Isn’t It Ironic…

Retro Weddings in a Feminist Age

When was the last time you heard about an elopement, or a barefoot-among-the-daisies, huppah-under-the-stars wedding? In case you hadn’t noticed, full-scale ceremonial white weddings are back.

Isn’t it ironic?

Thirty years of feminist analysis exposing the perils women face in traditional marriages, yet modern women are opting for traditional wedding ceremonies. Even as women—and men—subscribe to the premise that marriage is a partnership of equals, the ceremony that creates this partnership seems to have escaped most women’s analytical scrutiny. Even if they are going to keep their “own” (i.e., their fathers’) names after marriage, even if they have already opened his, hers and ours bank accounts, young Jewish women are going for ketubot (wedding contracts) which still talk about the groom’s purchase of his bride, and rituals in which the groom checks under her veil to make sure he’s getting what he paid for. Even staunch advocates of women’s equality seem comfortable, at least for a few hours, enacting what appears to be a classic sexist drama—bride in virginal white, “given away” or handed off from her family of origin to her husband.

Why? Lilith decided it was time to find out.

In the following pages, you’ll meet rabbis who both defend and challenge the customs of Jewish weddings, brides willing to accommodate to tradition even when this compromises their feminist beliefs, and at least one woman who says NO to a ceremony in which the man she loves acquires her.

The tricky part is that there are positive aspects of some of the wedding symbolism. The witnesses who must sign the ketubah are, in a way, the guardians or godparents of the marriage itself. The huppah or bridal canopy signifies the house (the sacred space) the couple will create together. The presence of parents escorting both the bride and the groom down the aisle makes visible the connections between generations. The breaking of the glass which concludes most weddings (now sometimes done by both the woman and the man), represents many things, but certainly among them is the ending of a past state and the beginning of something new. The traditional seven wedding blessings, often doled out to the closest friends and relatives to recite, focus on the joy the partners take in each other.

Lilith Editor-at-Large Susan Schnur, a rabbi and psychologist who has married more than a hundred couples, is not surprised by the current yearning to do things in traditional ways. “The couples want to know the rules. The wedding connects you to a larger whole.”

This would explain the current popularity of the formal marriage proposal, even from a suitor who has already been living with his bride-to-be for years; elaborate ceremonies separate before and after. Even non-religious couples are selecting Orthodox options where they do not see each other for several days before the wedding, and the bride goes to the mikvah before the wedding. “People want it to feel holy and more real,” Schnur says.

“The point of pageant at a time of change is that we want things to have a lot of rules; pageantry stabilizes things in a time of change,” she continues. “At its core, marriage is hard. Why do we have these public things? We need lots of people to witness, to notarize, to be on our side.” Especially for women and men who have lived through messy marriages and divorces in their own families, she observes, “They want to do this well.”