When Leslie Landman and Aaron Feigelson began planning their wedding four years ago, they knew it would follow Jewish law. "Tradition is very important to both of us," Landman says. But, unlike countless generations of brides before she says, "I wanted to have an active role."
In the framework of public obligation and commandment, Jewish men are the central characters of wedding ceremonies, with women taking a more passive role. From the prenuptial festivities like the chatan's tisch (groom's table), to the signing of the marriage contract and the giving of the ring, the bride -- when she is even present in the room -- is surrounded by males who have all the speaking parts, while she remains silent.
But because women have not had roles in wedding ceremonies in the past doesn't mean they can't participate today, according to Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. Jewish law "gives us a direction to go in but whatever is not assur [prohibited] is permissible. There is a lot of flexibility and the wedding should be an expression of the couple. It is good to include as many people in the ceremony who are close to the bride and groom, including the bride and groom themselves," Lopatin says.
Jewish law requires a groom to "acquire" the bride through presenting a ring and proclaiming, "Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring under the laws of Moses and Israel." Some rabbis discourage brides from giving rings under the chuppah to avoid the appearance of an exchange of property. "The kidusha [consecration], in the sense of acquiring, is the man's responsibility," says Rabbi Vernon Kurtz of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Ill.
For Landman and Feigelson, the challenge was to figure out how they could respect tradition but each have a significant role in the ceremony. "It was important for me to say something under the chuppah that was consistent with tradition and meaningful to me," Landman says. She found a Hebrew text that acknowledged her acceptance of the obligations and duties of a Jewish wife and gave her husband a ring after the ceremony in the privacy of the yichud (seclusion) room, a practice that is acceptable to many Orthodox rabbis.
Wilmette, Ill., native Shira Eliaser chose a verse from "Song of Songs" to say under the chuppah when she and Norman were wed last July. She recited the verse: "His mouth is most sweet; yes, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem"(5:16). This was done just before the breaking of the glass so that there was no appearance of an exchange.
"I wanted something that was romantic and expressed my love. It wasn't supposed to be an imitation, or a politically correct phrasing of [the groom's declaration] but I found in it an echo of kiddushin," she says.
She and her husband met at Northwestern University's Hillel, and are now active members of the Egalitarian Minyan of West Rogers Park in Chicago.
Miriam Silverstein chose not to say anything under the chuppah when she married Brian Silverstein last October. "I wanted the wedding to be as religious as possible without alienating anyone. I'm not an egalitarian person [within religion]; I'm not a religious feminist," she says.
Nonetheless, Silverstein and her groom (who has the same last name) incorporated both male and female friends and family members in other ways. Rather than having the prenuptial kabballat panim (receiving of faces) and chatan's tisch in separate rooms, they used one big conference room with the groom's activities on one side and the bride's on the other. While the d'var torah and ketubah signing were on the men's side, women could see and hear everything. While the tenaim (the prenuptial agreement) was read in Hebrew by a man, a woman read it in English.
By expanding the ceremony to include English translations of the ketubah and the Sheva Brachot (seven blessings), women can be included under the chuppah and afterward at the festive meal.
A traditional wedding includes both law and custom. "Custom should be divided into minhag Yisrael, which is as binding as law, and various hanhagot, that aren't official customs or aren't universally observed, are no problem to change or eliminate," Lopatin says.
"In minhag Yisrael, the one who reads the Sheva Brachot in Hebrew, is a man. I can't be flexible with that," Lopatin says. "So we have couples come up and a woman reads the English translation for each bracha. The ceremony will have a feel of inclusivity, but the man is doing the halachic part of brachot.
"Walking around under the chuppah is not minhag Yisrael, but it has become very popular. If the groom wants to walk around the bride, or they want to walk around each other, that's fine. I don't have a problem with the bride breaking the glass, or both of them breaking it together," Lopatin adds.
Women can also hold the chuppah, Kurtz says.
Both Lopatin and Kurtz allow women to sign English translations of the ketubah but insist that the official document be signed by two male witnesses. "The Conservative movement is struggling with whether women should be counted as witnesses," Kurtz says.
"I try to use inclusive language as much as possible under the chuppah," Lopatin says. The wedding represents the life of the couple, "it is not just the groom taking the bride into his home."
Reprinted with permission of JUF News in Chicago