Author Archives: Cheryl Beckerman

About Cheryl Beckerman

Cheryl Beckerman is a writer and editor living in Jerusalem with her husband, daughter, and son.

Wedding Ceremony Merges Tradition and Egalitarianism

Before the wedding of Cheryl Beckerman and Joel Berman in 1995, they struggled to create a ceremony that was both traditional and egalitarian. This article explores the marriage ceremony the couple created, which retained the betrothal ceremony, kiddushin (with additions to increase its mutuality), but also included a new segment they called kesharin, or connection. In a previous article, Beckerman explains the couple’s discomfort with the inherent lack of mutuality in the kiddushin ceremony. Excerpted by permission of the author from Kerem: Creative Explorations in Judaism, 1997 issue.

As our wedding date approached, it appeared ever less likely that there would be time to find a solution that would be considered halakhic (in accordance with Jewish law) without traditional kiddushin. Progress came only with Joel’s wise suggestion that we stop talking and each write up our ideal ceremonies independently, from the reception before the huppah [wedding canopy] through the breaking of the glass.

A Marriage of Minds

What Joel came up with articulated the inherent two-way essence of kiddushin… by making explicit the requirements that the bride consent and the husband be monogamous. He began by prefacing the traditional harei at ("Behold you are consecrated to me… ") [said by the husband] with a simple formula, birshuteikh u-virtzoneikh ("With your consent and by your will"). As he put the ring on my finger I would agree aloud, replying, "So am I consecrated to you." His response was taken from the Book of Hosea: "Call me ‘my man’ [ishi] and not ‘my master’ [ba’ali, the word commonly used for ‘husband’ in Hebrew]."

Joel’s next words attempted to add stringency to the ban on polygamy decreed by Rabbenu Gershom just over 1,000 years ago, since the halakhic implications for a woman accepting kiddushin go far beyond what the ban imposes upon a man [because, according to biblical law, a man can have more than one wife; hence, even if he does not grant his wife a Jewish divorce, he can remarry without having the status of his children negatively affected]. "Just as you have lovingly and willingly accepted the exclusivity that kiddushin mandates, so do I declare this day, before the Almighty and before my community, that I am bound by this same kiddushin, permitted to you and forbidden to all others. Your liberties are my liberties and your restrictions my restrictions, as it is said: ‘Whither thou goest, I will go, and whither thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’" The quotation is from the Book of Ruth, the convert who is mother of the House of David.

Desire to Possess Is Standard Male Programming

The next turning point came when we finally saw that despite Joel’s intellectual appreciation of my difficulties with kiddushin, on a very basic, even primal level, he did identify with the desire to take a wife, to possess. Once he realized this and I absorbed it, our path paradoxically became simpler. I had resisted a straight traditional ceremony on the grounds that acquisition had nothing to do with what marriage meant to us (and it was intolerable to think that my cherished tradition could not accommodate what I found meaningful in pledging myself to another). But if it really meant so much to my partner that I be "his," the gap between ritual and reality was in fact not as great. While the abstract demands of halakhah seemed demeaning and only impelled me to argue, I found myself wanting to accommodate Joel’s emotional needs.

The discomfort of acquiescing to being "taken" as wife was mitigated by a number of factors. First, I suspected that the need to possess was more or less standard male programming (as my desire to accommodate his needs was female programming). I preferred Joel, with his self-awareness about it, to the self-styled feminist men who had broken my heart in the past! And there were moments as we discussed it that I too related to a perhaps atavistic impulse to be "taken." Certainly part of me had longed all along for the familiar words of kiddushin as a sign of Joel’s commitment, whatever their halakhic significance.

I was moved by his valiant attempts to respond to my own concerns, as evidenced in his kiddushin, and I knew he was sincere in declaring himself equally bound to me by it. I recalled that in other circumstances I defend accommodating the "frummest [most religious] common denominator" when more and less stringent interpretations of religious requirements clash….

Ceremony to Express Connection & Relationship

When I scrutinized my love for Joel and my desire to be married to him, I found possession to be utterly beside the point. What was vital for me was connection, bond, relationship. Once we concluded that this reflected a truth about gender difference that went beyond our differences in personality, it made more sense to express the need for bond in a new section, rather than tacking it onto kiddushin. The attempt to parallel the structure of kiddushin helped determine the content of what we called kesharin (connection).

The new section followed kiddushin and the reading of our ketubah [marriage contract]. To parallel the invocations preceding kiddushin (Brukhim ha-ba’im b’shem Adonai and Mi barukh al ha-kol) ["Blessed are those who come in the name of Adonai" and "The One who is blessed above all"], we began with a passage from Hosea, the book of Prophets that Joel quoted during kiddushin. A common choice for incorporation into wedding ceremonies, it is said every morning upon donning tefillin [phylacteries]: "And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice and in kindness and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness." Our friend, cantor Mikhal Shiff-Matter, sang this and passages earlier in the ceremony to the melody traditionally used for chanting the Song of Songs.

