Modern Jewish Marriage: Ever-evolving, Ever-enduring

By: Rachel Gartner

November 19, 2014

My favorite definition of Judaism was formulated by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the twentieth century. Rabbi Kaplan referred to Judaism as the “evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.”

By claiming the Jewish people as the starting place of this civilization, Rabbi Kaplan elegantly articulated what Jews know and experience intuitively. Namely, that Jewish practice at any given moment in history is the product of the interplay of inherited text and human—more specifically, rabbinic—interpretation.  Indeed, through interpretive wordplay, one Talmudic text reminds us that the Jewish people are both inheritors (banim) and builders (bonim) of our traditions.  

Given this dynamic interplay, Judaism quite naturally evolves over time.
A close reading of rabbinic texts suggests that though women were not part of the rabbinic elite until the last century, they have always influenced rabbinic decisionmaking, if through informal means and backchannels.  

Then, in the 1970s, a remarkable network of Jewish feminists began to emerge. This group and its successors have radically changed women’s role in Jewish communal decision-making and the evolution of Jewish practice. Perhaps nowhere is this more vivid than in the realm of Jewish weddings.

Historian Paul Hyman reminds us that beginning in the 1970s, non-orthodox American Jewish feminists advocated forequal access of women and men to public roles of status and honor in the Jewish community, [for eliminating] the subordination of women in Judaism by equalizing their rights in marriage and divorce laws, [for] inclusion of women's interpretations of Jewish texts, for counting women in the minyan [the quorum necessary for communal prayer], and for enabling women to assume positions of leadership in the synagogue as rabbis and cantors.”

The response by the non-Orthodox American Jewish community (which makes up 85 percent of American Jewry) was incredible.  Rituals changed, lay leadership became more egalitarian, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements began to ordain women in the 1970s, and the Conservative movement followed suit in 1985.  And Jewish women began to shape the evolution of Judaism in very direct and powerful ways.  

Over time, Jewish weddings have evolved from rituals that signal a property transaction in which a man acquires a wife to rituals that reflect an understanding of marriage as a profoundly spiritual endeavor between equal partners. In the process, Jewish women have taken increasingly active roles in wedding ceremonies and doors have opened wide to ritual celebration for same-sex marriages as well. The Jewish wedding ring ceremony provides a prime example of how this evolution.

In biblical times, fathers arranged marriages. To compensate for the loss of a valuable household worker, the bride’s father received a bride price from the groom’s father in exchange for his daughter.

Later, when the Jewish community fell on hard economic times, fathers began to offer dowries to attract husbands for their daughters. The bride price was replaced by a lien to be paid by the husband to the wife in case of divorce. This lien gave the bride some protection against an arbitrary divorce, and gave her some financial support in the event of a sanctioned divorce. This arrangement was formalized in a document called a ketubah.

By Talmudic times the word kiddushin, or “sanctification,” (literally “set apart”) was beginning to be applied to some aspects of the wedding rituals, signaling an early spiritualization of the idea of marriage. In the presence of two witnesses, a groom would now offer the bride a small, symbolic financial token and say: "You are sanctified to me, you are betrothed to me, be my wife."

Today, this traditional exchange of an item and recitation of vows persists. In most traditional settings the groom gives the bride a ring and recites the words: With this ring, you are sanctified to me, according to the laws of Moses and Israel. Traditionally, the groom places the ring on the woman’s index finger, and as a sign of acceptance, the bride transfers the ring to her ring finger.  

As suggested by the traditional ring ceremony, Jewish women cannot be married without their consent. This has been true since biblical times. But beginning in the early 1970s, Jewish women increasingly voiced dissatisfaction with their roles in traditional Jewish weddings. Silent consent was not enough. Women began to demand words of their own. And so, the traditions evolved.  

Today, in some Jewish communities, women say the biblical words “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” as they accept their ring. In other Jewish communities women give a ring to the groom as well, making the same statement that grooms make. In some communities both the bride and groom replace the traditional formula with: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” or other biblical passages. In my wedding, we inverted the traditional language and said to one another, “With this ring I sanctify myself to you, (I set myself apart for you) according to the values of the Jewish people.”

Still other communities find the notion of setting someone apart for oneself anachronistic, particularly as it still retains its resonance with the ancient transactional mode of Jewish weddings. In her definitive book, Engendering Judaism, Rachel Adler advocates for a very different approach. She suggests the ring ceremony be replaced by the couple pooling symbols of their resources—personal items, possibly their wedding rings—in a bag, and then lifting the bag together while reciting a blessing of their choice. This ceremony, with its inherent gender-neutrality from its origins has been especially embraced by Jewish LGBTQ couples.

Of course, weddings are the momentary symbol, and marriage is the lived reality. When I work with couples in planning their weddings, the various ring ceremony options offer a great context for larger conversations both about the couple’s expectations and hopes for marriage and about the role of ritual and religious practice in reflecting and shaping our personal and communal values, as well as gender roles. I invite couples to consider that they too are inheritors and builders, and that their choices along with those of their peers can influence the discourse on women’s and men’s roles in both the family and in Judaism in general.

A key to Jewish survival and a source of our vitality is the Jewish people’s commitment to draw from the wells of wisdom brought forth by those who lived before us, and at the same time to acknowledge that we too are fonts of insight. Judaism teaches that at the time of revelation we all stood at Sinai, all those present and all those yet to come. So we all have a spark of Torah planted within us; one that is ours alone to bring into light and to life this world. Egalitarian wedding ceremonies, as well as ever increasing acceptance of same-sex religious wedding ceremonies and marriages, indicates that the Jewish community is widening the circle of Torah that we are nurturing to life. Creating more and more space for the Torah of women and the Torah of LGBTQ Jews to shine their light on our communal life.

I am delighted that the evolving nature of Jewish life creates space for contemporary women to see and experience our lives in light of our mother’s and foremothers’ traditions, lives, choices, and relationships, while at the same time looking inside ourselves and bringing our own experiences and preferences to bear on the way we conduct their rituals and our relationships. And of course, we are also always looking ahead, aware that our daughters and sons are watching, and learning from everything we do.  

This posting is part of a collection addressing the nexus of women, religion, and the family. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Berkley Center or WFDD. The goal of the entire collection is to generate discussion around these important topics.

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