by Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner
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One of the major goals of Judaism is kedushat hahayyim, the sanctification of life, the making sacred of the natural processes through rituals which endow these processes with special significance. Our Torah recognizes the naturalness and the ideal suitability of companionship between man and woman: "it is not good for man to be alone" but recognizes this relationship attains its true fulfilment only within the context of marriage: "therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh". Our Rabbis wax lyrical about marriage as the ideal state for humankind: "If a husband and wife are worthy, the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) is in their midst".
When naming a child, we pray that God will enable the child to grow up to become an adult who has Torah (Jewish learning), good deeds and a marriage as part of his or her being. And the Rabbis developed a distinctive Jewish approach to marriage.
In times past, marriages were thought to be made in heaven though that folk belief never dissuaded shadkhanim (earthly matchmakers), from pursuing their vocations. Indeed, through the United Synagogue and other organizations shadkhanut of a more computerized nature has been reintroduced, although traditional matchmaking still is the norm in the most Orthodox communities of the Jewish world.
Nowadays, given the conditions of modern life, we rejoice when two Jews decide to get married, often forgetting to determine if any Jewish commitment exists in the people or whether we have merely a fortuitous matching of two people who just happen to be Jews. Ideally the couple should meet with a Rabbi well in advance of the wedding to talk both about the wedding itself and to be guided to a positive approach to building a Jewish home. It is important for parents, relations, friends, to encourage the couple to create a home which contains evidence of real Jewish life (often the Rabbi finds to his dismay that Judaism is one area which the couple has never really discussed although the type of the furniture for the living room has had an ample airing).
Despite some errors and some maddening emphases, The Jewish Catalogue and The Second Jewish Catalog speak to young people most positive terms. The do-it-yourself traditional Judaism which the catalogues describe exercise a real appeal for many young Jews on the fringe of Jewish life and often serve to get them involved in something Jewish.
It should be clear at the outset that a Jewish wedding can only take place between two Jews, either those born of Jewish mothers, or those who have been properly converted into Judaism. There is no standing or meaning to a so-called Jewish ceremony in which one of the participants is a Gentile. While these ceremonies seem to convey a Jewish flavor and may mollify Jewish parents or grandparents in some way, they are a fraud on the Jewish community and paradoxically, serve to hinder the non-Jewish partner from considering the possibility of proper conversion. After all, if he or she has already had a Cantor or Rabbi officiate at the wedding then there is an imputed Jewishness which obviates the need for a more formal process of Judaization.
Thus, if we are to do all we can for our meaningful survival, we should make sure that if we cannot dissuade Jewish young people from intermarrying, we should encourage the non-Jewish partner to convert. If we cannot succeed in this regard, we should encourage the couple to have a civil ceremony which involves no dissembling or pseudo-commitments. And while we as parents, Rabbis and committed Conservative Jews should always be ready to assist such couples to find their place within Judaism, we must make sure that our message is unequivocal, that intermarriage is a tragedy for the Jewish community which cannot be acknowledged officially. In our synagogues this must mean that such marriages not be announced in the bulletins or at other public forums.
BEFORE THE WEDDING
The religious ceremonies for a wedding traditionally began a few days before the wedding when the groom was called to the Torah (aufruf) in honor of his forthcoming wedding. While this has been generally observed on the Shabbat before the wedding, it may be done at another time when the Torah is read. Increasingly in Conservative synagogues today, the bride is called to share in the simkha, either by having her own aliyah, or by sharing the aliyah with her groom, or by coming up specially for a blessing which the Rabbi recites for bride and groom after the aliyah.
The idea behind the aufruf is that at significant points in one's life one merits the special honor of reciting the blessing over the Torah. Certainly one's marriage is such a time.
If the groom has traditionally had an aufruf before a wedding, the bride has traditionally gone to the mikveh (ritual bath) to symbolize her entering the marriage in a state of purity. While the mikveh has had a terrible press in this century, it is interesting to note that it is gaining a much more sympathetic hearing even among the heterodox at this point. Part of this results from the more acceptable condition of many of the mikvaot now in use. Partly, it is due to the fact that young people no longer see in the mikveh a symbol of a benighted traditionalism from which their parents were trying to flee. Knowing little about the mikveh, young people today have a more open mind about it and the notion of family purity which it was designed to further.
