Why we had to get married twice

The Chief’s rejection of the validity of Masorti marriages has been a long-standing source of tension

March 11, 2010

Many couples from mixed United Synagogue–Masorti backgrounds feel coerced into holding dual ceremonies. Two Masorti families described their experiences.

“In 2009,” related the first, “our daughter was married in a Masorti synagogue, according to the law of Moses and of Israel, by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, before Shabbat-observant witnesses. The following day, she stood under a tallit in our sitting-room with her new husband for a shadow ceremony which apparently fulfilled the law of Jonathan Sacks and of the United Synagogue.

“We had joined our Masorti synagogue as newly-weds many years ago, and it had become our communal home. Although our son-in-law had for many years been closely connected to the Masorti community, his parents were equally committed to their shul, which operates under the United Synagogue, and he naturally wanted his aufruf [pre-marriage call-up) there. Its rabbi was delighted to oblige, subject to one condition upon which he and the synagogue remained adamant: that the couple held a wedding ceremony under US auspices.

“While painfully aware that this stipulation was an insult to us, to our community and, more significantly, to our rabbi, we were inclined to go along with it for the sake of shalom bayit [domestic harmony]. We took the view that our in-laws were as much victims of this bizarre demand as we and the children were, and that there was no point in making them feel any more uncomfortable than they already were.

“We decided that a solution lay in our children going through two ceremonies. They, however, strenuously rejected a proposal that the US wedding should be held first, believing that any so-called wedding ceremony between a couple already married would only be a sham. There was no question about anyone’s religious status, as the US was prepared to marry the couple; and no question that they had been properly married before witnesses — the hapless US rabbi who performed the subsequent ceremony had no doubt about that.

“He expressed his personal respect for Rabbi Wittenberg, and even mentioned that he had driven past the previous day and had spotted the wedding party after the ceremony. And to give him credit, he pointed out that the ring our daughter had then received under the chuppah could not be returned to her husband to be given again. He instructed the bridegroom to buy another item of jewellery — not a ring — which could be used instead. Nor were any of the other elements of the ceremony questioned. As for the witnesses, no direct aspersions were cast on their eligibility.

“But extraordinarily, on the morning of the United Synagogue procedure, our son-in-law received a call from the rabbi that his co-witness was unable to attend but would participate via speakerphone and, provided he (the groom) gave his consent to the marriage down the line, that would suffice. Since no one involved was taking the ceremony seriously, this made no difference — and the telephone witness took part, remaining silent throughout.”

Describing a similar experience, another London family spoke of “media fear-mongering and lack of clarity surrounding Masorti marriages”. Long-standing members of the Masorti movement, they attended synagogue regularly and the father was formerly chairman of his congregation.

“Our son became engaged to the daughter of US members. Initially, they wanted their rabbi and ours to officiate jointly at the wedding. We knew, however, that under present circumstances it would be impossible for their rabbi to participate and that he could potentially lose his job if he did so.

“Conventional thinking within the wider community is that the children of Masorti marriages might not be recognised as halachically Jewish. The girl’s family suggested that the couple marry first under the United Synagogue and then have a bigger wedding under Masorti auspices. Our son was reluctant to do this and insisted on holding the Masorti marriage first.

“Both sides agreed to go through the motions of a ‘quickie’ United Synagogue ceremony to take place within a week of the Masorti wedding. This second full ceremony was held under the chuppah in a small library room at a United synagogue, attended by some 20 guests. The entire marriage procedure was followed, even though the couple were already married. There were, however, two specific requests: a new ring had to be provided, and the bride was required to cover her head.”

Extracted from ‘Another Way, Another Time: Religious Inclusivism and the Sacks Chief Rabbinate’, Meir Persoff, published on March 19 by Academic Studies Press, £54.50/£26.99 (pb)

Last updated: 3:07pm, March 15 2010