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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

A Jewish state III: the Cyprus solution

Galilee Diary #188;
July 4, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

[The priest] may marry only a woman who is a virgin. A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is degraded by harlotry – such he may not marry…
             -Leviticus 21:13-14

No mamzer (child of an incestuous or adulterous union) shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of his descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of the lord.
             -Deuteronomy 23:3

For most Israeli Jews, even those who define themselves as non-observant, the symbols of kashrut and Shabbat still have meaning. Like many non-Orthodox Jews in America, here too there are lots of people who observe some kind of kashrut, who recognize the Shabbat through at least some of its traditions, even as they reject the authority of any rabbinical establishment to tell them what they must do or not do. And while there are certainly those who are militantly “anti-,” there are probably more who, while themselves non-observant, respect and even admire those who are consistent in their personal adherence to these two central pillars of the traditional life-style.

With all the controversy around them, kashrut and Shabbat are “easy;” they carry a symbolic weight that transcends their halachic details. But there are other areas of halachah that, while they may be of equal significance to the Orthodox community, are seen in a wholly different light by the non-observant majority. The marital restrictions in the above biblical passages, for example, are still valid in the eyes halachah, and affect people’s lives; unlike kashrut and Shabbat, however, the only symbolism these practices carry for the non-observant population is of the obsoleteness and even the inhumanity of the tradition. It can and does happen that a Jewish couple turns to the office of the rabbinate to be married, only to be told that they may not marry, as the man is a cohen and the woman a divorcee. Volumes have been written giving the rational, psychological, historical, spiritual, and even medical justifications for observing Shabbat and kashrut today. Any attempt to do the same for these marital restrictions would result in a thin pamphlet indeed.

In the United States, if the couple belong to an Orthodox community, then presumably they will accept the decree; and if not, then they can turn to a non-Orthodox rabbi, or have a civil ceremony. Here, however, they have no options at all, as marriage in Israel is defined as a religious practice, and therefore may only be performed by a recognized religious authority – there is no civil marriage. And since the government recognizes only the chief rabbi as the final arbiter of Jewish law – and he does not recognize the authority of Reform and Conservative rabbis – all Jewish marriages must be performed by Orthodox rabbis. Thus, in the Jewish state, there is no way for a cohen to marry a divorcee, or a Jew to marry a non-Jew, or a mamzer to marry a born Jew.

But wait, there’s more: a civil or other non-Orthodox ceremony that occurs in a place where such things are legal, is accepted as a binding marriage under Jewish law and by the state. Therefore, if the cohen and his divorced fiancée have a civil ceremony in, say, Cyprus, then upon their return to Israel they are a fully “kosher” married couple. And since Cyprus, a popular resort destination, is only a one-hour flight away, travel agents have seen the light, and offer honeymoon packages that include the wedding ceremony itself, with all necessary paperwork. Clearly the Palestinians have a potential gold mine here...

And so again, it turns out that the attempt to superimpose a definition of Judaism based on a pre-modern conception of religious authority on a state that was conceived and born as a modernization of Judaism yields weird ironies and difficult dilemmas.

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