Updating the Traditional Jewish Wedding

The biggest motivator for change in Jewish wedding customs by liberal Jews has been egalitarianism.

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The symbols of the Jewish wedding ceremony are familiar to many American Jews, regardless of their level of observance. The huppah (bridal canopy), ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), simple wedding band(s), and breaking of glass, among other things, distinguish a Jewish wedding from its non-Jewish counterpart. Add to these the presence of both parents in the processional, klezmer or other Jewish music, and lifting the bride and groom high in the air on chairs, and our sense of simcha (festive celebration) becomes even more tangible.

Less familiar to many Jews, however, are the many “updates” of traditional Jewish wedding rituals that have become increasingly popular among brides and grooms. An engaged Jewish couple has many options to choose from as they plan their ceremoketubahny, some of which would have been unheard of just 25 to 35 years ago.

At the core of these innovations is the advent of feminism, which has had a tremendous influence on Jewish lifecycle rituals. The wedding is no exception. The traditional notion of a groom “acquiring” his bride (in Hebrew, the kinyan) is particularly antithetical to the ideals of more liberal Jews, who champion an egalitarian mindset. As a result, the last generation of Jewish newlyweds has launched a re-visioning of certain symbols and rituals that reflect this contemporary perspective.

While Orthodox and other traditional Jews generally shun innovations in Jewish rituals, some modern wedding customs–such as adding a clause into the ketubah or adorning the huppah–are within the bounds of traditional Jewish law and are being adopted by many Orthodox couples as well. Other egalitarian innovations–such as transforming the ketubah into a statement of love and commitment–are not acceptable according to traditional Jewish law and would not be adopted by Orthodox couples.

Ketubah: Legal Document or Statement of Commitment?

A deeper consideration of acquisition is an appropriate place to start our survey of these innovations. The text of the traditional ketubah, which has stayed largely the same for centuries, is entirely legalistic. There is no mention of God, love, or romance. Signed by two witnesses, the contract verifies that the groom has acquired the bride and agrees to provide for her, and includes a lien to be paid by the groom in the case of a divorce. The bride accepts the arrangement.

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Valerie S. Thaler is a Ph.D. student in the Judaic Studies Program at Yale, where she concentrates on 20th-century American Jewish history. She is beginning dissertation research on American Jewish identity in the 1950s. An alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Valerie received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Jewish Education from Brandeis, and has her B.A. in American Studies from Yale.

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