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Untying the Knot

US Jewish Women’s Council Wants Israel to Certify Civil Marriages

Do Israeli orthodox rabbis have a “monopoly?” Should Diaspora Jews try to pull Israel’s domestic strings? The National Council of Jewish Women seems to say “yes” to both questions.

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The National Council of Jewish Women called on the Jewish state to create a system of civil marriage and divorce in what was seen as a landmark move.

“The monopoly of authority given to Orthodox rabbinical courts in Israel regarding issues of personal status, particularly marriage, weakens rather than strengthens the state itself by causing disunity, disrespect for the law, and even hostility among Israelis and between Israel and Jews abroad,” according to a statement released Monday by the NCJW board of directors.

Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movements Religious Action Center, said it was the first time a mainstream U.S. Jewish group joined non-Orthodox groups in making such a call.

“What’s important to me is that an organization beyond the religious streams is beginning to call for that,” he told JTA. “That’s an important step forward. I deeply commend the NCJW for doing so and ask all Jewish organizations to join the fight for freedom of marriage.”

The women’s group cited “democratic values and civil liberties” as two reasons Israel should grant its wishes. It also claimed that the lack of civil marriages forces “thousands of Israeli couples every year to leave Israel for a civil marriage abroad” and alienates “approximately 350,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union” who are not considered Jewish according to halacha.”

Civil marriages may or may not be suitable for Israel, which has a major problem coming up with a solution to heart-wrenching situations, such as that of divorced Kohenim. And even the predominantly orthodox Jewish Home party backed its non-secular Knesset Member Ayelet Shaked for coming out in support of civil marriages.

But the use of the terms “monopoly” and “civil liberties” is a populist tool to undermine the power of the Israeli Rabbinate, and the complicated issue of civil marriages is not addressed except as a matter of “democracy.”

It indeed could be said that orthodox rabbis have a monopoly in Israel. It also can be said that the American Medical Association has a monopoly on who can practice medicine and the Bar Association can decide who can practice law.

Would you call someone who has learned alternative medicine – and skips over six years of medical school – a doctor? If you change the definition of “doctor,” the answer is “yes.”

And what if someone wants to become a Reform rabbi?

Well, it seems that the evil “monopoly” also applies to the Reform movement.

Do you want to become a Reform rabbi? There are several small seminaries whose rabbis claim to be Reform, but if you want to be accepted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), you have to play by their rules.

One of  Judaism’s rules is “Who is a Jew?”,  an issue that has sharply divided Reform and Orthodox Jewry.

The Women’s Council is very concerned for Israelis from the Soviet Union who are not recognized as Jews.

But why?

Many of those “Jews” are not even Jews by the most liberal of standards. Under the government of Ariel Sharon, tens of thousands of people, and probably closer to 300,000, were allowed to make aliyah even though neither of their parents was Jewish. And it is questionable whether they want to be Jewish, unless it does not require any commitment to anything.

The question remains whether the National Council of Jewish Women’s declaration is a move for the sake of Israeli Jewry or for the sake of destroying centuries-old acceptance of developing Jewish in orthodox Judaism.

To the NCJW’s credit, its opinions, even if politically oriented, are no less important than anyone else’s and serve as part of the verbal warfare that has been part and parcel of Jewish thought, as evidenced in the Talmud.

Raising the issue could add pressure on the Israeli Rabbinate to address the issue of civil marriages, and that in itself may strengthen the orthodox “monopoly” in Israel.

Tzvi Ben-Gedalyahu

About the Author: Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu is a graduate in journalism and economics from The George Washington University. He has worked as a cub reporter in rural Virginia and as senior copy editor for major Canadian metropolitan dailies. Tzvi wrote for Arutz Sheva for several years before joining the Jewish Press.


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