Simply state in Jewish law, a woman is supposed to immerse herself in the mikveh not only before her marriage but every month after the conclusion of her menstrual cycle. From the onset of her menses until her immersion in the mikveh she could not have any sexual relations with her husband. In Judaism, we learn to appreciate things by practicing a sort of partial asceticism. Thus, by saying no to sexual activity for a certain period each month, we are able to appreciate more fully the beauty of sexual activity in general by returning to it anew each month after a pause that refreshes. Second, the onset of the menstrual cycle each month signifies that the possibility of life that month did not occur. Immersion in the mikveh’s natural waters, a symbol of life, means that the possibility of new life begins again, that each month provides a new beginning, new hopes. As interpreted in the strict halakhah, the rules of family purity are especially onerous unfortunately. The basic idea of temporary withdrawal and immersion are, however, notions of powerful symbolic force and constitute an important category in Jewish law. Certainly they are worthy of discussion and consideration, even if most of us will decide that the entire range of rules are impossible of observance.
Another custom which sets an appropriate tone of seriousness to the wedding is the fasting of bride and groom before the wedding day. Like Yom Kippur, a wedding day ends one phase of life and marks the beginning of another. Thus it is properly an occasion of repentance and prayer and fasting.
Right before the wedding, the signing of the ketubah takes place. The ketubah, or marriage contract was instituted two thousand years ago and lists the obligations which the husband undertakes with regard to his wife. It also designates a specific sum to be paid to the wife if the marriage were not to endure.
Plainly speaking, the original aim of the ketubah was to make it more difficult for the husband to divorce his wife capriciously. Since the ketubah obligated him in no small way financially, he would think seriously before terminating a marriage. In the last two decades the Conservative movement has introduced a new clause into the ketubah to assist agunot, "chained" women who cannot get a Jewish divorce (get) because their husbands refuse to grant that divorce. The clause in the ketubah states that the couple agrees to turn to the bet din, the court of the Rabbinical Assembly, in cases of serious marital discord leading to possible divorce. The problem with the clause is that the Jewish court has no power to force the recalcitrant husband to grant a divorce though he signed the ketubah and agreed to the clause, and civil courts are loath to intervene in religious affairs. Thus we are left with a procedure filled with good intentions but little enforceability.
Because of these considerations, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1968, acting upon important halahic precedents, introduced an ante-nuptial agreement to be executed before the signing of the ketubah in the presence of a court of three. Under the terms of the agreement, the groom agrees to get married to the bride on the condition that if the marriage does not work out and the groom refuses to grant a get within six months after a civil divorce has been issued, then the marriage never took place. In such an eventuality, the woman may go to the appropriate sub-committee of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards and upon determination of the facts, can be allowed to remarry. It should be noted that this procedure in no way effects the legitimacy of any children born during the marriage and is only to be used as a last resort. However, unlike the clause inserted earlier in the ketubah, the husband's agreement provides for the elimination of the agunah problem. The recalcitrant husband can no longer inflict cruel punishment on the wife.
Today, in Western countries other than Israel, as Rabbi Isaac Klein notes, "the function of the ketubah is no other than to perpetuate an ancient tradition", since women's interests are safeguarded by civil law. Since the ketubah only serves a historic and symbolic function today, some committed young Jews and some Rabbis have developed ketubot with greater mutuality of responsibility between bride and groom. While none of these ketubot have been officially adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly Law Committee, the preparation of a more egalitarian ketubah is currently under consideration by that committee. In this area, as in many others innovation and experimentation have begun at the grass roots level and only now is beginning to affect the movement as a whole.
Immediately before the wedding, after the ante-nuptial agreement and ketubah have been signed, (the ketubah must be signed by two proper witnesses who have witnessed the groom's acceptance of the document and its responsibilities, by taking hold of a handkerchief, a traditional way to validate a legal transaction) the Rabbi will ask the groom to lower the veil over the bride's face. This ceremony of bedeken (covering the face of the bride) is an indication of her modesty and piety.
