Playing the Wedding Game… Literally

Friday, June 27, 2008
Special to the Jewish Week

Close to two weeks ago, Israel’s Masorti movement, the sister movement of North America’s Conservative Judaism, launched a new campaign to interest non-religious Jews in Israel in considering a Masorti wedding- fully grounded in tradition, but also sensitive to issues of egalitarianism and the particular wishes of the couple.  There is a website set up for the campaign, and the media blitz of print ads and radio commercials directs interested Israelis to the site.  There they can play “The Wedding Game,” featuring an interactive, colorful format to personalize their traditional but innovative wedding.

Within the first three days of the launching of the campaign, there were 25,000 hits on the website, and now, that number is closer to 30,000.  There have also been many dozens of phone calls.

If the great medieval commentator Rashi were here, he might be moved to say Ein hamikrah hazeh omer elah darsheini.  This text demands interpretation.  Thirty thousand hits on the website in a few days??  What is going on here?

Estimates are that, on a yearly basis, some twenty percent of Israeli couples  either choose to live together without any wedding ceremony, or travel to Cypress, the Czech Republic or elsewhere for a civil ceremony, which the State of Israel will recognize.  It does not recognize a ceremony officiated at by a Masorti rabbi.  A civil ceremony celebrated outside the State of Israel qualifies you to be registered as married in Israel.   A religious ceremony officiated at by a Masorti rabbi does not.

The sad reality is that most young secular Israelis are so profoundly alienated from Judaism that they want no part of the State’s official rabbinic arm.   Those rabbis sanctioned by the state too often exacerbate the situation by the careless and insensitive way they relate to the couple- or don’t relate.  This is not an unknown reality in Israel, even to the Orthodox sector.

“Modern” Orthodox Jews in Israel also lament the stranglehold of the very right-wing rabbinate on rites of passage, and religious life as a whole.  But the absence of clear political consensus in Israel on much of anything virtually guarantees that small, ultra-Orthodox parties will be needed to cobble together a governing coalition, and the portfolio that those parties invariably demand is of the Interior.  All matters of personal status, where Jewish law is the law of the land, are controlled by Misrad HaPnim, and if you want religious power, that’s where it’s to be found.  Hence the current situation.

What do we learn from thirty thousand hits on the wedding website in one week?

Well, the first thing we learn is that there are obviously many so-called “secular” Jews in Israel who are not quite as secular as we might think, and the religious establishment is not only not servicing them, it is preventing others from servicing them.  That is a situation that is not good for Israel.   In a country with more than enough problems not of its own making, why use religion to create more- other than to stay in power?

I would also draw the conclusion that, as is so often the case, broad brushstrokes are inadequate to paint a picture of a complicated reality.  Israel is not a country where eighty percent of the population is ideologically secular and anti-religious.  It is, rather, a country whose citizens have never had the opportunity to learn what true religious pluralism is about, for a variety of unhappy reasons.  In this particular area, we here in the diaspora do Judaism better than our brothers and sisters in Israel.  Even with multiple options, you can still make the choices that you want, or none at all.  Maybe we should be sending shlichim to Israel instead of the other way around…

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