Yet another out-of-tune rabbi

A wedding? Mazeltov! (But don’t let the rabbi sing — no, I promise I’m not kidding)

By Geoffrey Alderman, July 28, 2010

Earlier this month, one of my many Israeli admirers sent me a web-link to a story that on first reading I felt sure was a spoof. After all, the summer months are traditionally the media's "silly season" and this particular story struck me as particularly silly. Sadly, however, I have to confirm that the story is in no sense a spoof. It was, indeed, featured as a news item in last week's JC.

The guts of the story are these: at the end of June, the chief rabbinate of Israel warned that it would "strip" the authority to perform marriages from those rabbis who, under the chupah (and presumably with a captive audience), dared to incorporate into the marriage service an unacceptable level of singing and "musical performance". Moreover, from now on, Israeli rabbis are absolutely forbidden to advertise themselves as "wedding officiators".

This is not the first time that a ban on singing rabbis has been mooted. Just such a proscription was announced year ago, but had evidently not been enforced.

Now, the chairman of the chief rabbinate's marriage committee, Rabbi Ratzon Arusi, has warned that this era of tolerance and lax enforcement is well and truly at an end.

While "solid chazanut" will be permitted - even encouraged - under the chupah, rabbis who persist in turning the Jewish marriage ceremony "into a discotheque" can expect little mercy.

Rabbis who turn the chupah “into a discotheque” can expect little mercy

"Matrimony," Rabbi Arusi pontificated, "has always been enshrouded in an atmosphere of holiness. We are aware of the fact that a younger generation has arisen that is far from the tradition and is interested in such a chupah so that it is more accepted by those attending. However, everything must be in accordance with halachah.

"If the rabbi is genteel and cordial, we have no opposition. On the contrary, he sanctifies the Heavens. But when he sings and plays music, this is problematic."

So be warned: from now on, any rabbi in Israel who dares to sing under the chupah will be summoned to appear before a disciplinary tribunal, which will not hesitate to issue him with a formal written warning. Should he be emboldened to ignore this, he will be banned from performing marriages forthwith.

So much for the singing rabbi. As for the advertising rabbi, Rabbi Arusi was equally blunt.

"This creates a very commercialised reality and here, too, it cheapens the rabbinate," he declared. And in a further statement to the media, a spokesperson in the office of the chief rabbinate explained that both phenomena - the singing rabbi and the advertising rabbi - represented serious breaches of the rabbinical "code of ethics" - whatever that is.

At this point, I need to clarify that we are talking about marriages, not funerals - though I want to make it clear that I, for my part, have no objection to singing at my funeral, which is in any event likely to be a joyous occasion for reasons I do not propose to analyse here.

Be that as it may, a Jewish marriage is most certainly not a solemn occasion. It is -par excellence - a simchah, an occasion on which to be "sameach" - "happy" - which is of course the meaning of the Hebrew word. I know of no halachic prohibition against singing and being happy at a Jewish wedding, because no such prohibition exists.

Far from being solemn and formal, a Jewish marriage ceremony is - or is certainly supposed to be - relatively joyous and relatively informal.

The only true formality required is that the bridegroom must - in front of two reliable male witnesses - give the bride an object of value (generally a ring though it doesn't have to be) and pronounce a Hebrew formula. There can be as much singing as you like.

So why has the Israeli chief rabbinate decided to clamp down on singing and advertising rabbis?

The pressure for them to do so appears to have come partly from a section of the general public - the yekkish killjoys who cannot sing themselves and who decry anything that smacks of a lack of what they choose to call "decorum".

An Israeli acquaintance also tells me that some rabbis who advertise themselves as "singing" are in fact - not to beat about the bush - completely tone deaf.

If the chief rabbinate wants to ban these charlatans, well and good. But surely, anything (within halachah of course) that makes religious ceremonial more appealing should be positively welcomed.

Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010


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