A version of this article originally appeared in Plus61J, an Australian-Jewish publication.
Israelis love complaining about the overbearing power of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Few, however, have done more to challenge the Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish life choices than Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz of Jerusalem.
After completing his struggle to introduce alternative kosher certificates to restaurants across the country earlier this year, Leibowitz is now taking on the megalith of Rabbinate power: Orthodox weddings.
Chuppot, a new non-profit launched in June, offers Orthodox marriage officiation to Israelis unwilling or unable to register with the Chief Rabbinate.
Many Israelis, especially immigrants from the US and Former Soviet Union, face humiliating questioning of their Jewish roots when applying for a Rabbinate marriage certificate. In the case of divorce, the Rabbinate often favours men, sometimes allowing wives to languish for years at the hands of recalcitrant husbands.
“The Chief Rabbinate is going through a process of radicalisation,” Leibowitz said. “Verification of Judaism is becoming more draconian, and we hear of more and more cases of conversion nullification. In most cases the Rabbinate’s stance is political, not halachic (pertaining to Jewish law).”
As a result, marriage registration in Israel has witnessed an annual decline of 4% in recent years. Since no civil marriage exists in Israel, some 40% of couples married through Chuppot choose to maintain common-law marriage. The rest marry abroad and return to the Israeli interior ministry with a foreign marriage certificate for registry.
Leibowitz argues that a more lenient Jewish approach toward Israelis who do not necessarily lead an Orthodox lifestyle but wish to marry according to “the laws of Moses and Israel” is in order. According to his organization’s statistics, some 700,000 Israelis are ineligible to marry through the Rabbinate and hence cannot marry in Israel at all.
Chuppot has so far married 65 couples and hopes to marry 200 by the end of its first operating year. But Leibowitz may face legal opposition from the Chief Rabbinate, similar to that which his kosher certificate initiative Hashgacha Pratit faced last year.
A 2013 law stipulates a two-year prison sentence for couples or rabbis who fail to register their marriage with the State. While private ultra-Orthodox weddings receive an automatic stamp of approval from the Rabbinate, Chuppot weddings may be labelled “Unorthodox” by the institution, vying for full control over marriage.
“The ultra-Orthodox powers running the Chief Rabbinate, which are fundamentalist in nature, see us as Reform,” Leibowitz said. “Anyone who doesn’t toe the line of their rulings is considered irrelevant.”
Absurdly, he added, the ultra-Orthodox shun the services they impose on the rest of society, using their own rabbis for marriage and their own kosher certification organisations for food. For them, it is nothing more than a power-struggle with the Modern Orthodox.
“The Modern Orthodox should realise that the Rabbinate is not the defender of tradition. That’s an illusion; one that allows the government to continue protecting the Rabbinate in the name of Jewish values.”
Many in the Modern Orthodox camp acknowledge the flaws of the Chief Rabbinate yet continue to advocate for a centralised religious establishment. But Leibowitz sees the Rabbinate as beyond repair.
“I’m pessimistic about the prospect of top-down change in the Rabbinate,” Leibowitz said. “The overwhelming ultra-Orthodox control of the Rabbinate precludes the possibility of real reform.”
Like in any debate over privatisation, critics of Chuppot warn that deregulation could cause anarchy in the field of Jewish weddings. This, they argue, could lead to couples remarrying without a proper divorce, resulting in children classified as Mamzerim – born of an illicit marriage and ostracized by Jewish law.
But Leibowitz insisted that a series of air-tight legal documents which all couples marrying through Chuppot must sign leave couples much better protected than under the current Orthodox system, both in Israel and abroad.
Applicants commit to the organization that they in case of divorce, they will only seek an Orthodox beit din (Jewish court). Recalcitrant husbands who deny their wives a get are subject to harsh financial penalties. The “doomsday weapon” is a halachic prenuptial agreement drafted by the Centre for Women’s Justice that allows a religious court to annul the marriage retroactively if the husband is physically or mentally unable to divorce his wife.
“We are true pioneers when it comes to the legal framework we require,” Leibowitz asserted.
Amir Zalait and Yska Ruzitsky married with Chuppot in early October. The couple, who do not lead an Orthodox lifestyle, said that a traditional wedding was nevertheless important for their families.
“We felt that marriage through the Rabbinate wasn’t right for us for a variety of reasons,” Zalait said. “We have no need to register in the interior Ministry, since we enjoy virtually the same rights with common-law marriage. Ideologically, we believe that there is more than one way to marry according to Jewish tradition.”
“Rabbi Leibowitz officiated the ceremony in a very pleasant and respectful way,” he added, noting that two other couples have turned to Chuppot following his wedding.
Chuppot hasn’t yet faced a head-on attack by the Chief Rabbinate, but Leibowitz sees such a move as inevitable. “I imagine a time will come where they won’t be able to remain silent any longer,” he said. “We’d love to do our work quietly but also welcome an attack by the Rabbinate that would raise public awareness.”