Originally published in New London Forum: Journal of the New London Synagogue, 1:2 (September 1983).
The Editorial Board is most grateful to the Congregation for the welcome it accorded to the first issue and now places before it a symposium on the problems of personal status.
With his customary lucidity, our Rabbi gives an authoritative explanation of the provisions of the Halacha on matters of marriage, conversion and adoption. One of our members of long standing—an eminent Queen’s Counsel—discusses the relationship between civil and religious marriage in contemporary Anglo-Jewry. And two case histories, which must of necessity remain anonymous, demonstrate the harshness and injustice inflicted by the London Orthodox Establishment.
The New London Synagogue accepts in full every requirement of the Halacha, so that, as Rabbi Jacobs makes clear, the validity of marriages performed under our aegis and the status of any child of such a marriage are beyond dispute. What our Congregation refuses to accept are the additional, and often completely irrelevant, conditions required by the London Bet Din which show complete disregard of traditional practice in every country—and in particular our own—and which, far more seriously, constitute a brutal lack of compassion towards a number of people who wish to live as members of the Community of Israel.
The following statement on the question of personal status in Jewish law will, I hope, clear up some of the difficulties expressed by our congregants and others in the Anglo-Jewish Community. To avoid confusion and for the sake of readability, detailed references to the sources are not given but they will be supplied on request.
In Jewish law a marriage between two persons both of whom profess the Jewish faith is valid provided there is no legal impediment. A legal impediment in this context means where the union is proscribed by the list of forbidden unions in Leviticus; where, for instance, a previous marriage has not dissolved by a Get 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, of course, demanded by the tradition—the chuppah and kiddushin benedictions—but their absence has no effect on the validity of the marriage. Nor is it necessary, for the marriage to be valid, that it be celebrated in a synagogue. It may come as a surprise to many people, but Orthodox Rabbis in Hungary in the last century (as well as some Orthodox Rabbis today) refused to allow a wedding to take place in the synagogue on the grounds that it should ideally take place ‘under the canopy of heaven’ (i.e. out of doors) and that a marriage in a synagogue, with all the trappings, the address, the wearing of canonicals by the Ministers, the best man and bridesmaids, is to copy the practices of the church. It is chukkot ha-goy! Naturally, none of us take this at all seriously. I only mention it to show how incorrect it is to believe that for a marriage to be valid it must take place in an Orthodox synagogue. It need not take place in a synagogue at all. (Nowadays most of us would argue that it should take place in a synagogue, because this is the way in which the sacred aspects of married life are brought to the attention of bride and groom. For this reason every encouragement is given for people to have chuppah and kiddushin in Shool. But, to repeat, this has nothing to do with the validity or otherwise of the marriage.)
It follows that, provided there is no legal impediment, it is impossible to invalidate a marriage solely on the ground that it took place in a Liberal or Reform synagogue. This has been acknowledged more than once by the Chief Rabbi yet one hears all too frequently snide remarks to the effect that marriages performed outside the aegis of the United Synagogue or similar Orthodox bodies are questionable. If it means anything at all, this can only mean that, when the children of the marriage wish themselves to be married in an Orthodox synagogue, the question will be asked: ‘Was there a legal impediment to the union of the child’s parents?’. Where wool is pulled over the eyes here is that, if there was no legal impediment, the marriage is perfectly valid wherever it took place. If there was a legal impediment, undiscovered at the time, the marriage will have been invalid even if it took place in an Orthodox synagogue.
The further point must be made that normally when people ask whether this or that marriage is valid they mean: will the children of the marriage be kosher in Jewish law, will they be allowed to marry in an Orthodox synagogue? But here, again, there is considerable confusion. The status of the child is only affected where the mother is not Jewish or where there is a legal impediment of the kind mentioned above.
Where no such impediment is present the children are kosher in any event since, in Jewish law, a child born out of wedlock (i.e. where no marriage at all took place) is perfectly kosher and may marry in an Orthodox synagogue.
Where there is a legal impediment, the child is not kosher to marry in an Orthodox synagogue but that is because of the impediment, not because there was no marriage. The only meaning that can be given to the question of whether or not a marriage is valid is not in connection with the children, but whether, according to Jewish law, the couple may now live together as man and wife and, as we have seen, provided there has been the delivery of the ring in the presence of two witnesses with formal declaration of marriage, there is no question the marriage is valid for this purpose. Their children will be kosher in any event, even if they were not married at all, and they may live together as husband and wife because they are husband and wife.
To apply all this to marriages at the New London Synagogue; since we do not perform any marriages where there is a legal impediment, the status of the children is unaffected in any event. The children of all our marriages are perfectly kosher. They can be married in the most Orthodox of synagogues. If any of our congregants, having been reassured about the question of the kashrut of the children, are still worried about whether, having been married in our synagogue, their marriage is valid for the purpose of them living together as husband and wife, they need not have the slightest fear that it is all perfectly kosher. Whether, to introduce the personal note, which, unfortunately I have to, I am persona non grata to some Orthodox Rabbis, is irrelevant. Couples married in the New London Synagogue are not married by me (the concept of a Rabbi ‘marrying’ a couple has no meaning in Jewish law; the Rabbi is not a Christian priest; indeed, he is not a priest at all). They are married by the fact that the marriage ceremonies (i.e. the delivery of the ring in the presence of witnesses with the formal declaration) have been carried out in the proper manner.
