To this day, the state’s religious establishment continues to exert control over its citizens’ most intimate moments.
By Noga Brenner Samia, first published in the Jerusalem Post, August 15, 2019
Exactly one week after we grieve the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the baseless hatred that led to their demise, Israeli society switches gears and transitions from mourning Tisha Be’av into celebrating Tu Be’av (the 15th day of the month of Av) – the Jewish festival of love, aka “Israeli Valentine’s day.” How do we go from baseless hate to baseless love in the span of a week? And, in a culture that is accustomed to holidays that revolve around “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat,” do we really have the capacity to celebrate love?
There are three commandments to love in the Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19), “Love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6) and “Love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10). Interestingly, however, we are not commanded to love our partners, or our children or our parents. (We are told to respect and fear parents, educate our children and cling to our wives – but not necessarily to love them). Yet we have a special day in our Jewish tradition to celebrate erotic love.
The Midrash teaches that on this day the young women of the tribe of Benjamin would go out to the vineyard dressed in white to find a partner among the men of the tribe of Judah. Everyone wore white clothing, which they borrowed from one another, in order to blur the lines of family status, wealth and tribal affiliation.
Notwithstanding this idyllic biblical scene, it is a relatively new cultural phenomenon of the past 100 years or so, for young men and women to select life partners for themselves out of love, passion and personal choice. In the past, the romantic choice of whom to marry was often in opposition to family, to community and to tradition. Thankfully, today in 21st century Israel, “First love, then marriage” has replaced the traditional matchmaking for family gain, benefit and convenience. Yet although the act of choosing who you marry may not be revolutionary anymore, choosing how to marry still is.
The traditional Jewish marriage ceremony is essentially a commercial transaction. The bride is transferred from her father’s home to her husband’s home in exchange for financial commitment, much like a piece of property. The ketubah (the traditional Jewish marriage contract) is a contract specifying the agreed terms. Matters of business take precedence over matters of the heart.
For Jews in Israel today, the only marriage ceremonies that can be performed in Israel and recognized by the State of Israel are those same commercial transactions from ancient times, ceremonies officiated by an Orthodox rabbi under the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel. There is no option for civil marriage, nor are weddings performed by Reform or Conservative rabbis or any other Jewish religious or secular leaders legally recognized.
EVEN MARRIAGES performed by Orthodox rabbis without the approval of the Chief Rabbinate are not legally valid. In fact, performing Jewish weddings in Israel without the sanction of the Chief Rabbinate is technically illegal, punishable by up to two years in person – though this rule has virtually never been enforced.
Today, for a Jewish couple in Israel to choose their own officiator or to choose to make their wedding ceremony about spiritual and not financial commitment, is to defy establishment. Expressing love freely at one’s own wedding ceremony is considered avant-garde if not dissident and rebellious.
Ironically, in Israel, the same early Zionists who released matchmaking from the control of the establishment – community and family interests – and gave precedence to freedom of choice, were the same ones who also ceded control over how to get married, and handed it over to the religious establishment. Zionism, which gave love and passion free reign when it came to choosing a life partner, gave the most conservative stream of Jewish tradition – which represents only a small minority of Israeli Jewish society – total control when it came to publicly declaring this love to one another.
To this day, the state’s religious establishment continues to exert control over its citizens’ most intimate moments, our life-cycle milestones, turning the huppa from a canopy of love and commitment into an arena of power and hegemony.
Is this yet another way for the religious establishment to maintain its control of society? If not through choice of whom we marry then through choice of how we marry? More and more young Israelis are pushing back. Some 20% of couples sought out alternative wedding options in the past year. They are either skipping the ceremony entirely, flying to Cyprus for a civil marriage, or seeking out celebrities, liberal rabbis or secular life-cycle officiators (through organizations like Havaya) to create their own personalized meaningful wedding ceremonies.
While we may not be able (nor wish) to recreate the idyllic vineyard of the tribe of Benjamin, we can change the status quo on the issue of marriage for the modern day tribe of Judah, that is to say, the Jewish people living in the Land of Israel. In the upcoming elections in Israel, let’s say yes to love, free choice and pluralism, and say no to coercion and discrimination. Let’s make room in the voting booth for matters of the heart. Because they start at the heart but they creep into our souls, and from there to the souls of our communities and, ultimately, the soul of our nation. Let’s make marriage freedom in Israel a priority.
Let’s demand it from our campaigning politicians, and again once they are elected. We already know what baseless hatred has the power to do. Let’s give baseless love a chance, for a change.