We also wanted a blessing to begin this section, to parallel the presence of the blessing before kiddushin. Borrowing from the Adler/Schulman ceremony, we chose the blessing that is recited upon seeing a rainbow: "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who remembers the covenant." It refers to the pact God made with Noah and his descendants after the flood [Genesis 9:15], "a covenant of trust and a pledge not to harm." As we embarked upon our marriage, we wanted to evoke the promise of the continuity of the generations and to express gratitude that we had found each other (like the rainbow, a "quotidian miracle," in the words of our friend Peretz Rodman). And bringing Noah into the ceremony added a universalist element (as did including the verses from Ruth).

Our symbol for connection, given in place of a ring, was tefillin, which Joel had already requested as his wedding gift from me. To parallel harei at [the man’s wedding declaration during kiddushin], I found poetic expression for "connectedness" in contemporary ketubot that borrowed from early marriage contracts in the Eretz Israel [Land of Israel] tradition. The formula Heyei li l’chaver u-l’ish briti k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael ("Be my companion and my covenantal partner, according to the law of Moses and Israel") is based on a verse from the book of the prophet Malachi. I prefaced the formula with an echo of Joel’s words to me [during kiddushin]: birshutkha u-virtzonkha ("With your consent and by your will"). I followed it with an explanation: "Accept these tefillin as a symbol of bond and connection, as it is said, ‘You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand’" [Deuteronomy 6:7].

Joel gave his explicit assent: "So will I be your companion and covenantal partner." As Joel had in kiddushin, I followed formula and gift with a personal message to elaborate upon and clarify my intentions: "I will cherish and maintain the connection between us all the days that we are wed. I have chosen you as a lifelong friend, according to the teachings of Avot d’Rabbi Natan: ‘Acquire for yourself a companion.’ May this marriage be a covenant of partnership and trust, and thus may we establish a household in the land of, and among the people of, Israel."

The formula Heyei li l’chaver lacks legal standing, but the words were nonetheless a pact between us and articulated a vision of marriage as partnership, a partnership whose enterprise is the establishment of a family unit. The formula does not answer my desire that monogamy cease to be the sole legal basis of a Jewish marriage, but it begins to address it.

Perhaps companionship, covenant, partnership, and trust, the components of marriage that I wanted to invoke, are truly all aspects of monogamy when it is promised in kiddushin. I applaud interpretations in this direction, but to see these positive components of marriage as an outgrowth of a vow of monogamy only taints them for me when the vow is part of an unegalitarian institution. By balancing kiddushin with kesharin, the former became more like an exclusivity clause in a larger contract–an important dimension in the marriage but not the only one.

The covenantal language of the nissuin ceremony that ordinarily follows kiddushin might seem like an appropriate place for the sentiments I expressed, but we chose not to change it and to instead develop kesharin, lest we imply that kiddushin is more for the man and nissuin for the woman. In our eyes, this would be an unfortunate shortchanging of nissuin, whose seven benedictions culminate with God’s own rejoicing with the bride and groom.

Egalitarianism Confronts Kiddushin

Before the wedding of Cheryl Beckerman and Joel Berman in 1995, they struggled to create a ceremony that was both traditional and egalitarian. This article explains what the author perceives as an inherent lack of mutuality in the traditional kiddushin (betrothal) ceremony, and in a second article she describes the marriage ceremony they created that retained kiddushin, with additions to increase its mutuality, but also included a new segment they called kesharin, or connection. Despite the fact that they retained the language of kiddushin–adding to it, but neither subtracting nor modifying–most traditional Jews would not accept this marriage ceremony as binding. Excerpted by permission of the author from Kerem: Creative Explorations in Judaism, 1997 issue.

In the months before our wedding, my then-fiancé Joel and I struggled mightily with kiddushin, the part of the ceremony that effectuates a marriage according to halakhah [Jewish law]. The root of kiddushin means "holiness," with a connotation of separateness, being set aside. Traditionally, the groom gives the bride a ring (or other gift) in the presence of two witnesses and says, Harei at mekudeshet li b’taba’at zo k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael ("Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel"). When she consents, through her silent acceptance of the gift, a marriage has taken place, even if all other familiar aspects of the wedding are missing.

What’s the Problem?

