Huppa pratit: good, necessary, but not sufficient

Everyone who wants to see the corrupt and insatiable power of the State-recognized rabbinate (the rabbanut) broken and its monopoly over Jewish marriage and divorce in Israel ended, applauds the announcement of huppa pratit, an alternative for marriage enacted according to halacha, rabbinic law.

“Huppa pratit” – literally, “private marriage,” is a takeoff on the alternative kashrut supervision authority, “Hashgaha Pratit,” that broke the rabbanut’s stranglehold on this function a few years ago. The people behind both initiatives are courageous and learned Jews outraged by corruption and abuse in the rabbanut, who want honest and upright Jewish religious practice. This includes rational and respectful treatment of tens of thousands of Jews the rabbanut excludes from Jewish marriage through ever-expanding strictures not mandated by rabbinic law.

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I applaud these people – Rabbis Aaron Leibowitz and Chuck Davidson; attorney Nitzan Caspi-Shiloni, and others – who risk censure and even freedom in violating a law that makes marriage outside of rabbanut auspices a crime punishable by two years of imprisonment.

Some of those behind these initiatives, in particular, the moderate-Orthodox organization, Tzohar, wish to replace the rabbanut with a kinder, gentler variant (themselves), but this is not the way to go.

The Chief Rabbinate is the product of the Ottomans and British, who created and maintained it for their convenience. It has no legitimate Jewish precedent or purpose. Jews lived for thousands of years with a decentralized rabbinic structure and a pluralism of interpretive traditions and customs. We did not have a Papacy and should not have one now. Any group, however honest and well-intended, that would inherit a rabbinic monopoly would inevitably become the factory of sinecures, nepotism, and mediocrity that we know too well in the current rabbanut.

Nor is addressing rabbanut abuse in the administration of marriage sufficient. While absolutely necessary, this does nothing about the abuse inherent in the nature of halakhic marriage. Indeed, it may even mask the problem.

Halachic marriage is effected through kinyan, literally, acquisition, and kiddushin, sanctification. The object of the acquisition and sanctification is the bride. The subject of the proceedings is her “baal – literally, her “master” – to-be, the groom, who acquires exclusive right to her sexuality from her father (or other male guardian). That right is traded under the marriage canopy.

The first marital blessing recited there, birkat erussin, refers to those “forbidden to us” and then “to those permitted to us through huppah and kiddushin.” The “us” here is Jewish men. These profoundly offensive words are spoken while the bride stands there, in most cases unaware of what is really happening.

The acquisition of exclusive sexual rights is that of the baal only. The bride enacts no similar claim on him.

She is passive in the proceedings, save for acceptance of a token of minimal worth, usually, a ring. Any words or acts added by some to give the bride a role are done after the marriage has been effected. Indeed, anything else would invalidate rabbinic marriage, which must be male-led and unilateral.

Iggun, the situation in which a woman is chained in a dead marriage and becomes an agunah, is a consequence of kinyan and kiddushin: marriage enacted unilaterally by the baal can only be dissolved at his will.

Even when iggun does not eventuate, the threat of it hangs over every marriage initiated in this manner.

The best prenup, which is that developed by the Center for Women’s Justice and which Huppa Pratit requires in all marriages it conducts, is no guarantee against iggun. Even the best contracts are breached. Prenups that mandate monetary payment for withholding a divorce are useless if the man has no means or prefers three meals a day in jail to giving one.

This was the case with Tzvia Gorodetsky’s jailed baal, who withheld her freedom for over 20 years until a private rabbinic court led by Rabbi Daniel Sperber freed her by annulling her marriage. Even Sperber could not override the power of the baal in rabbinic law; he just found a way around it, which any rabbi with less learning could have done but did not.

Prenups with financial penalties do nothing to men of means, who can litigate women into poverty and extort for a rabbinic divorce, no different than the situation without a prenup.

Prenups are the hoped-for antidote to poison. The better route is not to take poison in the first place. Couples have been creating new Jewish ways to marry that treat both partners as equals through, e.g., adaptation of halakhic partnership law; or by using neder – a binding vow, and in case of divorce, hatarat nedarim—dissolution of vows.

This is where all this has to go, not only to end the plague of iggun but because kinyan and kiddusin are fundamentally degrading to women’s humanity, to our tselem elokim, our Divine image. Making the ceremony friendlier and eliminating the abuses the rabbanut regularly enacts prior to it do not address the fundamental misogyny of kinyan and kiddushin.

On the contrary, “kinder and gentler” proceedings elide awareness, already woefully lacking, of exactly what is going on under the huppa amid the music and the flowers, and mislead women in particular, to think, problem solved, while business, literally – the trade in women – proceeds.

Huppa pratit is a good and necessary step, but not sufficient.

We need marriage rituals that are in sync with the seven blessings celebrating friendship and mutuality that are part of the traditional marriage ceremony, and which obviate any possibility of iggun (being “chained” to her marriage).

Couples who are leading the way with such rituals are the beginnings of redemption. May it be hastened.

The author is professor emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College in Ohio.