Singing rabbis 'banned'

By Nathan Jeffay, July 22, 2010

Israel's chief rabbinate is threatening to withdraw licences to perform marriages from rabbis who sing under the chuppah.

Wedding ceremonies in Israel tend to be generic, performed by a rabbi allocated by the rabbinate. But in the last decade, Israeli couples have begun turning to charismatic rabbis, who liven up ceremonies by singing parts of it.

"It's like a performance, like a theatre," said Ana Prashizky, a Bar Ilan University sociologist who has studied the trend.

Most couples engaging performing rabbis are non-religious. Some merely want to personalise an impersonal ceremony. Others, according to Ms Prashizky, are unhappy about the monopoly of the rabbinate and feel detached from religion.

"The ritual is becoming entertaining because to many, the ritual does not have its traditional meaning - the ritual is coming to be something new."

The field of performing rabbis is becoming increasingly commercialised. Most famous is Nissim Cohen of Tiberias, widely known by his self-assigned title of "Harav Hamezamer", which means "The Singing Rabbi". His website includes contact forms for interested couples and his YouTube channel has two promotional videos.

In a meeting last week, the chief rabbinate resolved that any rabbi who sings under the chuppah will be hauled before a disciplinary panel where they will receive a warning, and if they continue, they will be barred from performing marriages.

Rabbi Ratzon Arusi, head of the Chief Rabbinate's marriage committee, said that it will not crack down on the use of "solid chazanut" but it will target entertaining rabbis. They are making marriages "like something from a discotheque", he said, adding that their self-promotion is counter to the ethos of the rabbinate.

The rabbinate is yet to decide whether rabbis from Israel's growing Carlebach community - followers of the late rabbi and music star Shlomo Carlebach who sing and sometimes play instruments under the chuppah - will also fall under the ban.

Rabbi Cohen, the Tiberias-based performing rabbi, claims that the Rabbinate is making weddings dull, "like food without spice". He claimed that he makes weddings more sacred, not less, by giving the couples a connection with the ceremony.

"The music brings them closer to the religious side and opens their soul," he said. "Young couples want something beautiful - many rabbis don't want to do things in a nice manner."

Shaul Farber, an Orthodox rabbi and head of ITIM, a non-profit organisation that helps Israelis to arrange their weddings, said that he shares the rabbinate's concern about commercialisation of weddings but believes that it "threw out the baby with the bathwater".

The decision is "part of a broader campaign to make the rabbinate insular and less approachable," he claimed. He added that the rabbinate is "showing no respect for couples' wishes".

"What are they going to say next – that you can't sing Hallel?" he asked, referring to a celebratory prayer that was famously sung in the ancient Temple.

Last updated: 3:49pm, July 22 2010