In Jericho, a 'Wall' Might Fall for Israel's Betrothed Jews

Article excerpt

For Jews, getting hitched in Israel is a bit complicated. Couples, even if secular, must have an Orthodox wedding. And a rabbi must check that neither one is blacklisted for such offenses as not keeping kosher.

Consequently, thousands of Israelis go to Cyprus or even America each year to take the plunge.

But now the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat may enable those unable to marry the Orthodox way to travel only a few miles to the West Bank town of Jericho to say "I do." The irony of Jews flocking to a Palestinian-controlled town to tie the knot points up a growing debate that's as old as modern Israel: It pits the Orthodox against more-liberal and secular Jews in deciding what it means to be Jewish.

More than just weddings, the Orthodox rabbinate controls all religious ceremonies in Israel (a woman, for example, cannot get a divorce without her husband's consent). And since elections in May when Orthodox political parties boosted their power in government, secular and non-Orthodox Jews have bucked even harder against their influence.

"We think Judaism is compatible with tolerance and pluralism," says Rabbi Andrew Sachs, director of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel Conservative Movement, who has been active in fighting for religious freedom. "We are opposed to religious coercion.

"The problem is the Orthodox want sole control over the definition of who is a Jew."

To the Orthodox, the strict measures are necessary to uphold Torah law, or Jewish holy law. To them the interpretations of the law by the more-liberal branches of Judaism - Reform and Conservative - are "corrupt, falsified, and erroneous."

"For us, marriage by Reform or Conservative {rabbis} is not a real marriage," says Rabbi Hanan Porat, a member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, from the Orthodox National Religious Party. "After the celebration it's like nothing happened. They think they are married, but they are not."

Marriage and the law

Most Israelis could be married the Orthodox way. But many consider themselves secular and balk at the Orthodox control over marriage rites as an intrusion on their lives.

A number are turned away by the official rabbinate because they are not fit to be married according to Jewish law. For example, the official rabbinate won't marry those with the last name Cohen to a divorcee. This is because Cohens are assumed to be descendants of the priestly caste, whose members weren't allowed to wed divorced women.

Many Reform or Conservative Jews would rather be married by a rabbi of their own denomination. …