At the time of this ceremony the Rabbi pronounces the blessing which Rebecca recited: "Our sister, may you grow into thousands of myriads" as well as the blessing daughters receive on Shabbat evening: “May the Lord make you as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah”, and closes with the three-fold priestly blessing.
THE WEDDING CEREMONY
Of all Jewish ceremonies, the wedding ceremony is one of the simplest, most direct and most beautiful, It consists of two parts: erusin (bethrothal) also called kiddushin (sanctification) and nissuin (marriage) and takes place under a huppah, a canopy which symbolizes the marriage chamber. While the canopy can be made of cloth or flowers, the use of the tallit adds to the Jewish flavor of the ceremony.
In our time processionals to the canopy have become most elaborate; there is no specific rule about them except that the huppah to the right of the groom. Ideally, the music which accompanies the bridal party to the huppah should be Jewish music. Certainly we should discourage the playing of "Here Comes the Bride" written by Richard Wagner, a ferocious anti-Semite and idol of Adolf Hitler.
When the bride and groom gather under the huppah they are welcomed in the name of the Lord and God's blessings are called upon them. Then the Rabbi chants the birkat erusin the two blessings of betrothal, over a cup of wine. The first of the blessings is the traditional blessing over wine; the second praises God for ordaining rules of marriage which, while preventing certain liaisons, permit marriage through the pro- cess of standing under the huppah and the process of sanctification which is then taking place. Groom and then bride then drink from the cup and then follows the formal act of kiddushin, the groom giving his bride a ring and reciting the traditional formula of sanctification; "With this ring you are consecrated to me as my wife according to the laws of Moses and Israel". The ring, which should have no stone on it, is placed on the forefinger of the bride's right hand. At this point erusin is concluded.
The bride is now forbidden to every other man; should the relationship be severed, the groom would have to give his bride a divorce. The completion of erusin, however, does not mean that bride and groom can live together as husband and wife. In times past, these distinctions were important since, after erusin took place, the bride returned to her parent's home for a year or more until the marriage was formally completed. Now the marriage blessings follow almost immediately upon the betrothal rites separated only by the reading of the ketubah which the groom then gives to the bride.
In more and more ceremonies today, the bride gives the groom a ring after the reading of the ketubah. This is a new custom which enables the woman to have an active role at her ceremony. An appropriate verse for the bride to recite is from the Song of Songs: "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine".
At this point, we have the nuptials or nissuin. Over a second cup of wine, sheva brakhot, (seven blessings) are recited which beautifully convey the hopes for total love, both spiritual and physical, of the groom and bride in the context of God's concern for the perpetuation of life and the renewal of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. After the conclusion of the blessing, groom and bride then drink from the cup.
Now, or earlier in the ceremony, the rabbi may want to speak to the bride and groom to indicate the significance of the marriage or his hopes for the couple. The marriage talk adds to the solemnity and meaning of the occasion. One has only to attend a typical wedding in Israel when only those things that are absolutely required by Jewish law are recited, and then at breakneck speed, to understand the enhanced relevance of an American wedding conducted by a modern Rabbi of any denomination.
The wedding ceremony traditionally concludes with the breaking of a glass. Many are the interpretations of the custom; most appealing to me the emphasis that, even in a time of great joy, we need a moment of seriousness or solemnity which the breaking of the glass symbolizes. Unfortunately, at most weddings, this interpretation has no relevance. Cheers and applause are the normal response instead of a more measured one. Thus, I suggest that after the breaking of the glass, the ceremony conclude with the birhat Cohanim, the priestly blessing.
Bride and groom then march out and go to a private room for yihud, togetherness, for symbolic consummation of the marriage. Nowadays, it gives the couple a respite before they go out and face the world.
Traditionally, Jewish rites of passage are followed by mitzvah meals. One of the beautiful customs at the end of a wedding dinner is the chanting of the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, to which are appended the same seven blessings which were recited under the huppah. At the end of these blessings, the groom and bride drink from a goblet which contains the mingled contents of two cups of wine. This custom reflects the sharing which we pray will accompany bride and groom throughout their lives.
The following is the formula of betrothal when the groom places the ring on the bride's forefinger:
"With this ring you are consecrated to me as my wife according to the law of Moses and Israel."
An appropriate verse for the bride to recite when presenting her ring is the following:
"I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.”