A Liberal rabbi has sparked controversy within his own movement by suggesting that it should perform chupah ceremonies for couples who do not wish to get formally married for financial reasons.
Rabbi Ron Berry, of Bristol and West Progressive Congregation, writing in the last edition of Liberal Judaism Today, said he wanted to help Jewish couples who were “finding happiness in later life”.
He wrote: “There is a tendency to take into account tax and inheritance law, which makes many of them shy away from the prospect of formal union according to the laws of the land.
“Could, or should, rabbis offer a Jewish religious marriage ceremony to all Jewish couples when they choose not to have their union registered according to civil law?”
But several Liberal rabbis and lay leaders have written in to the latest issue of the newsletter to declare their objection to the idea.
Nigel Cole, chairman of Liberal Judaism, wrote: “A Jewish marriage in a Liberal synagogue is made up of two elements, civil and Jewish, the one inextricable from the other, and a ceremony that omits either part is not a Jewish marriage.”
He added: “Diluting this symbiosis between the civil and the religious, the secular and the divine, undermines the principle of the ceremony. Separating the two for the excuse of tax or inheritance laws seems to be among the feeblest of reasons.”
Rabbi Pete Tobias, the chairman-elect of the movement’s rabbinic conference, argued that the vows taken beneath the wedding canopy represent “a solemn commitment… If this commitment is challenged by or unable to withstand financial pressures that the couple might encounter were they to become civilly married, then how strong a commitment is it?”
He added that there was a “moral and legal duty” for Jews to abide by civil laws.
“It seems to me that if Liberal Judaism was to offer a Jewish wedding ceremony without the accompanying civil marriage simply because the Jewish couple is uncomfortable with some of its legal and financial consequences, we would effectively be undermining some of those laws.”
Tony Sacker, former chairman of the movement, believed such a move would be legally impossible. “If a couple go through a chupah ceremony containing all the elements of a traditional wedding… then they are married in accordance with English law, and the marriage secretary is obliged to register.”
In recent years, the movement has introduced a ceremony for same-sex couples and permitted rabbis to give blessings to mixed-faith couples, while stressing that these do not represent marriage ceremonies.
Rabbi Berry, who was in France this week, was unavailable for comment.