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


              Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote quite a few responsa concerning the Halachic status of Reform Jewish wedding ceremonies.  This week we will focus on a responsum written in 1970 that appears in Igrot Moshe Even Haezer (III:25).

The Double Ring Ceremony

              In this responsum Rav Moshe addresses the issue of the double ring ceremony.  It should be noted at the outset that there are many different variations of the double ring ceremony which may have different Halachic standings.

              Rav Moshe writes that Reform marriages lack Halachic validity due to reasons beyond the lack of Kosher witnesses which we discussed last week.  He writes:

They do not perform an act of Kiddushin.  Rather they merely responded "yes" to the rabbi's question of "do you wish to take this woman as your wife" and "do you wish to take this man as your husband."  These are not words of Kiddushin [such as %9* !; /8&$:; -* ")"3; '&, behold you are betrothed to me with this ring], rather these words express consent to their joining in marriage.  Subsequently they exchange rings as an expression of the fact that they are now married.

Rav Moshe also writes:

Even though he gives her a ring, she also gives him a ring, which demonstrates that his giving her a ring was merely a present and not an act of Kiddushin.

              A similar approach is suggested by the late Dayan Aryeh Grossnass (of the London Beit Din) that appears in his collection of responsa Teshuvot Lev Aryeh (no. 31).

Disagreement with Rav Feinstein

              Many great rabbis disagree with this assertion of Rav Moshe.  Both Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg (a member of the Jerusalem Beit Din, and one of today's leading Halachic authorities) and Rav Hershel Schachter expressed their opinions to this author that once the Chatan gives the Kallah the ring, the couple is married.  Whatever happens after the delivery of the ring is irrelevant in their view (although these authorities believe it to be improper to have a double ring ceremony; see Igrot Moshe 3:18).

              The Gemara (Nedarim 77a) seems to support Rav Goldberg and Rav Schachter's view.  The Gemara states that &%-,;! ;&+ ,$* $*"&9 ,$"&9 $/* (&6 //#$4 &3&"$ 3"&$; ,&,"*. &/8$: &/#9:.  This means that one may retract even a formal statement (such as testimony in Beit Din) as long as the retraction occurs immediatly after the statement.  However, this rule does not apply to four areas of Halacha - cursing (Challilah V'Chas) our Creator, idolatry, Kiddushin, and Get.  Accordingly, once Kiddushin has occurred one cannot retract the act of Kiddushin (except with a Get or death).  Similarly, once the Chatan gave the Kallah a ring, the Kallah's giving the Chatan the ring is irrelevant.

Defense of Rav Feinstein's Ruling

              One may suggest a defense of Rav Moshe's ruling.  Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (Chidushei Rabbeinu Chaim Halevi, Hilchot Chalitza 4:16) explains that a couple does not become married merely as a result of performing the rituals of Kiddushin.  Rather, it is $3;, intention, that creates the marriage.  Accordingly, the couple must have $3; that the giving of the ring creates the Kiddushin without intention, there can be no Kiddushin.

              Moreover, in the Reform weddings I have seen (on wedding videos provided by women seeking to remarry but unable to obtain a Get from a recalcitrant spouse), the rabbi declares at the conclusion of the Chuppah "I now pronounce you man and wife in the eyes of man and in the eyes of God."  The people I have interviewed told me that they thought they were married in a Jewish fashion when the Rabbi made this declaration.

              Even though the Rema (E.H. 42:1) writes that "regarding Kiddushin we do not try to interpret what people's intentions were in order to say they did not intend to be married."  Nevertheless, there is still room to be lenient.  This is because the reason for this ruling of the Rema as explained by Rav Yechezkel Landau (Teshuvot Nodah Biyehuda I:59, cited by Pitchei Teshuva E.H. 42:3), is that $"9*. :"-" !*1. $"9*., unarticulated thoughts have no Halachic significance.  However, in the case of the Reform double ring ceremony, the Chatan and Kallah indicate with their actions that they do not want the groom's delivery of the ring to the bride to effect Kiddushin.  In fact, Tosafot (Kiddushin 49b s.v. $"9*.) writes in a celebrated assertion that when it is obvious what the individuals' intentions were, the intentions do indeed have Halachic standing.

