A liberal Orthodox association of rabbis has ruled that people with cognitive disabilities can get married according to Jewish law, or halacha, seeking to overturn a stigma among some rabbis that has made such unions verboten.
Some local rabbis have refused to perform marriage ceremonies for people with cognitive disabilities, such as Down syndrome or severe autism, believing that the couple would not be able to fulfill the requirements of Jewish marriage and household.
But Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth, the executive director of Beit Hillel, which issued the halachic ruling, said disabilities should not keep people from being married.
“I have officiated at 800 weddings, and the ones for people with disabilities were the most moving,” said Neuwirth, who is also the rabbi of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra’anana.
Beit Hillel issued the ruling to explain the intricacies of the Jewish law because they want to make sure rabbis understand that marriage for people with intellectual disabilities is possible.
Six months ago, they released a similar paper detailing the reasons why people with intellectual disabilities can celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah and be recognized as a Jewish adult in front of the community under Jewish law.
Neuwirth said that the public, including rabbis, has not understood that people with cognitive disabilities can fulfill these commandments, and that they should be encouraged to do so if it will make them happier and more fulfilled.
“It’s not the decision of the rabbis, it’s the decision of the families,” Neuwirth said. “There’s no issue of people with cognitive disabilities to get married under Jewish law. It’s legitimate, it’s valid, and it’s also possible to give a divorce.”
In various Jewish texts, rabbis over the centuries have debated how to determine if a person has the mental capability to deal with marriage.
The Beit Hillel paper collects these debates and examines how to apply them today, namely, allowing professionals, social workers, the family, and the person with disabilities to determine if they have the tools to build a healthy marital relationship.
“Our goal is to raise the awareness of people that this is definitely possible based on halacha,” said Neuwirth. He added that communities have a responsibility to incorporate and support people with disabilities the same way they support people without disabilities. He noted that marriage is not always the right step, especially for someone with emotional disabilities or autism who cannot understand contextual situations. However, that should be the decision of the person, their family, and the support network, and not the decision of a rabbi.
There are a number of organizations that work to support this issue of marriage among people with cognitive difficulties. Inbar is a volunteer matchmaking organization that hosts events for religious people with disabilities. The Ruderman Family Foundation has partnered with the Feuerstein Institute to create a support network for families and couples with disabilities who want to get married.
The Times of Israel recently interviewed Ari Ne’eman, the recipient of the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion, who talked about the need for “presumed competency” — affording people with disabilities the ability to self-determination, and the room to grow and experiment on their own. Ne’eman who has Aspergers, is engaged to be married and runs the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), which advocates for communities and organizations to support people with disabilities as they make their own decisions.
Neuwirth explained that rabbis were very hesitant to marry people with intellectual disabilities until 2011, when the chief rabbis ruled that each local rabbi can approach a chief rabbi directly to determine if someone with a disability should be permitted to marry. However, Beit Hillel decided to write a ruling in order to shed even more light on the issue.
“I’m certain that majority of society is not aware [that people with disabilities want to get married],” he said. “That’s why we wanted to have this mission paper, to do major public relations. We want people to start talking about this, so they will be aware that it exists and that we’re giving our support.”