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How Elastic is Jewish Tradition

For centuries, Jewish brides and grooms have been married under a huppah, a symbol of the Jewish home. Traditionally, the groom placed a ring on the bride’s finger and declared her “consecrated” to him. The bride said nothing. Nothing.

If the huppah was representative of the home, then what did the bride’s silence say of what was expected of her in marriage?

“For me, the thought that only the groom initiates and only the bride receives is not reflective of a relationship,” said Shira Milgrom, rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, a reform synagogue in White Plains, New York. “For a wedding to be complete, both bride and groom need to initiate and receive, and both bride and groom need to speak.”

Like many of her colleagues, Milgrom is committed to performing weddings that maintain Jewish tradition but make the bride an equal partner in the process. It’s not an easy task considering that the basic premise of the traditional ceremony was that the groom acquired his bride. (No wonder she is silent!) The terms of his acquisition were laid out in the ketubah, the formal wedding contract, signed of course by male witnesses. So while many couples start out thinking they can create an egalitarian wedding simply by changing a few words or sharing the breaking of the glass, many rabbis will counsel them to dig much deeper.

Today, teachers at the Jewish seminaries said they devote substantial class time to discussing egalitarian weddings. They don’t give rabbinical students very specific guidelines about what can and cannot be done in the name of equality. Instead, they encourage their students to examine the traditions and the meanings behind them, and from that formulate their own conclusions. “We look at even such seemingly innocuous things as who arrives at the huppah first, who speaks first or who breaks the glass,” said Rabbi Nancy Wiener, instructor on pastoral counseling at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, who has just written a book about Reform weddings entitled Beyond Breaking the Glass.

The Reform movement began addressing these issues as early as the 1850s, but changes in every stream of Judaism have come very slowly, and at times paradoxically. For instance, according to Conservative movement policy, a woman can be ordained as a rabbi and therefore can officiate at weddings, but she still has to find two men to sign as witnesses on the ketubah. Even in more liberal denominations, change may have been slowed by the knowledge that such weddings— and the offspring they produce—will not be considered legitimate by Orthodox authorities who wield power in Israel and around the world.

Many feminist-driven innovations have found their way into the Jewish wedding, but nothing seems to have sparked as much thought and debate as the ring ceremony. Traditionally, this ceremony was meant to symbolize the kinyan, or acquisition, of the bride. The groom would place the ring on the bride’s finger and say “Haray at mekudeshet li b’taba’at zu k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael,” “By this ring you are consecrated to me in accordance with the traditions of Moses and Israel.” Most non-Orthodox rabbis now routinely have the bride and groom exchange rings—a ritual that appears, to family and friends in the audience, to be wholly egalitarian. But there is little agreement among rabbis on whether the bride may say “Haray atah…,” consecrating the groom to her in return.

Some say this mutuality is a violation of halacha, or Jewish law. If the bride and groom make an even exchange of rings and vows, that cancels out the acquisition. Rabbi William Lebeau, a vice-chancellor at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, believes that “there is still meaning to maintaining the traditional format.” He argues that the bride is not silent in accepting the ring. “Her public receipt of the ring, and the symbol of their having made a mutual commitment is the proclamation she makes,” he said. While he is not eager to have her say “haray atah,” Lebeau encourages the bride to say some words of Jewish text accepting her husband’s acquisition of her.

Such responsive statements certainly elevate the bride’s role in the ceremony, but many Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis—and a few Conservative ones—argue that anything other than the “haray atah “ is still a consolation prize for the bride. “The other things don’t have force,” said Conservative rabbi Carol Levithan, who helps teach a course for engaged couples at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side. “This is the language that traditionally made the marriage.”

