my mother and called her. She thought her daughter was already dead. When she heard my voice, she said, 'Blessed be He for performing a miracle for me at this place.' She recited the same blessing out loud, with tears in her eyes, under our chuppah."

 

Rabbi Eli Fischer conducting a wedding ceremony. 'The first couple and rabbi to be arrested will immediately become the heroes of the protest against the rabbinical establishment'
Rabbi Eli Fischer conducting a wedding ceremony. 'The first couple and rabbi to be arrested will immediately become the heroes of the protest against the rabbinical establishment'

 

Hannah's desire to design the chuppah in a way that would match her personality was not just emotional. As a lawyer, she had investigated and studied the issue thoroughly. "We could have easily gotten married in France or in the United States. My husband emigrated three years ago from Boston and I emigrated eight years ago from France. But we thought it wouldn’t be right, that it would be better to get married in Israel in a private marriage, and in the meantime to be officially defined as a common-law couple. Later on, we may petition the High Court of Justice to have the state recognize our marriage."

 

Hannah doesn’t want to reveal her real name both to protect her privacy and also because it could lead the police to knock on her door. In the State of Israel, according to the Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction Law, marriage can only be conducted under halachic Orthodox rules. An amendment to the Marriage and Divorce Order states that a person who failed to register his own marriage or a marriage they arranged for someone else faces a two-year prison term.

 

Weddings conducted by celebrities or Reform weddings are not defined as marriage under the law, so whoever conducts them does not risk arrest, and the married couple is considered a common-law couple. Only a person like Hannah, who got married in a halachic wedding not through the rabbinical courts, risks arrest. Now, the people who helped her and dozens of other couples get married that way are refusing to hide any longer and revealing themselves here for the first time.

 

In recent weeks, drama has been taking place under the Chief Rabbinate's radar: The secret movement of hundreds of couples who were married in private halachic marriages is coming out of the shadows and turning into an open, organized system.

 

How is this happening? Thanks to an impossible connection between opposing groups that are working in fascinating cooperation, despite having completely different interests. On one end stands the lawyer Batya Kahana-Dror, an ardent feminist and a liberal Orthodox religious woman who served as director of the Mavoi Satum organization for the rights of "agunot" (women who have been refused a Jewish divorce), which is sponsored by the New Israel Fund.

 

Alongside her stands Avraham Dov Levin, a Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood, with a brimmed hat on his head and a thick beard on his face, who serves as head of Beit Din Tzedek Jerusalem, a private rabbinical court and who was a student of the late prominent Lithuanian Orthodox leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and a former member of Jerusalem's Religious Council.

 

She wants an egalitarian marriage in which women play a role in the wedding ceremony as well and which allow a woman to release herself from the marriage without being completely dependent on her husband's agreement. He wants a marriage according to strict halachic standards and thinks that marriage through the Chief Rabbinate is not always kosher. Instead of engaging in a tug of war amongst themselves, the two have begun working together to break the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly over marriage and divorce in Israel.

 

The price: 100 shekels

Private halachic marriage may be illegal in Israel, but it is already an established practice. More and more couples in recent years, hundreds and perhaps even thousands, both in the ultra-Orthodox society and the religious societies, are getting married privately without registering anywhere. Kahana-Dror has helped dozens of couple get married that way and is now teaming up with the private Haredi court to offer marriage according to Jewish law. 

 

Kahana-Dror with Rabbi Levin. 'The Rabbinate's monopoly is a very bad thing'
Kahana-Dror with Rabbi Levin. 'The Rabbinate's monopoly is a very bad thing'

 

So how does it work? Kahana-Dror is approached by couples, secular and religious Jews, who wish to marry according to Jewish Law but not through the Rabbinate. At first, the information about this "service" was disseminated by word of mouth, and now it is already advertised on the Mavoi Satum website. The organization is planning to distribute a promotional informational booklet to the wider public.

 

Kahana-Dror directs the couples to Rabbi Levin's court, where the husband and wife are both verified to be Jewish and unmarried. After receiving the permit to marry, the couple signs a prenuptial agreement before lawyers from Mavoi Satum. The agreement settles the financial division of property in case of separation, and the couple promises to report to the court for a halachic divorce by consent. In addition, the agreement includes a condition that the marriage would become invalid in case of a refusal to grant a divorce, if the husband disappears or if the husband becomes a vegetable.