Joel and I were drawn to this ancient language that we found beautiful and meaningful–as long as we ignored the halakhic implications. In Jewish legal terms, kiddushin is an unambiguously one-sided monogamy clause, forbidding the wife to all other men. We saw a spiritual side to kiddushin, but the more we studied the issue, the more we came to understand it in the context of an entire system of marriage and divorce that is fraught with problems from a feminist perspective. I was hard put to reconcile this meaning with nissuin, the second part of the Jewish marriage ceremony, with its seven blessings [sheva berakhot] celebrating covenant and partnership between wife and husband and the start of a new family unit as an echo of covenant and partnership with God.

Thus began an exploration of numerous paths on our way to a ceremony that could work for both of us. Through research, text study, and extensive discussions we weighed a variety of approaches, including leaving kiddushin out altogether. Several considerations ultimately precluded this step. Our solution was to supplement kiddushin and develop a new segment of the wedding service, which we called kesharin [connection]. Thus, however unconventionally, we remained within the confines of halakhah while expressing values not explicit in the standard ceremony….

The Trouble with Kiddushin

The origins of kiddushin are found in the Mishnah [Tractate Kiddushin 1:1], which states that a wife is "acquired" in one of three ways: with money, with a contract, or through intercourse. The first of these three methods became the common practice, and the rabbis of the Talmud developed the ritual of kiddushin to infuse the proceedings with holiness.

The rabbis took pains to distinguish kinyan [acquisition] from purchase. A ring or other gift represents the money referred to in the mishnaic passage, but it is given directly to the woman, not to her father or anyone else who could be construed as a "seller." It need only be worth a perutah, the lowest coin of the realm and thus ludicrous if the purpose was commercial. Objects acquired for the Temple were the model for this category of holiness–their acquisition elevated their status and dedicated their use to the sanctuary.

Whatever the gloss put on kiddushin, the concept of acquiring a bride, the one-sided nature of the acquisition, the derivation of the ritual from property law, the fact that acquisition is the only legal basis of a traditional Jewish marriage, and the woman’s passivity in the proceedings all reflect assumptions about gender roles that we found untenable as a basis for marriage today. Scholar Judith Romney Wegner has demonstrated [in Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah, Oxford University Press, 1988] that it is the woman’s sexuality and not her personhood that is acquired in kiddushin, but this was small comfort.

According to normative halakhic opinion, what the woman says in the ceremony, even if she addresses the man with language identical to his and gives him a ring, has no effect on the one-way acquisition that takes place through his agency. Some Orthodox authorities forbid a double-ring ceremony outright, while others, notably the prominent [posek, or] decisor, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, merely dismiss it as hevel v’shtut [vanity and foolishness]. For some Conservative and liberal Orthodox rabbis, the halakhic irrelevance of the woman’s participation provides the latitude to permit double-ring ceremonies with the bride speaking right after the groom. Others take care not to give the appearance of two-way acquisition, and the bride recites scriptural verses to the groom only later in the ceremony.

This kind of liberalism may reflect good will and sensitivity to modern sensibilities, but it does not address the actual structural inequities of the halakhic system. In the context of its mishnaic origins, neither Joel nor I believed that in kiddushin a two-way acquisition is possible, no matter how the ceremony is done. Furthermore, we came to realize that mutual acquisition was not our goal. The whole concept of acquisition imposes monogamy as a condition of ownership, rather than as an expression of the commitment of two loving partners. What we wanted was a counterbalance to kiddushin that defined marriage clearly in terms of mutuality, not permission for me to echo back the same formula.

The more deeply we delved, the more we found the institution of kiddushin problematic. Even as we attempted to understand kiddushin in terms of holiness and mutuality, we could not ignore the halakhic consequences that remain all too real in our day–personified by the problem of the agunah, a woman who cannot remarry because her husband cannot or will not give her a get, a bill of divorcement.

The thinking of Rivka Haut, a prominent and courageous Orthodox activist for the rights of agunot, was especially persuasive as we refined our picture of kiddushin. Haut does not actually propose changes to the marriage ceremony. But her clear depiction of gerushin [divorce proceedings] as a kind of mirror image of the marriage ceremony sheds light on the nature of the acquisition masked by the language of holiness in kiddushin (Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994).

The counter-formula to consecration (harei at mekudeshet li) is harei at muteret l’koi adam, "Behold, you are permitted to any man." This parallelism left us unconvinced by arguments that "unilaterally set aside" is an obsolete or incidental meaning of kiddushin, too far removed from its origins to be a problem. And no cosmetic alterations to kiddushin alter the utter passivity of the woman receiving a get. The divorce ceremony, and the reality of thousands of women who are kept from remarriage by estranged husbands who cannot or will not grant a divorce, informed our perception of a system of kiddushin-gerushin in need of redemption.