But it may be time to do away with the acquisition formula altogether. In her groundbreaking book Engendering Judaism, Rachel Adler, a professor of religion and social ethics at Hebrew Union College, points out that the acquisition of one human being by another is no longer considered morally acceptable. So if it’s wrong for the groom to acquire the bride, this isn’t really rectified by the bride’s doing the same to the groom. Adler proposes an entirely new approach, in which couples are entering into a brit ahuvim or “lovers’ covenant.” The ring ceremony would be replaced by “a form of kinyan that was used in ancient times exclusively for partnership acquisition.” In this form, partners pool symbols of their resources— personal items, possibly their wedding rings—in a bag, and then lift the bag together while reciting a blessing of their choice. (Adler suggests the blessing that is traditionally used upon seeing a rainbow: “Blessed are you…who remember your covenant and is faithful to your covenant and keeps your word.”)

But most non-Orthodox rabbis—and most engaged couples— still seem uneasy with radical innovations. “There’s the power of a few words that come from a long time ago that makes the moment a sacred moment,” said Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, rabbi at Congregation Beth El Zedeck, a Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogue in Indianapolis. “Sometimes I think there’s an effort to add so much that we lose the power of the symbols: the Hebrew words or phrases that the emotions immediately respond to, that evoke that sense of history.” Another component of the wedding that has been adapted to embrace feminism is the ketubah. Traditional ketubot were simple documents that laid out the financial terms of the marriage, including a “purchase price” for the bride’s virginity, but said nothing about love. Nowadays, many couples write their own, including personal facets of their relationship, such as things they like to do together, or a pledge to share all housework.

“To me, the ketubah—their sacred vows to each other which will hang on their wall and be looked at every day— should contain in their own words their most sacred commitments” as well as some specifics about their relationship, said Fred Dobb, rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Rockville, Maryland. “I joke that you can even include things about toothpaste and toilet seats. I’m three quarters facetious on that.”

Regardless of what a couple puts in their ketubah, the process of sitting down together to discuss their relationship and their future can be a very important step in the marriage process, rabbis say. The finished document then becomes a blueprint that the couple can refer back to, not so much for toothpaste etiquette as for a reminder of the shared love and aspirations that brought them together on their wedding day.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow and his wife Phyllis Berman, leaders in the liberal Jewish Renewal movement who officiate jointly at weddings, require couples to write what he describes as “a real ketubah,” addressing such issues as child care, gender roles and property ownership.

Like the innovations in the wedding ceremony, egalitarian changes to the ketubah make some nervous. Even some outspoken liberal rabbis are concerned that an alternative ketubah won’t be considered a legal document under Jewish law. When a couple uses an unusual ketubah, Levithan, the JCC rabbi, has them sign a traditional one, too. (Levithan, however, draws the line at male-only witnesses.) For more visible displays of equality, couples most frequently consider other rituals that are not so entrenched in Jewish law. Rabbis rarely object to having both bride and groom break a glass, or to having them circle one another in a variation on the ritual in which, traditionally in Orthodox weddings, the bride circled the groom seven times to protect him from evil spirits or the glances of other women. The bedeken, or veiling ceremony, in which the groom peeks under the bride’s veil, is based on the biblical mix-up when Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. To complement the tradition of the groom putting the veil over the bride’s face just before the wedding begins, some rabbis are having the bride place an article of clothing—like a yarmulke—on the groom.

None of these modifications really address the feminist problems that arise from the original rituals: To what extent did the woman’s circling put her in symbolic (or actual) thrall to her husband? Is the very reference to the veiled Leah an insult to women in an age when we no longer hide our faces? To what extent does the breaking of the glass signal male power—or his potency—later that evening?

Still, for those who are not tripped up by historical echoes, new interpretations may signal a new ethic. Dobb uses the adaptation of the bedeken to reinterpret the meaning of the custom. “It’s about deeply knowing the other and about seeing through whatever veils circumstances put upon on the other,” he said. He takes the same approach to other aspects of the wedding; “We need to emphasize the spiritual and emotional side of the symbol rather than its historical side.”

Heidi Gratia is a freelance writer living in New York.