 

The wedding ceremony is held in a format chosen by the couple. The two sections of a Jewish wedding, the betrothal and the actual marriage ceremony, can also be conducted by a woman. The Seven Blessings can be recited by women as well. There may be both male and female witnesses, and the woman may give the man a ring. Rabbi Levin presents the happy couple with a wedding certificate as long as all the feminist adornments are in addition to the required halachic core: two religious male witnesses signing a kosher ketubah, and the man giving the woman a ring while reciting the text, "You are betrothed to me."

 

Six couples have been married in the private court so far. The certificates granted by Rabbi Levin have no legal status, merely a symbolic one. The names of these married couples will soon be published on Mavoi Satum's website to give the public access to the information, so that a man or a woman who were married in the private court will not be able to marry others without a divorce.

 

"The joint initiative we created provides security to couples who want a halachic wedding but are fed up with the official establishment," says Kahana-Dror. "I meet many couples who want the marriage ceremony to express their identity and feel that marriage through the Rabbinate fails to give them that. We are not just talking about secular or traditional couples, but also about religious and even Haredi couples. They mainly want women to be much more active in the ceremony itself, to have female friends and relatives recite the Seven Blessings or serve as witnesses at the chuppah.

 

"These changes do not necessarily contradict halacha, but they do require some openness. The Rabbinate is tough and won't allow it, because the Rabbinate is a legal system which is loyal first of all to itself and to its values, and only then to the public and to democracy. This situation creates injustice towards innocent citizens who are caught in a crisis. We are witnessing the corruption and deterioration of the religious establishment, which was created due to the monopoly and lack of competition, and mainly because the religious institutions are dominated by politics."

 

Rabbi Levin agrees with Kahana-Dror's last sentence. As a member of Jerusalem's Religious Council and the former head of the Marriage Division, he is not bothered by the Rabbinate's halachic strictness, but rather by its excessive flexibility.

 

"I see the Rabbinate as a non-kosher place to get married in," he says. "They are subject to all kinds of pressures there. Today the Rabbinate marries both Jews and gentiles. They marry whomever the government tells them to marry. A government worker picks up the phone and calls the chief rabbi and tells him, 'Marry this couple.' So they have no choice, and they register the marriage.

 

"We don't feel comfortable working with the Rabbinate, and I don't want to need them. There are halachically fundamental and very important things that are covered up by the government, and on the other hand they are strict about all kinds of things that they shouldn't be strict about.

 

"The Chief Rabbinate's monopoly is a very bad thing. I believe that every rabbinical court should interpret halacha the way it sees fit. As far as I am concerned, it can even be a Reform court, as long as we Haredim can marry people according to our faith. We must not be forced to marry through the Rabbinate just like the Reforms must not be forced. What I am saying is let us Haredim marry people the way we want to."

 

And doesn’t it bother you that each person will be able to get married and divorced in a different way and that we won't have one people here?

 

"In the current situation, in which the Rabbinate marries both Jews and gentiles, the nation is already divided as it is, and each person has his lists. So it would be better to have many courts, and the competition between them will only be a good thing."

 

Doesn’t it bother you that women will recite the Seven Blessings?

 

"What happens in the ceremony and the additions are none of my business. We check what has to be checked halachically: that there is a kosher ketubah and kosher witnesses. Before the ceremony we check (that the couples are unmarried), of course. The couple arrives and present themselves and their details, like they do at the Rabbinate, only here it's not like a machine, because unlike the Rabbinate we don’t have a marriage industry here. We give each couple the time it needs, smile and talk pleasantly.

 

"The process costs 100 shekels for office expenses—that's all. Needy people don’t pay anything. We clarify the single status with the couple's relatives from the previous generation—parents or uncles. They know the children very well and know one hundred percent whether they are single or not. They will tell us the whole truth. It's much more reliable than receiving two friends as witnesses like the Rabbinate does."

