As social change is pressing the traditional boundaries of Jewish marriage, both traditional and liberal Jews are demanding that existing customs change to fit current needs. In consequence, rabbis are exploring Jewish law to see whether and how it can respond to the quest of liberal-egalitarian Jews for changes in the ketubah and the wedding ceremony to reflect male-female equality; the demands of lesbians and homosexual men for marriage within the Jewish tradition; and the press by some traditional Jews to popularize prenuptial marriage-protection agreements that protect women from becoming agunot (women whose husbands refuse to give them a get, or Jewish bill of divorce).
The ketubah (traditional wedding contract) is a legal instrument that establishes the husband’s obligations to his wife as well as placing a lien on the husband’s property, providing protection for the wife in case of divorce. Many modern couples reject the ketubah’s lack of mutuality and its focus on financial issues; they prefer instead a document that expresses their personal goals for their upcoming marriage, and they often write their own ketubot. According to traditional Jewish law, such egalitarian ketubot do not create legitimate Jewish marriages, although their proponents argue that Jewish law recognizes the marriages any way, via the “common law” route of cohabitation. (The Mishnah, an early Jewish law code, states: “A woman is acquired by money, by deed, or by intercourse,” although the Talmud expressed some disapproval of acquisition via intercourse.)
Given that the contractual basis for the wedding, the ketubah, is decidedly nonegalitarian, it is not surprising that parts of the ceremony itself make many moderns uncomfortable. The primary focus of discontent is the erusin, or betrothal, ceremony, in which the woman is “acquired” by the man, remaining passive through the process. The husband “acquires” by giving the wife a ring and stating the halakhic (legal) formula that formalizes the marriage.
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