No, You Can’t Just Use Jewish Wedding Rituals if You’re Not Jewish
My Jewish ritual should not be used for your Pinterest wedding.
I understand the desire to make a wedding unique. It’s pretty much impossible, honestly, but do your best. You want to hold it in an abandoned train station with a farmer theme while everyone sits on water balloons? Gezunteheit. You want your guests to feel transformed, moved by all the little ways your infuse meaning into the moment, to create lasting memories that will stand out amongst all the white dresses and rustic farm settings with wildflower centerpieces?
Go for it.
Just don’t use my (or anyone’s) sacred ritual to make your wedding pop on Instagram.
It’s a thing. I had no idea it was a thing until I read a 2011 Washington Post article entitled “A Jewish Wedding for Two Non-Jews” that recently got widely re-circulated. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw the headline; maybe it would tell the story of a couple getting in touch with the Jewish roots or finding the religion as adults and using the wedding as a way to honor their personal journeys. Maybe (though it seemed unlikely) it would be a thoughtful narrative about how an interfaith family was struggling to incorporate their two traditions in a way that respected them both. Maybe the two non-Jews in question were not the bride and groom, but other people involved in the ceremony and celebration.
Nope. The article was literally about how two non-Jews decided to make their wedding stand out by having a Jewish ceremony, complete with chuppah, ketubah, breaking of the glass and – wait for it – the ritually unnecessary but photo friendly Rabbi as officiant. Until I read the article, I didn’t even know about these kinds of weddings, but it turns out that this article isn’t an anomaly: non-Jewish people do borrow Jewish rituals for their weddings.
I was so angry. I actually shocked myself by how angry I was. It felt, simply, like the grossest violation of history, tradition, and the ties that bind a community and a religion together.
I know that debates about cultural appropriation are complicated. I know that there is a meaningful difference between appropriation and appreciation. I know that it can be hard in some cases to point to clear origins in culture and that culture itself is constantly shifting and changing precisely because of the interplay of traditions with history and practice. But there’s a huge difference between, say, white women getting praised for wearing cornrows, a style that women of color have been discriminated against for using on the one hand, and all the people of New York enjoying a good bagel on the other.
The Jewish wedding thing is the bad kind, though. The chuppah isn’t just a canopy, although there are some beautiful ones out there. Breaking the glass isn’t just a chance for people to hear a loud bang and shout mazel tov. The ketubah isn’t just a piece of artwork to be framed on your wall as a reminder of the day, though you can get all kinds of imitation Chagall styles that document the rights of the bride and how many goats she is worth.
All these pieces are links in a long chain that connect the Jewish people across time, across space, and yes—across struggle. They are, in part, designed to emphasize how the marriage celebration is a communal event that isn’t just about the bride and groom but their place amongst the Jewish people. Our wedding rituals, while beautiful, aren’t about photo ops and guest reactions. They are about our future, but they are just as much about our past. And they are not static: they have changed, and grown, and diverged across our wonderful and living religion, and they will continue to evolve. But this is not their next stage.
These traditions are ours, and that actually really matters. Others don’t get to just borrow them on a whim. Of course, this couple did, and they are certainly within their rights to do so—but I absolutely have the right to say that it is wrong. These weddings don’t seemingly affect me in any way, nor do they seemingly pose a tangible threat to the safety of the Jewish people, the sanctity of Jewish ritual, or the rights of Jews to practice their religion freely. Some could argue that this wedding was an homage to our way of doing weddings, and we should be flattered and even encouraging of this (ugh) trend.
Nope. Not flattered. Not encouraging. And, frankly, not agreeing that it isn’t a threat. When ritual and religious practice become a matter of style, they become a matter of negotiation. They become a matter of taste. They can be evaluated by the whims of others, and they can be encouraged or repressed by those same tastes.
When religion becomes a trend, it can stop trending. Violently, or otherwise. There’s a big – and meaningful – difference between someone who things my taste is bad, and someone who thinks my religion is bad. There’s a big difference between someone who wants to appropriate my taste (enjoy!) and someone who wants to appropriate my religion. And there’s a big difference between trying to change my taste and someone trying to change my religion.
Maybe find a scenic railway station instead.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.