The news came across the wires: Israeli police authorities had gone to the home of a Conservative rabbi, Dov Haiyun, in the early morning hours, to investigate allegations that he had conducted an illegal marriage.
The news seemed jarring. An early morning raid? Is it so bad to conduct a marriage forbidden by Israeli law? (The Conservative rabbi allegedly conducted a marriage involving a mamzer.)
First, context. Israel is not America, and Israeli police regularly pursue their targets in early-morning raids. As an American who lived full-time in Israel, I remember often being dismayed when reading of early-morning police raids around the country against non-violent suspects. It seemed downright “un-American.” Neighbors would remind me: “But, rabbi, you are not living in America. That is how they do it here.”
I remember the day – the early morning – Israeli police broke into the home of a former Soviet Jewish Prisoner of Zion. I actually had marched for her freedom when I was a college boy back in New York. When the Soviets finally let her out, Israel celebrated her arrival. And then, one day, she became a different kind of prisoner as Israeli police busted into her home early in the morning because she had a television for which she wasn’t paying the proper tax.
Israel really ought to consider abandoning this practice. But it has nothing to do with a rabbi conducting forbidden marriages. Rather, it is the Israeli societal counterpart to shaming an American suspect with a “perp walk.” Do they really have to handcuff a Sheldon Silver or a Paul Manafort? But American society has adopted this custom, and Israel has adopted its own variation of it.
Thus, a year ago, five antiquities dealers in East Jerusalem were arrested in the early morning hours. A month ago, police raided the home of Mayor Zvi Gendelman of Hadera in the early morning hours, suspecting him of financial defalcations. Ten senior officials in the Beit Shemesh municipality were raided in the early morning hours on June 3. And on June 23 — yes, in the early morning hours — approximately 120 police officers raided houses in the Upper Galil, in Jerusalem, and elsewhere, arresting 23 people on suspicion of financial crimes.
That is how they do it in Israel. They do it to Orthodox rabbis, to yeshiva heads, to mayors of cities, and to Prisoners of Zion. Not just to this one conservative rabbi.
But is it so terrible to conduct an “unauthorized marriage”?
In the United States, every state has marriage laws. Famously, Utah bans polygamous marriages. In Arkansas, clergy may not conduct a marriage unless their credentials are recorded in one of the state’s counties. In Colorado, although a couple may solemnize their own marriage, friends or relatives may not do so.
Meanwhile, despite “hillbilly jokes,” cousins may not marry in Arkansas but may marry in Colorado. In Hawaii, a marriage officiant first must be commissioned by the state. In Kentucky, the officiant first must be state-licensed. Massachusetts requires out-of-state clergy first to obtain a “Certificate of Authorization” from the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
Each state has its own specific marriage laws, and officiating clergy can be punished severely if they deviate. In California, where I practice as a rav and attorney, strict laws regulate even the filing of marriage documentation.
A society regulates marriage for reasons pertaining to health and social order. Until the rise of political correctness, couples first had to be tested for STDs. Bigamy is illegal for a wide range of obvious reasons.
Thus, it is thoroughly reasonable for Israel to adopt and enforce its own marriage laws. In America, it is common for prospective Jewish spouses to test for Tay-Sachs genes. Their goal is to avoid bearing children who will be at risk of doom. In the same way, it is thoroughly reasonable that a Jewish country would seek to regulate marital unions whose offspring will be socially outcast for life.
A conservative rabbi can retort, “But I don’t think there is anything wrong with mamzer marriages.” And another rabbi can wish to marry siblings. And another can want to conduct marriages of mothers and sons, or fathers and daughters.
But the greater society has its greater social interests and concerns. It really is very simple. All civilized societies regulate marriage, circumscribe those eligible to officiate, and enforce those laws for the common weal.