Originally published in November 1995.
After a number of unhelpful and ambiguous statements by the Chief Rabbi’s office regarding the validity of marriages and conversions carried out under the aegis of Masorti synagogues, there is still much confusion in the Anglo-Jewish community. The need arises to set the record straight.
In Jewish law, a marriage between two Jews is valid provided there is no legal impediment to the union. A legal impediment in this contest means where, for instance, a previous marriage has not been dissolved by a get [Jewish bill of divorce] or where there is close affinity or consanguinity between the man and the woman.
The marriage is effected by the delivery of the ring, in the presence of two witnesses, attended by the declaration: “Be thou betrothed unto me by this ring according to the law of Moses and Israel.”
The special order of service is demanded by tradition — the wine, chupah and benedictions — but their absence has no impact of the validity of the marriage. Nor is it necessary for it to be conducted in a synagogue.
In 19th-century Hungary, Orthodox rabbis refused to allow weddings lo be held in synagogue on the grounds that they should ideally take place “under the canopy of heaven” — that is, out of doors.
Moreover, they contended, a synagogue marriage, with all the trappings — the address, the best man and bridesmaids, the wearing of canonicals by the officiants, and the father of the bride leading her down the aisle — was an imitation of the practices of the church.
Since it is erroneous to believe that a valid marriage must take place in an Orthodox synagogue — in need not take place in a synagogue at all — it follows that, provided there is no legal impediment, it is impossible to invalidate a marriage solely on the grounds that it took place in a Masorti (or, for that matter, a Liberal or Reform) synagogue.
When people ask about the validity of this or that marriage, they usually want to know whether the offspring of the union will be kosher in Jewish law, and whether those children will be allowed to marry in an Orthodox synagogue.
But the status of the children is affected only where the mother is not Jewish, or where there is another legal impediment of the kind mentioned here. Where no such impediment exists, the children are kosher in any event since, in Jewish law, a child born out of wedlock — that is, where no marriage at all took place —is perfectly and may marry in an Orthodox synagogue.
Where there is a legal impediment, the child is not permitted to marry in an Orthodox synagogue. This is, however, because of the impediment, not because there was no marriage.
The only meaning that can be given to recent rabbinic statements regarding the validity and invalidity of marriages is not in connection with the children, as the authors of these statements admit, but over whether, according to Jewish law, the couple may thenceforth live together as man and wife.
As we have seen, provided the ring has been delivered in the presence of two witnesses, with a formal declaration of intent to marry according to the law of Moses and Israel, there is no doubting that the marriage is valid for this purpose — and can be dissolved only by a get.
The persistent suggestion that Masorti marriages are considered invalid by the London Bin Din because Masorti rabbis are disqualified to act as witnesses — and the marriage is invalid because it is unwitnessed — is groundless.
Masorti rabbis do not, to mention the instances of witness disqualification given in the Mishnah, steal from others, lend money on interest, earn their living by racing pigeons, or traffic in the produce of the sabbatical year. Nor do they profane the Sabbath or eat non kosher food. If, as it is rumoured — although this has never been stated explicitly — Masorti rabbis are disqualified because they are said not to believe in the doctrine of Torah min ha-shamayim [“Torah from heaven”], what of all the congregation present and witnessing the marriage?
And let it be said, once and for all, that Masorti does believe in Torah min hashamayim, although not in the fundamentalist understanding of the doctrine.
For the Chief Rabbi’s office to urge — as it has done more than once — a couple married in a Masorti synagogue to undergo a second marriage at Woburn House (where the Chief Rabbinate offices are situated) is monstrous, striking at the very sanctity of Jewish marriage. If the marriage benedictions are recited, such a second marriage would involve the offence of berachah levatalah, a “vain benediction.”
What of Masorti conversions? The procedure for a valid conversion, as laid down in the sources, is initiated with the prospective convert coming before a beth din and expressing a wish to embrace Judaism.
For this purpose, the beth din need not be composed of three rabbis, although one member at least should be a rabbi, in order to see that the procedures are carried out properly.
If the beth din is convinced of the applicant’s sincerity, the conversion rites have to be carried out — that is, circumcision for a male convert, and immersion in a mikveh for both male and female converts.
There is nothing in Jewish law which demands a long period of probation or of learning about the faith.
To learn about Judaism is a life-long process. Indeed, the Talmud urges that, once the applicant has been accepted, the conversion should be treated with all possible haste, “because one does not postpone a mitzvah.”
On the other hand, rabbis must not make the process too easy either, for it would then appear that the responsibilities of being a Jew can be undertaken lightly.
Evidence of sincerity and of resolve to keep the precepts of Judaism is required, and for these to be established, it cannot all take place overnight.
But there is no stated period of waiting, and the rabbis concerned with the conversion have to use their initiative.
Once a conversion has been carried out in accordance with the din, no power on earth can revoke it; nor is there any need for rabbinic recognition once it has taken place. Rabbis can as little refuse to “recognise” a validly converted person as Jewish as they can deprive a child whose mother is Jewish of his or her Jewish status.
The comparatively few conversions carried out under the aegis of Masorti are strictly in accordance with the din, with circumcision for males, and mikveh for males and females. Consequently, all our conversions are valid, and there are no grounds on which they can be challenged.
Indeed, all Masorti procedures in matters of personal status are in full accordance with Jewish law. We do not claim that we have an especially humane attitude, because that would imply that the law itself is not humane.
Nor do we claim that we are “modern” in our interpretation of the laws of personal status, since the situation described is that which is inherent in the law itself.
We cannot, however, issue any guarantee that our conversions will not be challenged, and we always tell converts that the London Beth Din will challenge their conversion — although on what grounds we do not know.
Rabbi Dr LOUIS JACOBS
The Masorti Academy is holding a seminar on conversion at the New London Synagogue on November 26.