Levirate marriage in the state of israel: Ethnic encounter and the challenge of a jewish state

Elimelech Westreich*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


The article examines the approach of leading rabbis toward levirate marriages following the establishment of the State of Israel. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Herzog supported the abolishment of levirate marriages and attempted to impose on all ethnic communities the Ashkenazi approach, which since the 13th century favored chalitza. Chief Sephardic Rabbi Uziel supported rabbi Herzog although the levirate commandment takes precedence over chalitza in the Sephardic and oriental traditions and is practiced in these communities. In 1950, the two Chief Rabbis led a council of rabbis that enacted a regulation rejecting levirate marriages and favoring chalitza. Rabbi Uziel believed that two opposing traditions governing an issue as central as family law are not appropriate in a modern state. He perceived the levirate marriage, which binds women in matrimonial relations against their will, to be inconsistent with their status in the modern era. The strong roots of the Ashkenazi Halachic tradition, which has for many generations rejected levirate marriages, allowed him to demand that all ethnic groups adopt it. Rabbi Yossef and other oriental critics regard his actions as submissive to Ashkenazi tradition, a criticism I reject. Rabbi Yossef vigorously opposed the abolition of levirate marriages, and in a decision in 1951 he claimed that it was invalid. It was the beginning of his struggle against what he perceived as Ashkenazi dominance and Sephardic submission, demanding the restoration of the oriental and Sephardic traditions. In time, this became an explicit ideological-political stance under the motto leachzir atara le'yoshna. I suggest that Rabbi Yossef endeavors to restore the golden age of the Bashi sages in Jerusalem, chief among them Rabbi Elyashar, at the twilight of the Ottoman period.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)426-499
Number of pages74
JournalIsrael Law Review
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - 2004


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