February 9, 2006
When Just ‘I Do’ Just Won’t Do
The traditional Jewish wedding ceremony as we know it has evolved over thousands of years. But suddenly, today, in what seems like a nanosecond out of all of recorded Jewish history, couples standing under the chuppah are seeking a whole new script.
It's in to take the traditional text and tweak it. Couples from Judaism's most conventional communities and those independent souls who call themselves Jews but don't identify with any particular movement are customizing the details of what they and their officiants will say on their wedding day.
It's not exactly a revolution. Brides and grooms are not tossing aside the spiritual significance and solemnity of the occasion, nor are they inventing new rituals. On the contrary, customs such as the couple spending a brief period privately after the ceremony (yichud) -- for a long time observed only among more traditional groups -- are now being adopted by community members of varying stripes. But the tendency among virtually all but the most conservative groups is to make sure that the promises made to and by each partner are personally relevant and come from both the heart and mind.
Yesterday's Jewish wedding words are seen as issued from another world -- a world where women were viewed as second-class citizens, at best, or property, at worst. When a bride left her family to marry, a legal contract was prepared, transferring, among other things, the responsibility for her upkeep. It was hoped that companionship, love, mutual respect and all that other good stuff that we 21st century, enlightened people strive for in a marriage, would naturally accompany this official transmittal. But if it didn't, tough break.
Modern women see themselves as anything but property. And with divorce rates already ridiculously high, why start a marriage with words that don't describe the real deal?
Traditionally and in Aramaic, the groom spoke the only words that would be considered a vow. The woman was silent. In more modern circles, a double-ring ceremony and a feminine version of the same sentence were and are often employed.
Then there's the ketubah, the binding contract that made the marriage legal under Jewish law. Since reading all or part of the ketubah aloud to those gathered at the ceremony is customary, the words, though sometimes very personal, become part of the public pageantry.
So if you belonged to an Orthodox shul and wanted your rabbi to officiate at your wedding, he would supply an Orthodox ketubah. I have one of those. Even back in 1973 I thought the wording of the ketubah seemed quite archaic, and I still laugh when I recall the groom's statement, "I will work for thee." We were working together at the same job, for the same salary.
I didn't quit my job after the honeymoon to sit at home and eat bonbons. We were a team, a partnership dedicated to each other as we led a Jewish life and saved some money so that someday we could have the all-American, Jewish dream: enough money to have a couple of kids, a house and a synagogue membership in the suburbs.
For the most part, a Conservative rabbi or cantor who officiates today will still require the couple to have a ketubah, but with what is called the Lieberman clause. This is an addendum that came into being because of the hardship endured by many Jewish women wishing to obtain a get (Jewish divorce) but denied one by a begrudging husband. While nobody wants to enter into a marriage with the thought that it will not last forever, this clause equalizes the get playing-field.
What are some of the words currently being spoken by Jewish couples under the chuppah? Here are some samples:
"Be my husband (wife, partner) according to the laws of Moses and Israel and I will cherish, respect and support you in the faithful manner in which sons (daughters) in Israel cherish, respect and support their wives (husbands, partners).
"We promise to be ever-accepting of one another while treasuring each other's individuality.
"As husband and wife, we will build a wonderful family in a home filled with trust, warmth, laughter and love."
If you are planning your wedding, my first words of advice are to consult with the person who will officiate. For your next step, visit sites such as ketubahcollection.com, ketubah4less.com, artketubah.com, ketubaworld.com and e-ketubah.com. Dozens of possibilities, from the most traditional Orthodox to texts with a definite liberal leaning, are there for you to consider.
Just remember that in order to avoid any conflicts with the clergy, wording for the ketubah and your part of the ceremony must be cleared in advance with your rabbi or whomever will be officiating. One wrong word could cause 1,000 problems.
While most couples still choose to use a ketubah in one form or another, an alternative document -- a B'rit Ahuvim certificate -- is becoming more common in Reform circles. It is described as a covenant between equals, a loving partnership between companions. For a better understanding of this Talmud-based agreement and a Reform rabbi's take on the traditional route to wedlock via a ketubah, see www.adventurerabbi.com on the Web. Rabbi Jaime Korngold, the adventurous, Colorado-based rabbi who presides over weddings, commitment ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvahs and other Jewish events both indoors and al fresco, has some enlightening insights to share.
My advice to couples planning an intimate ceremony with their parents and a few close friends and relatives: Feel free to add all the psalms, prayers, poetry and personal reflections that you feel like expressing on your special day.
But if you opt for a grand affair, please keep your words brief. The rest of the Jewish ceremony can last a long time, and gathered guests who have traveled many miles to share your happy day will be hungry. The only words left to say are, "Let the party begin!"
Pearl Salkin is a freelance writer living in Daytona Beach, Fla.