The Halachic Status of Non-Orthodox Marriages - Part II by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


    Last week we outlined the debate concerning whether a couple married only by a civil ceremony requires a Get.  This week we will discuss the Orthodox view of Reform weddings.

A Lenient Consideration - Ketubot 73b

              We will begin by citing the view articulated by Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe Even Haezer I:76) and the Meharsham (2:101), that even those authorities who believe that a couple married civilly is considered married by Halacha, would agree that a couple joined only by a Reform rabbi is not considered married according to Halacha.  Their argument is based on the debate recorded on Ketubot 73b where the groom gave the bride an object worth less than a 59&)% (the money or object given must be worth at least a 59&)%; see Kiddushin 2a) and subsequently consummated the marriage.  The argument is whether the couple is married as a result of marital relations.  One opinion believes that the couple is considered married because that we assume people realize that Kiddushin requires an object worth a 59&)% and that, they understood that their formal marriage ceremony was not valid.  Therefore, they created Kiddushin through marital relations.

              The other opinion asserts that because people are generally not aware that the ring must be worth at least a 59&)% the couple is therefore unaware that their wedding ceremony was not conducted according to Halacha.  Hence, they do not intend to create Kiddushin by their marital relations because ,* 8! "3*- !$3;! $8*$&:*0 %9!:&1*. "3*-, they believe that their marital relations are sanctioned by their wedding ceremony and do not intend to create Kiddushin through their marital act.

              The Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer 31:9) rules in accordance with the view that believes that the couple is indeed married according to Halacha when the ring used in the wedding ceremony was worth less than a 59&)%.  The Rema adds that the couple is married only if they are aware that the wedding ceremony lacked Halachic validity and that they must create Kiddushin by marital relations.  However, if they believe the marriage ceremony was valid, then the couple are not considered to be married.

              Rav Moshe and the Meharsham write that "those who go to be married by a Reform rabbi are under the erroneous impression that the Reform ceremony constitutes Kiddushin and thus the couple does not intend to create Kiddushin through marital relations."  We will now outline why a Reform wedding ceremony may lack Halachic validity.

The Witness Requirements

              Jewish law requires the presence of two qualified witnesses (3$*.) in order for a wedding ceremony to have Halachic validity.  Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (Chidushei Rabbeinu Chaim Halevi, Hilchot Chalitza 4:16) explains that the presence of witnesses at a Kiddushin or Get is required -8*&. $"9, in order for the action to be binding, and not merely -"9&9, after the fact.  In the case of Kiddushin the presence of qualified witnesses is required in order for the act to constitute Kiddushin.  Even a videotape of the wedding ceremony cannot substitute for the presence of qualified witnesses at the wedding ceremony.

              The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat, Perek 34) presents the rules regarding who is considered a qualified witness according to Halacha.  Essentially, one who is known to have violated a negative Torah prohibition entailing concrete physical activity, such as eating non-kosher food is disqualified on a Torah level.  Thus, one who is known to drive on Shabbat or eat non-kosher food cannot serve as a witness for Kiddushin.

Accordingly, Rav Feinstein writes: It appears correct to me that a marriage ceremony conducted by a Reform rabbi has no Halachic validity if a thorough investigation demonstrates that two qualified witnesses did not see the groom hand the bride the ring and recite %9* !; /8&$:; -* (the wedding formula, "behold you are married to me ...").

The Chatam Sofer's Ruling

              A serious challenge to Rav Feinstein's ruling is a responsum by the Chatam Sofer (no. 100, cited by Pitchei Teshuva E.H. 42:11).  The case brought to the Chatam Sofer is as follows: A rabbi performed a wedding and two men were designated as the witnesses of the Kiddushin.  A few weeks later the rabbi discovered that one of the witnesses was a first cousin through marriage of the bride (relatives, including first cousins are not Kosher witnesses, see Shulchan Aruch C.M. Chapter 33 for details).

              The Chatam Sofer ruled that the marriage was valid even though one of the designated witnesses had been disqualified.  He said that anyone present at the wedding could potentially be considered one of the witnesses (assuming they were not invalid for whatever reason).  The Chatam Sofer asserts that even if people did not see the delivery of the ring, they can still be seen as witnesses to the Kiddushin, because "...there is clear knowledge that the couple went to the Chuppah, a competent rabbi served as the Mesader Kiddushin (master of ceremony), and the couple left the Chuppah presumably married."  So while the witnesses did not see the Chatan's delivery of the ring to the Kallah, they still knew that the transfer occurred.  This knowledge is equivalent to having actually seen the transfer itself (see Shevuot 33b).  This is the Halachic category referred to as !10 2%$*, being a witness by means of knowledge rather than by having actually seen an event take place.  This is similar to last week's rule of %0 %0 3$* *(&$ %0 %0 3$* "*!%.

Rav Feinstein's Limitation of the Chatam Sofer's Ruling

              The Chatam Sofer's ruling could potentially pose a most serious limitation to Rav Feinstein's ruling.  It would limit Rav Moshe's leniency to the case when no kosher witnesses were present at the wedding ceremony.  However, Rav Feinstein asserts that the Chatam Sofer's ruling does not apply to a wedding conducted by a Reform rabbi.  Rav Moshe asserts that the Chatam Sofer's ruling applies only when the Mesader Kiddushin is one who is both well-versed in Halacha and punctilious about all Halachic details concerning a marriage.  Only in such a situation does an !10 2%$* arise as only then can those at the wedding presume that a Halachically proper act of Kiddushin took place.  However, if those who did not see the ring delivered from the (;0 to the ,-% are less than certain that the Kiddushin was conducted strictly in accordance with Halacha, no !10 2%$* exists.

Rav Eliezer Waldenberg - Agreement With Rav Moshe

              Although some great rabbis disagree with Rav Moshe's lenient ruling, many great rabbis are in agreement with Rav Moshe's ruling (Rav Henkin disagreed with Rav Moshe's ruling, except in cases of Mamzeirut according to oral reports according to Rav Yehuda Henkin).  As we have noted, the Meharsham articulates a similar view to Rav Moshe.  In addition, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 8:37) agrees with Rav Moshe's analysis and ruling.  He seeks to demonstrate that many great authorities disagree with the aforementioned ruling of the Chatam Sofer.  Moreover, he agrees with Rav Moshe that the Chatam Sofer's ruling does not apply to a wedding ceremony conducted by a Reform rabbi.


              Next week we will look at other aspects and perspectives concerning this important issue.  It should be noted that Rabbi Eugene Borowitz (a leading Reform theologian) has noted that Reform Jews should not consider Rav Moshe's ruling to be morally repugnant.  He notes that Reform rabbis intend to make Jewish wedding ceremonies, but not necessarily Halachic ones. Rabbi Borowitz's insight should help us keep the peace within the Jewish people.

The Halachic Status of Non-Orthodox Marriages - Part III by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Women Reading The Megillah by Rabbi Chaim Jachter