by Deborah Shapira
The traditions of the Jewish wedding ceremony are infused with halakhic and symbolic meaning. As my husband, Barry, and I were planning our wedding, we wanted to preserve this meaning, but we were concerned that our personal voices not get lost in the halakhic requirements. Because our wedding would be the first moments of our life together, it was essential that the ceremonies mirror the shared values and priorities around which we had agreed to live our life together. Our marriage would be an equal partnership, with close ties to family and community, and we sought ways within halakhic bounds to reflect these values in our ceremony. Finding ways to reflect our commitment to our families was easy. In our ketubah, we included our mothers’ names in our own Hebrew names. At our bedeken, we surrounded ourselves with our family members, and were blessed by all four of our parents, as well as my two grandparents. Barry’s uncle officiated at the wedding while his brother chanted the sheva berachot, and our seven sets of aunts and uncles read translations of each of the seven blessings.
Demonstrating our commitment to our community was a bit more challenging. We took advantage of the many ways to include and honor our male friends by asking them to be witnesses for the ketubah, kiddushin, and for yichud. We had to be more creative, however, in finding ways to honor and include our female friends. We asked one to give a d’var Torah under our chuppah, and others to sign civil documents that do not require male witnesses. We also asked two women to join our shomrei yichud; although the women served no halakhic role, we felt that they served an important symbolic one.
The greatest challenge was finding ways to reflect our commitment to equality in our relationship. While the chatan has an active role in the rituals of the traditional Jewish wedding, that of the kallah is a silent, passive one. Since Barry and I were committed to developing a relationship based on equality and reciprocity, we could not imagine beginning our marriage with a ceremony that was fundamentally unequal. We deviated from tradition in order to be both consistent with halakha and to allow our more equal participation in the religious and spiritual aspects of the ceremony.
The day began with both a kallah’s and a chatan’s tisch, at which we each gave a d’var Torah. The ketubah was signed at Barry’s tisch while our civil wedding contract was brought to both of our tisches to be signed. Also at this time, we signed a pre-nuptial agreement indicating that in the event that our marriage dissolves, we each agree to arbitration in a bet din (religious court of three rabbis). While we obviously hope we will never use this document, we believe that all couples should sign it to prevent women from becoming agunot (”chained women“ whose husbands will not give them a divorce).
At the close of my tisch, friends and family escorted first me, then Barry, to a central space for the bedeken. We had struggled with traditional interpretations of the reason for a bedeken, and so chose to attach new symbolism to this tradition. We used the imagery of ”wrapping“ as a symbol of the shelter and protection we would give one another, and so after Barry placed the veil over me, I in turn placed a new tallit over his shoulders.
Perhaps the part of the wedding with which we struggled the most was kiddushin. The wedding ring, which is used to effectuate the marriage, also continues after the wedding to be a powerful symbol of commitment, and we both planned to wear one. Therefore, it felt fundamentally untrue to our beliefs and intentions to have a ceremony in which only one ring was given. Other couples have found creative ways for the kallah to give the chatan a ring after the chuppah, or after the wedding altogether, but because the rings are an ongoing symbol of the marriage, it was important to us to find a way to exchange rings at the same time. Through our research, we learned that kiddushin can be accomplished with any object of value, and if we used something other than a ring for kiddushin, we would be able to exchange rings afterwards. That exchange of rings was halakhically meaningless, but it allowed us to use this powerful symbol in a way that reflected our values.
For kiddushin, we chose as our ”object of value“ a copy of Masechet Kiddushin, which symbolized our mutual commitment to Torah learning. Barry’s declaration as he handed me the book was a slight variation on the traditional formula: ”Hareh at mekudeshet li b’sefer zeh k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael“ (Behold, you are consecrated to me with this book, according to the law of Moses and Israel). I became a more active partner in the exchange by declaring, ”Hareni mekudeshet lecha b’sefer zeh k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael“ (Behold, I am consecrated to you with this book, according to the law of Moses and Israel). Again, my statement itself did not carry any halakhic weight, as my silent acceptance of the book would have been enough to indicate my willing entry into the marriage. Yet, as with other choices we made, we felt that it was an important symbol of our intentions for our relationship and our marriage. By seeking out such compromises, we were able to design a personal wedding ceremony that not only fit the confines of halakha, but also reflected who we are as a couple.
Deborah Shapira, who was until recently, a teacher at Beit Rabban in New York City, is a full-time mom to a six month old daughter. Barry Stern is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan and serves on the faculty of the Weill Medical College of Cornell University