Galilee Diary: Under the Chuppah with a "Ceremony Facilitator"?
"You intend that the religion of Israel will be an independent force, with which the government will have no involvement; therefore I will never agree to the separation of religion and state. I want the state to hold the religion in its hand!" (David Ben Gurion, as reported by Isaiah Leibovitz)
Recently, we attended still another wedding not conducted by a rabbi, but by a friend of the couple, or by a freelance “ceremony facilitator.” Although such ceremonies are not recognized by the population registry, and thus have no legal standing, the ways around this obstacle have gotten easier in recent years. You can stop in for a quick civil marriage while traveling abroad, or make the one-hour hop to Cyprus for a few days on the beach and a civil ceremony.
Or you can register as a “common law” couple without even leaving the country. Thus, you can have any ceremony you want in Israel, and still be registered as officially married. And it seems we are on the way to court decisions that will further soften the state’s resistance to registering non-Orthodox weddings. All of this is of course good news for us Reform and Conservative rabbis, as it mitigates our status as outliers (or outlaws), and makes it not such an extreme or inconvenient decision to choose to have us perform your wedding.
But the problem is deeper.
Now that it is seen as an option, more and more one hears couples who resolve to marry “anywhere but the rabbinate.” If the market is open, then we liberal rabbis are competing not with Orthodox rabbis, but with the post-modern view that “anyone can do it.” It seems that the Orthodox rabbinate has left scorched earth in this area, and all new sprouts that manage to come up are seen as equal.
For almost 70 years, marriage in Israel has been under the control of rabbis who often act like and more often are seen as simply bureaucrats of a disliked and incomprehensible system. Thus it is no wonder that the traditional marriage ceremony, and the antics of the official rabbis, have come to be just what couples don’t want, in order not to spoil their wedding. And all alternatives are OK – even having no ceremony at all, but just dinner and dancing.
Many of the traditional roles of the Jewish community – education, welfare, marriage, burial – have been taken over by the state. Most (Orthodox) rabbis are state functionaries, assigned to a city or a neighborhood, paid by the central government. Thus, most Israelis are not part of a Jewish community; they did not grow up with a rabbi who knows them and whom they might want to be involved in their life and their marriage, who might even be able to say something personal at their wedding (!).
Isaiah Leibowitz was a scientist, an Orthodox Jew, an original religious thinker, and an irascible trouble-maker who died in 1994 but is still revered by many as a prophet (and reviled by others). He was outspoken in his opposition to the entanglement of religion and nationalism, religion and state. He often quoted the above conversation with Ben Gurion, from the 50s. He saw exactly where Ben Gurion’s statist cooptation of the rabbis would lead – and indeed, it has led us exactly there: to the marginalization of religion and the trivialization of the rabbinate.
Thus, our main challenge as liberal rabbis in Israel is not to overcome the Orthodox hegemony on resources and authority; it is already falling. The hard challenge is to restore the honor and the relevance of Judaism to the citizens of the Jewish state, after that state and its control of religion has made Judaism a joke and an annoyance in their minds. We have to restore community, and find ways to infuse it with sanctity, with spirit, with roots. It is up to us to save the Jewish state from itself.