At the White House Seder last year, President Barack Obama said the following about the story of the Exodus from Egypt: “This is a story of hundreds of years of subjugation, and years of wandering in the desert.” He added: “This is a story about perseverance during persecution and faith in God and Torah, this is a story about finding freedom in your land…this is also a story that contains within it the universal human experience, with all the suffering and salvation that is bound up in it.”
Martin Luther King, the leader of the struggle for equal rights for African-Americans and a source of inspiration for Obama, once said that he saw the Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel as “his rabbi.” Therefore, it’s not surprising that the American president sees Passover as a symbol of the struggle for freedom in the broadest sense of the word. King’s dream, to free African-Americans from the chains of the “Egypt” of their day, became connected with the Jewish view that God is a humanist and freedom to choose is the supreme value. During Shabbat Chol HaMoed, the custom in many communities is to read the Song of Songs. There was conflict among the sages about whether to include this text in the canon. Ultimately it was included, meaning that the Song of Songs is not just one of the books of the canon, but also the ‘Holy of Holies.’ The ability to realize love is considered holy and pure.
It wasn’t by chance that the concepts of freedom at Passover and a couple’s ability to realize their love in traditional Jewish culture have become connected to the struggle for human rights in western culture. If we look at the way in which it’s possible to marry today (and mainly to divorce) in Israel, one can understand that this connection is as relevant as ever, and that it relates to the freedom to choose how to realize love and intimacy.
Today, personal law in the State of Israel is religious law, and the rabbinate is the sole institution that is certified to marry Jews (who are classified as such by Jewish law). Moreover, even those who had civil marriages abroad are sent to the rabbinate to divorce. And the rabbinate, as an institution which enjoys a monopoly, can permit itself to create obstacles for the couples that enter its doors. It can prevent a couple from marrying and it can embitter the lives of men and women who come to divorce. Many are damaged by the religious divorce process which is enforced by the rabbinate.
In the Jewish people’s not too distant past, many couples had religious marriages in their community. We’re not talking about pre-history, but – for example – the wedding of my grandmother and grandfather in America, which was conducted by a local rabbi at the end of the 1930s, and at the wedding of my grandmother and grandfather from Yemen. Also, problems which emerged were then solved by the local religious leadership, with sensitivity and a desire to keep everyone on the inside. For most of its history, this is how Judaism has dealt with marriage conflicts, and there is a way to solve problems using Jewish law, if we want to solve them.
Last summer, I was invited to a wedding of friends. He is a first generation Israeli, born to immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, refuseniks who are connected to Israel with every fibre of their being, and she is the daughter of a religious Jerusalemite family with deep roots. They chose to have a Halachic-Orthodox wedding, according to the Law of Moses and Israel, but without the rabbinate. Their decision didn’t come from opposition or defiance. The opposite is true: they have a strong and unified Jewish identity, the two of them have learned and teach about Judaism, and they are members of movements dealing with Jewish identity.
They, and others like them, understood that the best way to guarantee their honor and security in the marriage ceremony (and also in case of separation afterwards) will be with a traditional Halachic Jewish marriage, but outside the framework of the rabbinate. They are not alone. Following a Jewish awakening, and a heightened dealing with Jewish identity in the conflict, there are an increasing number of couples who, out of an awareness of Judaism’s possibilities, are refusing the failing option of a wedding with the rabbinate, but are signing pre-nuptial agreements and holding traditional Halachic weddings.
It’s important to point out that Judaism is important to these couples. They want their children to grow up in a Jewish environment with a rich and flourishing culture, with deep philosophy and values of traditions going back many generations. It’s because of this that we are worried. We are afraid for Judaism’s image, and believe that those who decide to marry using the rabbinate need to do so out of a true choice. According to many polls that have been carried out recently, we see that, if civil marriage is permitted in Israel, two-thirds of the Jews will choose to get married using the rabbinate. This means that opening possibilities does not mean losing the tradition, but the opposite.
Around the Passover table, when you’ve read in the Haggadah about the escape from slavery in Egypt to freedom, one hopes that you also thought about the get refusers and agunot, about marriage official refusal, and also about yourselves – the “regular” couple that is going to get married. Think about your role in advancing our freedom as a state, yours as a couple, and simply choose to choose for yourselves.
This article originally appeared in print in Haaretz (Hebrew).