The majority of conversions which take place nowadays are, undoubtedly, for the purpose of marriage. Now while, ideally, marriage should not be the motive for taking such a tremendous step as conversion to the Jewish faith, yet, the majority of the Rabbinic authorities concur that, at the discretion of the Court, a person may be accepted as a convert, even if the real motive is for the purpose of marriage, provided it is clear that there is a sincere desire for conversion to take place and a real wish to follow the teachings of Judaism. What is required by Jewish law for a conversion to be valid? The procedures as laid down in the sources are that the prospective convert must come before a Bet Din (in this context the Bet Din need not be composed of three Rabbis) and express the wish to embrace Judaism. If the Bet Din is convinced of the sincerity of the applicant, the conversion rites have to be carried out. These involve circumcision for a male convert and immersion in a mikveh (‘ritual bath’) for 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 sources urge that, once the applicant has been accepted, the conversion should be attended to with all possible haste because ‘one does not postpone a mitzvah’, as the Talmud puts it. Of course, Rabbis must not make it too easy, otherwise it will appear as if the responsibilities of being a Jew can be lightly undertaken. Evidence of sincerity and resolve to keep the precepts of Judaism are required and for these to be established it cannot be an overnight affair. But there is no stated period of waiting and the Rabbi concerned with the conversion must use his common sense.
Once a conversion has been carried out in accordance with the din no power on earth can revoke it. The rumours one hears from time to time of some Rabbis refusing to recognise a conversion are puzzling. There is no need for any Rabbinic ‘recognition’ once the conversion has taken place. Rabbis can as little refuse to ‘recognise’ a validly-converted person as Jewish as they can deprive a child whose mother was Jewish of his or her Jewishness.
It is notorious that the London Bet Din, in recent years, places so many obstacles in the way of conversion—demanding standards of observance not followed by the vast majority of members of the United Synagogue—that very few applicants manage to make the grade and these only after five or six years of severe heartache and discouragement. Where is the justice and humanity in this attitude and why should Anglo-Jewry have changed so much? Conversion in the Orthodox Community (or for that matter in the Reform and Liberal) was never easy but it was a reasonable process.
At the new London Synagogue we are hampered by the lack of proper machinery for conversion. By this I mean chiefly that we find it hard to have access to a mikveh. Moreover, to be very frank about it, I do not see why the New London Synagogue should be looked upon as a means of obtaining easy, though traditional, conversions by those who refuse to satisfy the rigours of the London Bet Din. If, nonetheless, we have performed a number of conversions of people with no connection with our synagogue, it is on purely humanitarian grounds. But I have to say that it is time the official Orthodox authorities displayed a little (or rather a lot) more humanitarian sensibility and I am reluctantly forced to the conclusion that I can no longer spend anything like the time I have spent since our inception in attending to conversions, unless the application comes from members of our congregation to whom I have a responsibility. But it has to be said clearly and distinctly that all the conversions which have been carried out under the aegis of the New London Synagogue are strictly in accordance with the din, with circumcision for male converts and mikveh for male and female. I am not permitted to disclose the secret of its whereabouts but we do have access to a kosher out-of-town mikveh. Consequently, all our conversions are valid and there are no grounds on which they can be challenged. Of course, I cannot issue any guarantee that they will not be challenged and always inform prospective converts of this.
Although the institution of legal adoption does not exist in Rabbinic law the Rabbis wax eloquent on the high moral and religious significance in bringing up an orphan child as one’s own. Where the natural mother of an adopted child is Jewish there is no problem regarding the status of the child. But what if the child’s mother is not Jewish? The procedure is for the child to be converted i.e. the child is immersed in the mikveh and, if a boy, circumcised. The Talmud and the Codes state clearly: although a minor has no powers of consent and although conversion requires the consent of the person to be converted, yet the Bet Din can convert a minor. The principle here is that it is good and advantageous to be a Jew so that the consent of the minor can be assumed. That is to say, he will undoubtedly wish to have the conversion validated by his consent when he reaches adulthood and so his consent is obtained, as it were, in absentia. It is true that, when he reaches adulthood, he can choose to revoke the conversion but if he does not (and an adopted child brought up in the faith of his adoptive parents will hardly wish to revoke the conversion) the conversion is valid retrospectively. The child is then seen as a full Jew from the moment of the conversion rites.
It would all seem to be perfectly simple and straightforward and, indeed, it is. Again, however, the London Bet Din will not allow the infant to be converted unless the Jewish adoptive parents meet the most severe demands, as if they were applicants for conversion. In the case of a prospective adult convert for the purpose of marriage the argument for a very strict attitude might be justified (only ‘might’ be) on the ground that it discourages intermarriage (but does it?). What possible grounds can there be in refusing to allow a child adopted by Jewish parents to become Jewish? Some of the statements and actions of the London Bet Din in this connection almost seem to suggest that they do not believe it good or advantageous to be Jewish.
To sum up. The procedures of the New London Synagogue in matters of personal status are in full accordance with traditional Jewish law. We cannot claim that we have an especially humane attitude because that would imply that the law is not in itself humane. Nor can we claim that we are ‘modern’ in our interpretation since the situation we have described is that which is inherent in the law itself. This defence of our procedures would not be required at all were it not that Orthodox officialdom is now determined to act in these matters in a manner far in excess of other Orthodox Rabbis and with an attitude beside which the Neturey Karta are a model of tolerance and sobriety.