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In Israel, Pressure Builds to Find Alternatives to Orthodox Marriage

By Dina Kraft

This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency . Visit www.jta.org .

TEL AVIV, May 9 (JTA)--When Galit Weidman Sassoon got engaged last year, her thoughts turned to the kind of wedding ceremony she and her fiance wanted--meaningful, egalitarian and Jewish.

As secular Jews, Weidman Sassoon said the couple felt alienated from Israel's Orthodox religious establishment and wanted a ceremony in which they both could participate fully--from drafting the ketubah, Jewish marriage contract, 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 main wedding season begins this week 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 halakha, or Jewish religious law, cannot marry in Israel.

Also affected are male kohenim, or descendants of the priestly caste, who are forbidden under halakha to marry divorced women. The halakha 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 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 husband, 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, the state 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."

Some matters in Jewish law are not up for debate or interpretation, he said, citing marriage and prohibitions on driving on the Sabbath.

Azri, however, said he has seen a "revolution" in the demand for Reform marriages. His synagogue marries some 600 to 700 couples a year, and the numbers keep rising, he said.

The law doesn't affect only 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 solidly defeated on the Knesset floor, but one of its initiators said advocates would not be deterred.

"We will keep pushing for our legislation, even if it has a slim chance of passing, because it gets the issue on the public agenda," said Zamira Segev, Freedom of Choice in Marriage's coordinator.

The issue was prominent on Shinui's platform last year when the party won a whopping 15 Knesset seats.

Ronny Brison, Shinui's coordinator for issues of religion and state, now is on the Knesset committee seeking a solution for the marriage issues of some 300,000 to 400,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to halakha, or do not have documentation to prove their Jewishness.

"It's hard to change the Orthodox monopoly because it's enshrouded in much psychology and mysticism. Those who are against it are those who say it will end the Jewish nation, that it's breaking up the country," Brison said. "These are not arguments that stand the test of logic or law and a pluralistic democratic outlook," but they carry weight "in a country that struggles with how to define itself."

As alternatives to Orthodox weddings become more socially acceptable, so too do their place in popular culture. The women's magazine L'Isha featured information on ceremony options in its most recent issue, and information booths by civil rights organizations now are a standard feature of wedding fairs where couples shop for caterers and DJs.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement in Israel, said couples are looking to inject meaning into ceremonies that in some cases have become afterthoughts.

"For most Israelis, the chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) takes place in a corner where some pay attention but most people are chatting, drinking, and smoking," Bandel said. "We are trying to bring the ceremony into the center of the evening and have the couple be active partners in shaping the character of the ceremony."

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "document," a legal document that is both a prenuptial agreement and a certification that a Jewish marriage has taken place. Hebrew term for a unit of dry measure, it was used to measure barley and is sometimes translated as "sheaf" (as in, "sheaf of barley"). Omer now refers to the period of 49 days from Passover to Shavuot. Today, instead of bringing an omer of barley to sacrifice, the days are counted ("counting the Omer"). It's also a period of semi-mourning, when traditional Jews will refrain from partying, dancing, listening to live music, or cutting their hair.
Dina Kraft

Dina Kraft is JTA's news and features correspondent in Israel. Based in Tel Aviv, she covers a wide range of behind-the-headlines issues, including Israel-Diaspora affairs and economic and social trends. She comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where she worked for over six years, first in the Jerusalem bureau and then in the Johannesburg bureau covering southern Africa. She has reported from throughout Africa as well as Pakistan, Turkey and Jordan.

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