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ISRAEL: How to Save a Cabinet

3 minute read

Though a democracy in most respects, Israel is also a theocracy. Among other things, religious law totally governs marriage and divorce. Israel’s religious Jews and the bulk of its traditionalists—who together account for about 60% of the Jewish population—insist that this situation should not change. Nonreligious Jews question the extent to which religious law should influence everyone’s daily life. This is one of those issues that bitterly divide Israelis, for all their unity against external threats. One such squabble—incredibly esoteric to outsiders—had split Golda Meir’s Cabinet and even threatened to bring down her government. Last week the problem was finally solved.

The case involved Hanoch Langer, 27, a burly army sergeant-major, and his sister Miriam, 25. They had been barred from marrying most Jews because their mother left her first husband and married their father without a proper divorce; thus under religious law the two children became mamzerim (children of an adulterous union) and ineligible to wed anyone but other mamzerim or converts. The efforts of Hanoch and Miriam to marry their sweethearts in a valid religious ceremony became a celebrated case. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan became their advocate. Some Knesset members introduced bills which would allow civil marriage in Israel for the first time; the National Religious Front promised to bolt Golda Meir’s coalition if such a law were passed, and even Mrs. Meir threatened to resign unless the case was resolved.

Mrs. Eve Langer’s explanation was intricate. She pleaded that she did not bother to obtain a divorce from her first husband after they separated in 1942 because a rabbi advised her that she did not need one. The husband, one Abraham Borokovsky, was a Christian who had converted to Judaism, but in the eyes of Mrs. Langer’s rabbi, he was not really a Jew, so that a divorce was not required. A rabbinical court later rejected that argument and declared her still married to Borokovsky.

In October, however, Israel’s two chief rabbis—one of the Ashkenazic or Western tradition, the other of the Sephardic or Oriental tradition—were replaced in an election by younger men. New Ashkenazic Rabbi Shlomo Goren, 54, former chief chaplain of the army, as one of his first acts personally reviewed the Langer case. He learned that Borokovsky had been seen attending Christian services and was reported to keep pork in his home. Rabbi Goren convened a rabbinical court that declared that 1) Borokovsky’s conversion was invalid, thus 2) Mrs. Langer’s marriage to him was nullified and 3) her second marriage was therefore valid and its offspring legitimate. Moshe Dayan happily witnessed the weddings of Hanoch and Miriam after two trying years.

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