 

How do you verify Jewishness?

 

"If the couple's parents were married in Israel, they are clearly Jewish. And if they were not married in Israel, the couple brings the parents' relevant documents."

 

Have there been couples you refused to marry?

 

"Of course. There have been more couples we turned down than couples we agreed to marry. We told some couples to go to the Rabbinate, because we are more strict about halacha and can't help them. There are cases we prefer not to get into. For example, if the groom or bride's parents were not married, there is a fear that the mother had lived with other partners. We also don’t deal with the marriage of a divorced woman and a Cohen. These are things we won't take responsibility for. In such cases we suggest that the couple go to the Rabbinate, where the issue will be solved better."

 

The novelty: A betrothal condition

Kahana-Dror joined forces with Rabbi Levin precisely because he is so strict about halacha. "It was important for me to have a halachic authority behind us when we launched the private marriage initiative," she explains. "We are not acting against halacha—on the contrary. Solutions for modern problems can be found within halacha itself. Our cooperation with 'the Haredi' Rabbi Levin proves that the Rabbinate and courts sometimes create fictions and restrictions that allegedly stem from halacha just so they can gain more power and control over the Israeli public." 

 

The most revolutionary thing about the private halachic marriage through you is the betrothal condition. What does that mean exactly?

 

"It's an agreement the couple signs before the marriage stating that the marriage will be annulled in case the husband cannot give the wife a divorce due to a disease, madness or disappearance or in case a court forces him to grant a divorce and he refuses. The goal is to provide a solution for a difficult problem which exists at the basis of halachic marriage: the woman's dependence on the man's will in case of a divorce.

 

"Right now I am supporting a woman who has been waiting for a divorce for 24 years. There is no halachic way to go around the man's ownership of the woman. It's the only way to marry according to Jewish Law. The betrothal condition allows a woman to leave the marriage when the husband refuses to grant her a divorce, and that already makes the marriage more egalitarian."

 

What is the halachic base for this condition?

 

"The Mishna addresses the possibility of a betrothal condition. In the Gemara, the majority of opinions believe that if there were intimate relations between the couple, a betrothal condition cannot annul the marriage and the woman must receive a divorce. Nonetheless, throughout the years the betrothal condition was applied starting from the 15th century, and in the 20th century it was accepted among Jewish communities in France and in Constantinople.

 

"It's true that most of the sages of Israel were against it, but even Rabbi Uziel, who served as Tel Aviv's chief rabbi and later as Israel's first chief Sephardic rabbi, suggested a betrothal condition. Today, unfortunately, the Rabbinate is nowhere near this place. It is mainly busy denying the problem, caring for itself and for the preservation of halacha and only later caring for the public and its problems."

 

Have you already annulled the marriage of a couple that signed the condition?

 

"There are several dozen couples in Israel who have already signed the betrothal condition, some through us and some through other organizations. But we have yet to receive a woman who asked to annul a marriage after she and her husband signed the condition. There is an Orthodox rabbi, not Rabbi Levin, whose name I cannot publish right now, who promised that in such a situation he would annul the marriage. The truth is that from a halachic point of view, there is no need for a court. Any three Jewish men can invalidate the marriage if a betrothal condition has indeed been signed."

 

Rabbi Levin, Mavoi Satum's partner in the initiative, won't take responsibility for the betrothal condition either and declares he will not annul a marriage due to that condition. "I'm not involved in this part. What the partners sign between themselves or with Mavoi Satum's lawyers doesn't concern us. We want the couple to sign an agreement that in case of a separation they will agree to a divorce by consent according to halacha. We have already conducted divorces by consent in our court. We do it faster and discreetly. It was very respectable, without any fights and shouting. So nice and pleasant. Is there anything better than divorce by consent? But we will not annul a marriage."

 

The status: A common-law couple

They are not concerned by the fact that they are acting against the law. "The law says rabbinical court. I am a rabbinical court," says Rabbi Levin. "It doesn’t say 'a rabbinical court of Israel's Chief Rabbinate.' That's an interpretation that has been added to the law. I am certain that the legal solution to recognize my court's marriages will be found, but in the meantime we should start making a breakthrough."

