Seeking Alternatives in Tying the Knot
The beauty of separation of religion and state was never clearer to me than when an Orthodox rabbi told my fiancé that he required a learning session on marital sexual relations before any of his couples got married. As a twenty-something secular woman who was raised in the American tradition where the girls were equal to the boys—in the classroom, at home, and on the baseball diamond—it was frustrating to learn after moving to Israel that for one of the most significant events of my life, I would have no choice but to yield to Orthodox customs.
Tying the knot in the Holy Land requires far more than a brief trip to city hall with only a driver’s license in hand, but rather meeting a series of stringent conditions laid down by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The process, sometimes lasting as long as three months, includes proving the woman is single, in some cases that she went to a mikvah (ritual bath) and attended bridal counseling (courses that instruct brides on building a Jewish home and on marital relations), and that both partners are Jewish according to Orthodox-interpreted Jewish law. The couple must also hire an Orthodox rabbi approved by the Rabbinate and use the centuries-old Orthodox ketuba (marriage contract) text that seals the deal with a promise of gold coin “zuzim” and is written in the now nearly obsolete Aramaic script.
This state of affairs has led a growing number of Israelis to seek another way to get married in their country. About 47,000 Israelis, or 12 percent of those who married between 2000 and 2005, secured their union abroad, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. The Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel reported that in recent years about 20 percent are opting out annually.
“There are two types of couples. Those that have no choice and those that don’t want an Orthodox ceremony,” said Zamira Segev, executive director of the Council for Freedom of Religion in Israel. About half fall in the no-choice category because they are marrying a non-Jew or cannot prove that they themselves are Jewish and therefore must arrange a civil marriage abroad.
Especially upset are those Israelis who follow a more progressive tradition.
“It’s not what Judaism intended,” said Tal Evron-Carmel, a secular Israeli woman married in a Reform ceremony eight years ago. “The Rabbinate has no real function or meaning in our life and we think they control in an aggressive and incorrect way, so we did something nice and beautiful of our own.”
To legalize her wedding, Evron- Carmel’s legal union took place in Cyprus a few weeks after her wedding in Israel, since the State will only recognize Orthodox weddings within its borders, or a foreign marriage license that is presented to Israel’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.
But not all non-Orthodox Israelis oppose the established conventions. Even with the enormous lifestyle gap between the secular and Orthodox in Israel, the secular often hold onto the notion that “Jewish” means keeping with the most traditional customs, even if they themselves do not keep them, said Segev. Following the Orthodox tradition is a “matter of preservation of Judaism,” she said. In other words, to marry Orthodox is perceived by average Israelis as “normal.”
“It was important to me to get married in a Jewish ceremony in Israel in my own country. I’m not religious but I like tradition and I didn’t mind following what I should be doing,” said Taryn Shani, a secular Israeli woman married through the Rabbinate four years ago. She said her family never identified with a specific stream of Judaism, so getting married in the Orthodox way was simply a traditional thing to do.
Among older Israelis, an Orthodox wedding is expected, said Evron-Carmel. Her mother-in-law had a very hard time comprehending “that a Reform wedding is a Jewish wedding in every way.”
The lack of exposure nationwide to alternative Jewish movements outside Orthodoxy encourages the status quo. The majority of people are unaware of the options that more progressive forms of Judaism have to offer. And so the Masorti and Reform Movements are trying to change this tendency by making evading the Orthodox establishment not only more common, but easier.
This summer, the Masorti Movement launched a nationwide promotional campaign making marrying Conservative the hip option for young Israelis, complete with radio advertisements, a telephone hotline, and an interactive website where visitors can build a mock virtual wedding while learning about a Conservative wedding ceremony. The campaign’s key slogan is “Go for a Conservative chuppah, that’s how Israelis get married.”
If the campaign succeeds, Israelis may be able to marry in a way that reflects their values. As for us, our decision to be married in an un-Orthodox way—that of the Conservative Movement —has put us among the minority of Israelis who are unable to cope with the Orthodox requirement and unwilling to cooperate.
Jerrin K. Zumberg is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist and editor. An avid traveler, athlete, and flamenco dancer, she made aliyah from the United States two years ago.