The Marriage Witness

by Brian on March 15, 2007

in Only in Israel

A couple of good friends of ours are getting married. In order to tie the knot, they needed two men to testify at the Jerusalem office of the Chief Rabbi that they are single and that therefore their upcoming marriage would not in fact be a case of forbidden adultery. They asked me to be one of the witnesses.

Despite misgivings about whether I should really be considered a trustworthy witness (how did I really know that they are single; both had been married before and I hadn’t actually seen their respective gets – their divorce decrees), I nevertheless welcomed the opportunity to indulge in what I figured would be an only-in-Israel experience. The whole thing struck me as antiquated yet vaguely charming in an Old World kind of way.

At the same time, I found myself feeling slightly annoyed. I mean, why does the State of Israel acting through the Rabbinate need me, some Joe Jew off the street they’ve never heard of, to say whether two people are single or not? This is a highly bureaucratic country – don’t they have adequate records? What could I possibly add that a modern PC couldn’t already do?

The Rabbinate’s Marriage Department is in the basement of an apartment building in the center of town. It’s a dark and smelly place, with few windows and no posters of sunny Hawaii or other such forbidden destinations. It’s the kind of place I imagine you’d go at the end of your marriage rather than at the beginning.

I was told to wait outside room 26, under a plain sign reading “Receiving Testimony.” Several sample ketubot lined the waiting room wall; fake wood paneling provided a faux-homey feel. Various pamphlets and literature for new brides and grooms were on a table, but no secular reading material. No People Magazine, no Modern Bride, no Oprah. I flipped through a brochure in English and learned that soldiers, students, new immigrants and people on welfare are entitled to a 40% discount on their marriage registration fees. I guess I missed my opportunity.

There was no one inside room 26 but a black coat and hat hanging there gave me some clues as to its occupant. The desk was clear of clutter; no computer adorned this office.

I waited 10 minutes for the official state-designated receiver of testimony to return and then, as cheerfully as I could, handed him a formal looking document that the couple had faxed me. He pulled a thick folder off a shelf and began thumbing through it.

“How long have you known the couple?” he asked me, barely looking up from his paperwork.

“Twelve years for her, three for him,” I responded.

“And where do they pray?”

That was a rather presumptuous question, I thought. What mde him think that every couple wanting to get married necessarily prayed at all?

“Kehilat Yedidya, in Baka,” I answered as truthfully as I could, though judging from the frequency of their attendance at the modern Orthodox synagogue that I attend, I suspect they often prefer sleeping in on a Shabbat morning. But I’ve been in Israel long enough to know that any deviation from an expected, acceptable response could result in an unwanted and lengthy grilling. It’s like the security questions asked at the airport – it’s best to not embellish. At the airport they’re searching for potential terrorists. Here, they’re looking for liars. Keep it simple and they will get married and I’ll get to go on with my day.

“Who’s the Rabbi at Yedidya?” he asked.

Uh-oh, I thought. How do I answer that one and keep things kosher? The Yedidya shul deliberately doesn’t have a spiritual leader, instead making halachic (Jewish law) decisions by democratic consensus. Recently, the congregation held a spirited debate and vote about whether to institute mixed Torah readings where both men and women get called up to the bima (the proposed change was defeated, by the way).

But my interrogator, I surmised, wouldn’t necessarily appreciate the nuances of how this community grapples with change and modernity. Why open what could turn into a nasty can of worms?

“Um,” I hesitated for a moment, then thinking quickly replied, “well, David Rosen is a Rabbi.” That was true. Rabbi Rosen, who is the International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, does pray there on occasion. And I didn’t say he was the Rabbi.

That seemed to be enough to satisfy the man on the other side of the desk. “And you’re sure that they’re single?” he asked me.

“Yup,” I nodded, relieved that things were moving again.

“Your identity card, please,” he said, and I pulled out my teudat zehut. An Israeli identity card contains two papers enclosed in a blue plastic case – a laminated one with your picture and permanent data on it, and a card with your address and other items that may change. As I handed it over, the case cracked in half.

“Tsk, tsk,” he tutted quietly. “You’re going to have to get that replaced.” When…I thought. Today? Was I going to get disqualified after all?

“It’s not a problem. You can get a new one in another nine months,” he said.

“Why so long?” I asked, surprised. Israel may be bureaucratic, but this seemed excessive.

“They’ll issue you a new one automatically when you have another child,” he said with a straight face. Was this an attempt at being personable?

The funny thing is, my wife and I have had some discussions in recent months about whether to have another child. How did he know? Was there something written on my face reading “midlife crisis, considering crazy idea, seeking encouragement”?

I signed a document in a couple of places and then I was released back into the fresh air to contemplate what had just transpired. What will come next? The only thing I can say for sure is that my friends can now get married. As for the rest, we’ll just have to wait and see…

This article was originally published in the March 19, 2007 issue of The Jerusalem Report.

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