 

"We are law-abiding citizens," adds Kahana-Dror, "but there is an impossible situation here which forces us to act in the grey area of the law. It's crazy to keep sending women to get married in the Rabbinate, when each of them could potentially become an agunah or be refused a divorce her entire life. The couple itself is perhaps breaking the law. We make it clear to the couples, and they know they are taking a risk here. The rabbi who conducts the private ceremony and doesn't inform the Rabbinate about is taking a risk too."

 

"I understood that we were taking a risk," Hannah confirms, "but many people have already done it, and no one has been arrested. My parents went through a very difficult divorce, and I wanted a wedding that would provide the woman with protection. A year ago, I attended a friend's feminist wedding and was very impressed by it. I spoke to him and he recommended that I contact Batya and Mavoi Satum. I loved the idea and the ideology behind it. People should be able to get married the way they want to, and religion must be separated from the state.

 

"The collaboration with Rabbi Levin's court went well too. We were treated nicely, he conducted a short verification of our Jewishness, and after he checks the witnesses, he'll issue a marriage certificate for us. It's a symbolic certificate of course, until the state recognizes this marriage. So in the meantime we are not officially married, but we are a common-law couple."

  

Who conducted the marriage ceremony?

 

"An Orthodox rabbi who supports equality within religion. It was important to the rabbi that all the Seven Blessings would be recited by men, but he had no objection that we would add another seven blessings for women, and that's what we did. We also had female witnesses who signed the marriage agreement, but not the ketubah."

 

Ido Grinblum took the risk too when he married his wife Inbal in June in a private halachic marriage. Unlike Hannah, he is not afraid to reveal his name. "As a person who was raised in a religious home, tradition means a lot to me," he explains. "It's important for me to preserve the spirit in which weddings were conducted in the past. But because the Rabbinate is a harmful body, which makes people hate religion and hurts women, I did not want to cooperate with that.

 

"The marriage condition was also very important to me, because the entire issue of the man's supremacy in the relationship is something I absolutely do not accept. It's important to guarantee the woman's freedom. No one wants to talk about get (divorce) refusal when getting married, but it's important to prevent all the complications in advance. It was also very important for Inbal, who came from a secular home, so we took the risk."

 

Rabbi Eli Fischer is taking a risk too. He has already conducted 10 private halachic weddings for religious and secular couples. "Until it reaches the court, we won't know for sure if I am breaking the law or not," he says. "I don't think anyone will enforce the law. No one has been arrested, and I believe no one will be arrested. After all, the first couple and rabbi to be arrested will immediately become the heroes of the protest against the rabbinical establishment. The Rabbinate, which wants to keep things quiet and to maintain the status quo, doesn’t really want that."

 

What makes you protest against the Rabbinate which ordained you as a rabbi?

 

"I actually think the problem exists in the government rather than in the rabbinical establishment. The current chief rabbis are excellent, but they are in charge of a fundamentally problematic system. Rabbinical courts were always something internal that were accepted by Jewish communities. Taking such an establishment and turning it into a government department is a mixture which sometimes leads to tragedies. For example, the Rabbinate's refusal to recognize converts who have undergone a proper conversion under halacha.

 

"I am not necessarily lenient. There are things I am stricter about than the Rabbinate. There have been couples I refused to marry. That's the way it should be: having differences and letting each person choose his own way. It's inappropriate, in my opinion, to have only one body controlling this important field. In the past there was a choice: If one rabbi was strict, there was another rabbi who was more lenient, and people had a choice. There is a choice in Jewish communities abroad as well. Only in Israel is there no choice."

 

The Ministry of Religious Services and Israel's Chief Rabbinate offered the following response: "The attack on Israel's religious services is part of a desperate campaign by private bodies with economic and other interests. Fortunately, the vast majority of the public in Israel keeps choosing to marry traditionally through a rabbi and register legally in the religious councils.

 

"The law on this matter is unequivocal: Section 7 of the Marriage and Divorce Order states that a person who fails to register marriage or divorce or the marriage or divorce he conducted for another person faces two years in prison. The ministry will act on this issue vis-à-vis the law authorities."

 

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