Orthodox rabbis agree to oppose minor marriage

NEW YORK — Displaying a unity that is unusual in the often-fractious Orthodox world, a diverse group of rabbis has ruled that the practice of minor marriage is invalid.

Seventeen rabbis, all of whom are judges on religious courts in 10 Orthodox communities across the United States, met Monday of last week at a Manhattan synagogue to consider Jewish legal responses to the problem of minor marriage.

After considering religious documents addressing minor marriage's legitimacy, the rabbis concluded that the practice, called kedusha ketana in Hebrew, is invalid. The father who marries off his daughter as an act of vengeance against his wife is to be regarded as an evil person whose testimony is not legally binding according to Jewish law, said Carmi Schwartz, director of the Beth Din of America.

The Beth Din of America is the religious court connected to the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of about 1,000 Orthodox rabbis. The Beth Din convened the meeting and is organizing the broad-based response, which Schwartz expected some 40 Orthodox rabbis would support.

Schwartz said the rabbis represented all parts of the Orthodox spectrum, from centrist to charedi — the fervently religious.

The position adopted by consensus, Schwartz said, is the one backed by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, the renowned Jerusalem authority who died several months ago. He ruled on the matter in August 1994.

That position was not made public, however, until recent weeks, after the Jewish Telegraphic Agency first reported the practice of kedusha ketana.

Although Orthodox community members voiced concern that several cases of minor marriage had occurred, only one has since been confirmed by a religious court.

That case involved Israel Goldstein, who announced to a religious court in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, N.Y., in September 1993 that he had married off his daughter Sarah Leah.

Goldstein's act revived a long-unused practice and was believed to be the first case of anyone using kedusha ketana in a malevolent way.

He was apparently trying to punish his estranged wife, Gita, who had been trying to obtain a get, or Jewish divorce decree, from Goldstein for five years.

Goldstein's case has now been invalidated by the rabbinic rulings.

At the meeting, the rabbinic judges clarified that fathers plotting to marry off their daughters in order to wreak vengeance on their wives "should know this device does not work," said Schwartz.

This week's gathering was the first time so many in North America gathered to consider a single point of Jewish law, said Schwartz.

When Schwartz has finished gathering signatures from the 35 or 40 rabbis expected to vouch for the principles, "we will make the whole world aware" of the Orthodox rabbis' position on minor marriage, he said, suggesting that it might be advertised in Jewish newspapers.