The Jewish Week reported last month on an initiative called iREP, created by the Jewish Federations of North America, to “limit or end Orthodox control of personal-status issues such as marriage, divorce, conversion and burial,” beginning with support for civil marriage in Israel.
At first glance, it would seem inevitable that this initiative would alienate the Orthodox. Most Orthodox Israelis, even (or especially) groups like Tzohar, a rabbinic group with a reputation for moderation, are vehemently opposed to civil marriages and recognition of non-Orthodox marriage ceremonies.
But as Gary Rosenblatt noted, “Even some Orthodox leaders have spoken positively of [iREP] as an alternative for those who cannot marry under traditional halachic requirements.” These Orthodox leaders would consider the initiative a civil arrangement for those who cannot marry under Orthodox auspices, but do not really endorse full freedom of marriage. The inevitable conclusion, as Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein wrote on the blog Crosscurrents, is that “Passing iREP will be a message to the Orthodox that screams, ‘You are not needed here.’”
In truth, though, there is a greater variety of opinion on civil marriage in all segments of the Orthodox world. (I have argued strongly in favor of civil marriage in Israel in several essays over the past few years, but despite my Orthodox rabbinic credentials, I represent no one but myself).
Among high-profile rabbis associated with the liberal end of the Orthodox spectrum, Minister of Education Rabbi Shai Piron, Rabbi Benny Lau, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Seth Farber have recently endorsed civil marriage.
Civil marriage has been supported by brighter stars in the Orthodox pantheon as well. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed is a major Zionist rabbinic figure whose works on Jewish law are fast attaining canonic status throughout the Religious-Zionist world. He is also known for an independent streak that results in him taking unexpected positions. Recently, he penned an essay in favor of “Domestic Partnership Agreements” in which he stated:
“While we believe that the State of Israel must have a Jewish character, we also do not wish to cause grief to anyone. Nor do we claim the authority to interfere with one’s personal life and tell him who to live with, or how. … It should be established that any two people are entitled to sign a domestic partnership agreement that grants them all privileges derived from shared life, like a family.”
A decade ago, Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, stated at a Tzohar conference that the time had come to end the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on personal-status issues, as the position only generates antipathy and does not really stop individuals from living their lives as they see fit. The Tzohar organization immediately dissociated itself from Rabbi Bakshi-Doron’s statements.
In 2001, secular jurist Ruth Gavison and Rabbi Yaakov Medan of Yeshivat Har Etzion published a covenant that they hoped would serve as the basis for a new “status quo” to govern the complex interface between religion and state in Israel. Among the provisions of their covenant was a two-tiered marriage registration system, wherein each couple would first obtain a marriage license from a civil authority and then would be free to opt for a religious ceremony through any of several recognized religious communities.
Rabbi Medan was willing to accept civil marriages. His mentor, the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital, was among the first to recognize that the Orthodox monopoly over personal status was doing more harm than good.
A much harsher and more surprising formulation appears in a responsum from 1957 by Rabbi Avraham Weinfeld of Monsey, N.Y. Rabbi Weinfeld, a haredi whose attitudes toward the State of Israel were deeply ambivalent, saw very early in the state’s history that Orthodox control over marriage and divorce came at a tremendous cost:
“How much would we gain if we would leave this path and declare that we are not responsible for [the secularists], for they have removed themselves from the community, and we have no desire to coerce them. Instead, we should focus our energies on fighting for things that are fundamental to us and our children and to the thousands upon thousands of pious Jews immigrating from Arab lands and Morocco [who were being placed in secularist schools].”
These Orthodox rabbis hardly speak with one voice. For Rabbi Weinfeld, relinquishing rabbinic control over marriage and divorce was a disavowal of any sort of responsibility for the spiritual lives of the non-observant majority; for Rabbi Amital it is a way to reduce hatred for religion; for Rabbi Medan it is a compromise necessary to forge a new social contract between Israel’s religious and secular; and for Rabbi Melamed it is a recognition of certain basic freedoms protected by modern states.
Each of them also has certain caveats: Rabbi Melamed insists that domestic partnerships not be called “marriage.” Rabbi Medan specifically restricts civil marriage to a relationship between one man and one woman (Rabbi Melamed’s partnership agreement can apply to same-sex couples as well). Rabbi Amital was adamant that non-Orthodox movements, particularly Reform, not be given any de jure recognition. And yet each of these rabbis articulated a stance that accepted civil marriage in Israel.
No doubt, whatever form civil marriage takes in Israel, it will be the result of a great deal of wrangling and compromise. The Orthodox rabbis who support civil marriage have deep concerns about its ramifications — specifically of an entirely civil divorce regime.
I urge JFNA and iREP to include some of these Orthodox rabbis in their efforts, as bridging figures who can ensure that these efforts do not deepen rifts within the Jewish people.
Elli Fischer, a frequent contributor, is a writer, translator, and rabbi in Modiin, Israel.