              Indeed, it is our practice for a young man to present an engagement ring to his fiancee and we do not believe the couple is thereby married (see Rema E.H. 45:2).  This is because it is not the couple's intention to create Kiddushin with the engagement ring.

Limitations of Rav Feinstein's Ruling

              Rav Moshe's ruling probably does not apply to all situations where there was a double ring ceremony.  This author saw a video of a traditional Conservative rabbi conducting a wedding ceremony, in which there was a double ring ceremony.  The rabbi told the groom to give the ring as expression of marriage and subsequently told the bride to give him a ring as a pledge of her love.  He seemed to be seeking to distinguish between the groom's delivery of the ring (which creates Kiddushin) and the bride's handing the groom a ring.

              Although Rav Moshe strongly disapproves of such a ceremony (see Igrot Moshe E.H. 3:18), he probably would believe that this form of a double ring ceremony does not invalidate the wedding.  This is because in this case there is no concrete that the couple does not wish to create Kiddushin with the delivery of the ring from the Chatan to the Kallah.

Ownership of the Ring

              In Igrot Moshe (E.H. I:76) Rav Moshe notes that a mistake that often occurs at Reform weddings is that the Chatan does not own the ring (it is vitally important that the Chatan own the ring to be used for Kiddushin - see Shulchan Aruch E.H. chapter 28 - In fact, Orthodox rabbis ask the Chatan at the time of Kiddushin if the ring indeed belongs to him; see Beit Shmuel 28:49).  If the ring belonged to the Kallah (i.e. it was purchased by her or was a family heirloom) or was given by the Chatan to the Kallah prior to the wedding and subsequently she gave him the ring to use for the wedding ceremony, the Kiddushin is not valid.

              Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg told this author that he does not think that this is necessarily correct.  He said this in light of ruling of the Rosh (Kiddushin 1:20, codified in Shulchan Aruch 28:19) that if one borrows a ring and informs the lender that he wishes to use that ring for Kiddushin, the Kiddushin will be valid despite the fact that the ring was borrowed.  The reason for this is that the lender intends to give the ring as a present (and not merely a loan) to the Chatan because of the concern that the Kiddushin be valid (see Teshuvot Beit Yitzchak I:104 for an application of this ruling).

              However, one may respond that the Rosh's ruling applies only to those who are aware of the Halacha that the wedding ring must belong to the groom.  Rav Moshe states this explicitly in Igrot Moshe (E.H. I:90).

              In fact, the Mishna Berura (649:15) seems to support Rav Moshe's contention.  The Mishna Berura rules that one who used a borrowed Lulav does not fulfill the Mitzva of Lulav (on the first say of Sukkot first two days in the Galut) unless the lender was aware of the Halacha that the Lulav must be owned by its user to fulfill the Mitzva of Arba Minim.  Otherwise we assume that the person gave the Arba Minim as a present and not a loan to the person about to use the Arba Minim on the first day of Sukkot.


              It should be emphasized that in these articles we do not seek to denigrate Reform rabbis or question their sincerity or integrity.  Because we might say that Reform Jewish wedding ceremonies lack Halachic validity does not mean that we do not appreciate the spiritual sincerity and the spirituality of our non-Orthodox brethren.  Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has articulated this point on many occasions.

              In addition, we must try our hardest to assure divorcing couples who were married in a Reform Jewish ceremony receive a Kosher Get.  Only in case of Igun (when a divorced man or woman is unable to remarry due to a former spouse's refusal to participate in a Get ceremony) or possible Mamzeirut, do we rely on Rav Moshe Feinstein's (and many authorities who agree with him) rulings regarding the validity of Reform wedding ceremonies.  For an interesting approach to this issue from the perspective of a Reform rabbi, see Rabbi Eugene Borowitz's "Co-Existing with Orthodox Jews" Journal of Reform Judaism, (Summer 1987).

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

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