How Does A Modern Orthodox Feminist Get Married?

My friend J. — smart, funny, feminist and, unlike me, Orthodox — got married this past June. For months before the wedding, she kept me in stitches with stories of her near-weekly tangles with the woman who was making her wedding dress. I had the pleasure of accompanying her to one fitting, which took place at a “studio” in the seamstress’ apartment in Boro Park, Brooklyn. The walls were covered with pictures of young brides and letters from their mothers, expressing gratitude with such praise as “May HaShem give you many healthy years of making Yiddishe kallahs [Jewish brides] happy.” While J. was struggling into her corset — “I didn’t have a choice with this one. She told me and I just did it.” — we decided I should try to guess which dress was hers, out of the hundred or so lining the racks on the walls. I got it right on the first guess. “How did you know?” she inquired, amazed. It was easy to choose, based on everything I knew about her: “Well, it has the shortest sleeves.”

Here are J’s own words (you’ll see why she wants to remain anonymous) about how she understands herself in this moment: a young woman, an ardent Orthodox feminist, on the brink of getting married.

I want to be clear: we’re getting married right now because we’re Orthodox, and we have to. If I weren’t observant, I probably wouldn’t be getting married. We’d be living together or whatever, but probably not married. I feel like I always have to defend my decision — it’s not like I don’t know that I’m 22 years old, which is, you know, kind of absurdly young, and it’s not like I’m not the raging feminist of my friends, either. So I’m always saying, ‘No, but… ’ And that can be frustrating, especially because you don’t want to feel defensive about your own wedding.

I asked my kallah teacher if we could cover Ayshet Chayil [the “Woman of Valor” verses from Proverbs that a man traditionally chants to his wife on Friday evening] in the next two months, although I’m not sure if she will, and I’m not even sure I want to look at it again. The Woman of Valor does everything. It’s so frustrating. I don’t want her to be the ideal woman, because it’s a set-up where the man does absolutely nothing. I guess I’m still working on what interpretation I feel comfortable with. I have the easiest time with the idea that it’s just about Solomon’s mother. But let me tell you something — if that’s the case, there is no way we’re singing that at my Shabbes table…

I guess one of the big differences between me and Yehuda, my fiance, is that I’m a huge believer in the concept of private autonomy in a halakhic world, and he is… decidedly less so. Not that he’s against it, but his family is much more do-what-the-rabbi-says-and-don’t-ask-questions. I’m kind of the bra-burner to his family. I think deciding what rabbi to go to when we have questions is going to be an on-going process. Not for stuff like, uh-oh, somebody dropped cheese in my meat pan, but for bigger and more fundamental stuff, like how we’ll be schooling our children, bar and bat mitzvahs, stuff about how our family will function — I can see it being something that comes up. I like that our differences aren’t over, though — I appreciate that we’re two individuals who are coming together because we love each other, but we’re still two people. We’re not going to meld into one big married lump, which I think is pretty healthy. But it will definitely remain a thing for us that I’m so carefully deliberate about everything. I think about everything I do (maybe not everything I say… ), and I know what I’m talking about, so I’m not quick to back down on points of Law…

For instance, I’ve really grappled with shomer negiah (the laws about when a woman and man are permitted to touch). I know I’m not alone in that, too — I just might be more willing to own up to it. I have real issues with the concept. I’ve read the texts on erva, nakedness — which are not in the Torah or the Talmud, by the way. I mean I’ve really studied them, but there it is. I told Yehuda early in the relationship that I thought it would be pretty insane if I couldn’t hold his hand when I wanted. He approaches it differently from a religious point of view… but he is a guy. He just didn’t want in the first place to be shomer negiah, so the fact that I had my own, well-read halakhic reasoning for why we didn’t need to be was okay by him. He’s not so — so legalistic as I am, I guess you would say. He’s much more content to do something because he’s told to. I have it inside of me that I have to be moved by a source, really moved by it. I am pretty envious of blind faith, though. It’s like I was saying, I really do think so much about everything, and I think it might be nice to get up in the morning and have all of your decisions made and get to feel good about them because you’re sure that’s how HaShem wants you to live. I guess I sometimes wish that I didn’t get so offended by the halakhic system. Or, not the system, but what comes out of it.

But that’s all in terms of the marriage. The wedding itself? I hate shopping and I hate making decisions, so my mother’s been pretty much running the show, but there are some things I’ve done myself, or Yehuda and I have been doing. My dress, for example. I thought it would be pretty ridiculous to spend $6,000 on a new dress, so I went to, essentially, a glorified gemach — sort of like a free loan society — in Boro Park and have been working with this seamstress on getting the dress to a place where I like it. This woman does the mitzvah of finding bridal gowns for women to rent. (Almost all of the other dresses there are done in a very frum style, which I think is just code word for ugly. Where do you think “frumpy” came from? In my family we say, the frummer the wedding, the more ongepatchke the dresses.) The first time I went, with my mom, it was pretty weird — there we were in our jeans skirts, with my mom in a baseball cap (she doesn’t usually cover her hair) in the middle of Boro Park, where all the women are wearing longer, darker skirts than ours. I’m not sure Mrs. Tisser knew what to do with us. She really believes that making these dresses is her religious calling — it’s how she contributes to society. And I make fun of it a lot, but it sort of has imbued the dress with something holy. I’ve fought with her on pretty much everything — the neckline, the length of the sleeves, veil vs. no veil. There’s definitely been some drama, and the requisite amount of nagging. But fighting religiously over a quarter-inch on the neckline — literally — has definitely imbued the whole dress-process with some personal meaning it would have otherwise lacked.

We’ve been working on other things for the wedding, too, which will really personalize it. I wanted to have women reading the translations of the brachot after they’re read in Hebrew, but we’re not sure if we’re going to do that. Now I think it might be fun to have women narrating the ceremony, explaining everything is it happens. That lets them turn it into some sort of two-minute learning opportunity, because nobody knows what really goes on at weddings. It’s sweet that so many people respect it as a private thing, but you did invite all those people, and they are all watching you like hawks, so you might as well make sure they know what’s going on.

I kind of hate Orthodox weddings as they’re usually done — the showiness and the affect and that nobody really understands what things symbolize. But I hate them for me, you know? I don’t want to say that they’re wrong for other people, because I have many good friends who approach the whole thing very differently from me, and I want to respect their choices. That’s what feminism has really come to mean for me — and it’s wonderful to have this sort of ideology in my life — that we have choices, and they’re not all going to be the same. And that’s even, or I guess especially, in a religious context. I want respect for my choices, so I work hard at respecting other people’s. I really try to live by that.