“Many Israelis are Reform without realizing it”
By Meir Azari | 22/10/2009
“The most important thing is to speak in the vocabulary of the Jewish language, and the vocabulary of our wedding is complex, just as it is among the Orthodox, from the Kiddushin, to the marriage contract and the ring. These are the foundation stones. It is a ceremony that is Israeli, profoundly Jewish – but also egalitarian.” This is how Rabbi Meir Azari describes Israeli Reform weddings.
Rabbi Meir Azari is the rabbi of the Beit Daniel congregation, located on Bnei Dan Street in northern Tel Aviv. He describes a growing, flourishing community: “We conduct about 500 wedding ceremonies each year and about 200 bar- and bat-mitzvah celebrations,” with the numbers growing from one year to the next. “Many Israelis are Reform without realizing it,” says Rabbi Azari. “Every secular individual that celebrates the Jewish holidays and goes to synagogue from time to time is in fact a Reform Jew. If in the early years, Reform Judaism was typical of people who were more educated and well established economically, people who may have been influenced by the American spirit, today people of all types are now joining the community and choosing to hold a Reform wedding ceremony. This is no longer a phenomenon of snobbish north Tel Aviv, or a ceremony for Ashkenazim only. Contrary to the prevalent view, it is not people who have not been officially recognized as Jews that seek out a Reform ceremony; they generally find a solution for their personal situation in a civil marriage ceremony instead.”
Rabbi Azari attributes the increasing number of couples that are opting to marry in a Reform ceremony to three main factors: “The most intense sense of crisis triggering the change was the Rabin assassination, which engendered hatred for the religious establishment, and people stopped fearing the Orthodox rabbinate and rabbis.” The second factor is the growing openness among the younger generation in Israeli society. “Increasing numbers of young people go out to see the world, encounter other societies, open up to different customs. Furthermore, a new generation of Reform rabbis has emerged here in Israel: native-born Israelis, who speak Hebrew and who are deeply involved in all aspects of Israeli culture.”
A further change that is occurring in Israeli society, one that is a direct result of this openness, is an increasing awareness and acceptance of the importance of the equality between the sexes. This is a change that the conventional religious establishment cannot swallow, especially not in a lifecycle ceremony whose essence involves the principle of acquisition or purchase. This change affects couples who are Orthodox too. “In some of the wedding ceremonies I perform, there are couples in which at least one member comes from an Orthodox family. I would estimate the number of such ceremonies at about ten percent of all our wedding ceremonies. I am very pleased to see that the Orthodox families accept the ceremony and their children's choice to hold a Reform ceremony. After all, our ceremony closely parallels the traditional one: It is an Israeli ceremony, one that is deeply rooted in tradition, but it is egalitarian too. The bride and groom exchange rings, and the wedding contract – Ketuba – which is in Hebrew rather than Aramaic – is one that everyone can understand. Our Ketuba includes things that the couple want to say to one another as part of the ceremony and the entire matter of acquisition is absent from our Ketuba and ceremony. Furthermore, women can be witnesses and carry the canopy poles, the bride sanctifies the groom too, both speak before the guests, as do the parents and friends. In today's society, people are looking for spiritual solutions. If in the past, people did not put a lot of thought into the essence of the ceremony or the content of the Ketuba, today more and more people want to spend time on preparing for the wedding ceremony, they want to feel connected to the content of the Ketuba and so they participate in the wording of the text. This helps people feel more honest about their Judaism. Judaism is a large supermarket of views, beliefs and opinions, and after all, we are not against anyone or anything, and we don't want to destroy the rabbinate. We want to provide an alternative for people who are fed up with the behavior of the rabbinical establishment. The most important thing is to talk in the vocabulary of the Jewish language, and the vocabulary of our wedding is complex, just as it is among the Orthodox, from the Kiddushin, the Ketuba and the ring. These are all foundation stones. Throughout the years, there have always been changes in customs and the manner in which ceremonies are held. Jacob of the Bible did not marry Rebecca in exactly the same way we marry today. Whoever initiates new processes that address real needs will be the one that more people will come to, and we are on the rise. The rabbinate is losing out, because they refuse to innovate and they don't understand that they may eventually end up a rabbinate, but without Jews.”
Rabbi Meir Azari is the rabbi of the Beit Daniel congregation
Translated by Ruchi Avital