NJ Child Marriage Ban Defeated Due To Orthodox Opposition

Last week the New Jersey state legislature was set to make that state the second (after Delaware) to set 18 as an absolute minimum age for marriage. Currently, the law in New Jersey is that 16 and 17 year olds can marry with parental permission, and children 15 and younger can marry with parental consent and permission from a judge. The new law had seemed certain to pass and be signed by Governor Phil Murphy, but was derailed at the last minute by State Assemblyman Gary Schaer. You can find news coverage here and here.

According to Freidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, an organization working to end child marriage, between 1995 and 2012 nearly 3500 minors were married in New Jersey. Of those, 163 were between the ages of 13 and 15.

Schaer said that his objection was based on requests from the Orthodox Jewish community, which wants the legislation to have a religious exemption. Schaer said that the law should be rewritten to account for sensitivity to Orthodox Judaism’s ‘traditions and rituals’.

That’s horrendous. There is clearly no necessity in Jewish law or tradition that anyone under 18 be married.

Most likely, what’s on the mind of the rabbis opposing this law is that in some circumstances they may view marriage to be a 16 or 17 year old girl’s best option. The scenarios are easy enough to imagine. Most obvious, if in violation of Jewish law and community mores she has gotten pregnant. Should she not marry her baby’s father, as a 17 or 18 year old single mother her marriage prospects within the community may be nil. It could be that even if she’s not pregnant, public knowledge that she’s had sexual relations before marriage may make her an undesirable bride. And there could be other factors working against a girl’s marriage prospects, such as family scandals or health concerns as well. Such things could lead to the conclusion that if a suitor comes by while she’s underage she should leap for the chance since no other groom may come later.

But the solution to these types of problems isn’t what the rabbis are proposing. What needs to be done is for the community to change its attitude towards girls in such situations so underage marriage wouldn’t be a necessity.

Clearly, the Jewish law prohibition of sex outside of marriage as practiced by the Orthodox isn’t going to change. But Jewish law doesn’t say that a young woman who isn’t a virgin has to be scorned as a bride. That act or decision she made needn’t define her. How about instead of the rabbis counseling her that she let herself be married off as a teenager, the rabbis speak out in their community about how this girl shouldn’t be judged and evaluated based on that!

Marriage and family as the bedrock of Orthodox Jewish community is also deeply rooted in Torah and Jewish tradition. But the attitude that a girl (or boy) not married in their late teens or early twenties must have something wrong with them and is to be pitied is not mandated by the Torah. Rather than working to marry off a girl when she’s 16 to insure she not suffer the horrible fate of turning 19 or 20 without a husband, rabbis can teach that marriage is a personal decision that people are ready for at different ages. Young people can be helped to find personal fulfillment and community acceptance in ways other than early marriage and starting a family.

It would be helpful here if other Rabbinic voices could also be heard. I’d like to see more moderate Orthodox organizations, such as the Rabbinical Council of America, speak out in favor of this law.

The legislative change the bill’s opponents are seeking is to allow marriage of 16 and 17 year olds with the approval of a judge. They say that while 18 is a reasonable minimum age, it’s possible marriage may make sense for a younger person in some circumstances. So a judge should be allowed to evaluate on a case by case basis.

While this may at first seem reasonable, Freidy Reiss has a compelling rebuttal. She says that based on her experience, the 16 or 17 year old minor will likely be manipulated by parents, rabbis, or other adults to mislead the judge in order to get the marriage approved. This wind up creating a further harm- when the marriage unravels the minor feels guilt, shame, and responsibility that she helped bring the situation on herself.

Freidy Reiss’s organization, Unchained at Last, is planning a protest at Gary Schaer’s office. Let’s hope child marriage will soon be outlawed in New Jersey and that the rest of the states will follow.

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