The Jewish State should have Jewish standards


As a Jewish state, Israel has always incorporated elements of religious tradition into its workings. Kosher food, for example, is served in the armed forces and at government functions; the national calendar recognizes Jewish holidays. And personal status issues like conversion, marriage and divorce are determined by Jewish law, or halacha, overseen by an official state rabbinate.

That policy, part of the “religious status quo” initiated at Israel’s birth, served her well and without protest for more than a half-century. Recent years, though, have seen Israel’s conversion and marriage laws assailed by a coalition of largely American advocates — in order to advance the interests of non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements, which currently have only minuscule followings in Israel.


Israel’s “personal Jewish status” policy resulted from a carefully considered decision of Israel’s early leadership. No less a personage than David Ben Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, wrote that it was the only way to prevent “God forbid, the splitting of the Jewish house into two.”

A number of arguments have been put forward for jettisoning the long-standing policy, in particular regarding marriage: Some Jewish couples resent having to undergo religious marriage ceremonies and classes. Marriages involving Jews not permitted by Jewish religious law cannot be effected in Israel. Israelis can and do circumvent the law and marry outside Israel. Persuasion is preferable to coercion.

But Jews — of whatever affiliation — who are truly committed to the well-being of the larger Jewish community and not only to the advancement of a particular cause or movement should carefully and objectively examine each of those points.

The religious status quo policy does in fact require engaged Jewish couples to undergo a Jewish ceremony, complete with a rabbi, witnesses and the writing of a traditional marriage document, or ketuba. And couples are indeed asked to attend classes. But, in a state claiming a Jewish identity, do a Jewish ceremony and a cursory apprisal of Jewish law really, as some advocates have repeatedly charged, “deprive citizens of basic human rights”?

As to Israeli law’s declining to recognize halachically forbidden marriages, it’s a rare country that doesn’t place legal limits on marriage. All of the states in our own country prohibit incestuous marriages; 24 forbid cousins to marry; six require blood tests. Those things, too, likely disturb some individuals, but, significantly, one doesn’t see those who are assailing Israel’s halacha-based marriage laws campaigning against American consanguinity or health-concern statutes.

It is true that some Israelis circumvent Israel’s laws by taking quick trips out of the country to get married. But the idea that laws or standards that can be evaded should be dismantled is not one generally embraced. Many Americans disregard speed limits and underreport their incomes; few suggest that, as a result, highway safety rules or the IRS should be abolished. What is more, the law, heeded or not, is a teacher, informing the public of ideals; there is considerable Jewish value in a Jewish State statutorily enshrining unarguably Jewish expectations.

Something more: It is hardly uncommon for children of non-Orthodox, even staunchly secular, backgrounds to come to adopt halachic observance. Some staunchly secularist Israelis may be miffed by their country’s marriage laws, but imagine the pain of a newly observant young woman a generation hence who, because those laws were undermined by American activists, finds herself forbidden by her religious conscience from marrying the man she loves.

Finally, the issue in the end is not about coercion versus persuasion. It is, rather, about whether a Jewish standard belongs in the laws of the Jewish state.

Characterizing a time-honored and deeply Jewish standard as something malevolent is grossly unfair. Overheated and incendiary language about “human rights” and an Orthodox “marriage monopoly” only serves to turn Israeli Jews further away from whatever connection they may have with their religious heritage and the broader community of Jews. Do we Americans speak of standard-setters like the Food and Drug Administration or the Federal Reserve Board as sinister “monopolies”? Do safety regulations or interest rate adjustments, inconvenient though they may be to some, constitute a curtailment of “human rights”? A Jewish State needs a Jewish standard for marriage and divorce, and halacha — the highest common Jewish denominator — is the logical, not to mention the most Jewishly authentic, choice.

If American proponents of civil marriage in Israel would spend a fraction of the energy and funds they expend deriding our mutual Jewish tradition instead explaining and acclaiming it, fewer Israelis would be alienated from their heritage, Jewish law would be more widely respected and the Jewish people would be headed toward a more unified future.

American Jews can certainly choose to advocate for a separation of religion and state in Israel. And Israel, too, can choose to deconstruct itself as a country that respects the Jewish religious tradition. But — particularly at a time when the Jewish State’s existence is under siege by both murderers within and genocidal madmen at a distance (but within range of nuclear weapons) — should such goals really be on any sensitive Jew’s agenda?

Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.