A Subversive Marriage Proposal

by Brian on August 10, 2010

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel

Rabbi Haviva Ner-David

Rabbi Haviva Ner-David has a subversive proposal for young couples in Israel: don’t get married. At all. And with the recent directives to rabbis at the local marriage registrars that I wrote about previously, her approach is more timely than ever.

Ner-David, one of the first (and only) women to receive Orthodox Rabbinic ordination, recently wrote a column in The Jerusalem Post that is bound to ruffle more than a few shtreimels. In it, she discussed the current state of rabbinically sanctioned marriage in Israel, which she finds patriarchal, misogynist and inherently unequal, where a man can withhold a get (divorce decree) from his wife but not the other way around.

Her solution: avoid the Rabbinate entirely by getting married “by contract.” “With the help of a lawyer with an expertise in marriage and divorce,” she wrote, a young couple “can draw up a contract that will act as a civil marriage contract, albeit without the official ‘married’ status. If the couple should divorce in the future, they can cancel that contract and draw up a new one that deals with property and custody issues.”

The couple can then have what appears to all as a traditional marriage ceremony, complete with chuppa and hot dogs, but they wouldn’t be registered as married.

Why not just fly off to Cyprus and get married there, as many non-religious Israelis already do? Because when they come back, their overseas civil marriage is still registered, placing them in the rabbinical system should they ever divorce.

For those who do want to marry according to the Israeli Rabbinate, it’s becoming more accepted to sign a pre-nuptial agreement in addition to the traditional ketuba, which evens out the playing field somewhat in case the couple breaks up – although even this is up for grabs (literally: read Rivka Lubitch’s horrifying article in Ynet about a rabbi who didn’t approve of the couple’s pre-nup, grabbed it and ripped it up in front of them).

While Ner-David’s approach is intriguing, I wondered what would happen to the children of such an unsanctioned union? Would they be considered mamzerim (the only way to translate this is straight out: bastards) who according to Jewish law would not be able to marry in the future?

No, Ner-David said in a personal email responding to my question. A mamzer results only from a relationship between a married woman and a man who is not her spouse. The child of the kind of “contract”-based marriage she is proposing would be just as Jewish as any other Israeli. Which makes sense: we know a number of unmarried Modern Orthodox women who have given birth; they wouldn’t have done so if it would put their children’s future marriageability in doubt.

Ner-David, who now defines herself as “post-denominational,” may just be a lone rabbi railing against thousands of years of tradition, but she does run a center for modern Jewish marriage called Reut that provides tens of engaged couples a year with personal and group counseling. While that’s certainly not enough to impact to Israeli society as a whole, for the couples she works with, it could make a big difference.

This post appeared previously on the Israelity blog.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Sara August 11, 2010 at 9:35 am

If nothing else, R. Ner David’s suggestion is an appropriate form of protest against a very broken system. …BUT…. While it certainly communicates effectively that Halakha’s self-appointed masters have not rendered a sustainable system for this generation, which is (should be) their whole job, her way, according to most authorities, doesn’t work.

That’s because Halakha (again, according to many normative, and, I night add, normal, authorities) recognizes as “marriage” the union of a man and a woman living together, requiring a get, etc etc.

So while it would keep the draconian rabbanut out of people’s hair, and alleviate the need for all manner of logistical nightmares in dark judicial hallways, for those actually concerned about issues like mamzerut, RND’s suggestion might actually make matters worse. It’s not that the products of those non-marriages have no halakhic status. They are just flying under the radar.

This is not much different, I guess, than what goes on in the Diaspora, where each individual must do his or her own background checks, should they care. But it’s a shame (actually – a travesty) that the Jewish state can’t come up with something better, more whole.

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