Author Archives: Rabbi Daniel Gordis

Rabbi Daniel Gordis

About Rabbi Daniel Gordis

Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis is Director of the Jerusalem Fellows program and a member of the Senior Staff of the Mandel Foundation Sector on Jewish Education and Continuity. His most recent book, on the demise of peace in Israel, is entitled If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches from an Anxious State; other books include God Was Not in the Fire: The Search for a Spiritual Judaism.

From Belief to Faith

Reprinted with permission from
God Was Not in the Fire
(Simon & Schuster).

Judaism, more than any other major religious tradition does not see skeptics as second-class citizens. It would be difficult to imagine a committed Christian for whom some faith statement about Jesus was not a central religious tenet, or a Muslim openly skeptical about Allah. In that regard, Ju­daism is somewhat different. Judaism does not require faith statements as a sign of legitimacy. Judaism does not ask Jews to give up their questions or to deny their doubt.

In Jewish spiritual life, faith is not the starting point of the journey. Uncertainty is not the enemy of religious and spiritual growth. Doubt is what fuels the journey. Indeed, as we will see, the Torah goes to great lengths to reassure the searching Jew that skepticism is healthy, legitimate, and even cele­brated in Jewish life. Fundamentalists [of other religions] may regard anything short of absolute faith as religiously insufficient; Jewish tradition does not share their reliance on certainty.

Of course, the perception that belief in God is fundamental to authentic Jewish religious experience is not only the result of popular culture. Much of what Jews see about Judaism itself confirms that sense. After all, synagogue services constantly speak of God. The prayer book seems to assume confident belief in God. Almost all Jewish weddings make mention of God, as do naming ceremonies for children, the Passover seder, Hanukkah candle-lighting cere­monies, funerals, and mourning rituals. Synagogue sermons tend either to speak of God as obvious fact or to avoid the is­sue of God altogether.

The result is that there are very few Jew­ish settings where Jews have the opportunity to wonder aloud about God, to articulate their sense of what they do and do not believe, and to share their frustrations at not being certain. Nowhere in their Jewish experience has Judaism provided a place to find reassurance that, in their doubt, they are not alone.

The Ketubah: Evolutions in the Jewish Marriage Contract

Excerpted with permission from Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

Strictly speaking, a legitimate Jewish wedding has two fundamental requirements: First, both parties must enter the marriage voluntarily and willingly; second, their marriage must be accompanied by a ketubah. The term ketubah, which comes from the Hebrew verb “to write,” refers to the traditional marriage document, in use since rabbinic times. The traditional ketubah stipulates the obligations that the husband takes on vis-à-vis his bride during marriage, as well as his financial obligations in the case of divorce. 

Over the course of marriage, the husband traditionally has three primary obligations to his wife: He must provide her with food, clothing, and sexual satisfaction. Food and clothing, of course, represent the basic economic necessities of life, and the clear implication of the traditional ketubah text is that the husband will effectively provide for his wife’s economic well-being. In the case of divorce, the ketubah requires the husband to pay the wife a sum of money, which is dependent on her marital history prior to the current marriage [that is, whether she is a virgin, a divorcée, or a convert].

marriage contractBecause the traditional ketubah text assumes that it is the husband who will provide for the wife, this document has come under attack by those seeking greater equality between men and women. Before briefly addressing the substance of this critique and the suggestions for making the ceremony more egalitarian, a word about the original intentions of the ketubah is in order.

Ketubah Originated as a Protection for Women

Though clearly the respective roles of the bride and groom as stated in the ketubah are not equal, it must be stressed that, far from being an intentionally misogynist document, the ketubah was originally created to protect women from being simply discarded by their husbands with no provision for their economic welfare. To that extent, the ketubah, despite its dated perception of social reality, was not a tool of repression, but actually a liberating document for women. The ketubah was considered so basic to a just marital relationship, in fact, that the Talmud commented that the fundamental distinction between a wife and a concubine was that a wife had to be given a ketubah, while a concubine did not. The rabbis further stipulated that a man was forbidden from living with his wife, even for one hour, without a ketubah.

Nissuin: The Second of the Two Ceremonies

The contemporary Jewish wedding ceremony comprises two ancient ceremonies that used to be separated by about a year–erusin, or betrothal, and nissuin, the actual marriage. Excerpted with permission from Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

Immediately following the reading of the ketubah [the marriage contract], the second ceremony begins. This ceremony involves the recitation of seven blessings and hence is commonly referred to as the Sheva Berakhot. The text of the liturgy is as follows:


The Seven Blessings

1. Praised are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.

2. Praised are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who created all things for Your glory.

3. Praised are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of man.

4. Praised are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who created man and woman in Your image, fashioning woman from man as his mate, that together they might perpetuate life. Praised are You, O Lord, Creator of man.

5. May Zion rejoice as her children are restored to her in joy. Praised are You, O Lord, Who causes Zion to rejoice at her children’s return.

6. Grant perfect joy to these loving companions, as You did to the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden. Praised are You, O Lord, who grants the joy of bride and groom.

7. Praised are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created joy and gladness, bride and groom, mirth, song, delight and rejoicing, love and harmony, peace and companionship. O Lord our God, may there ever be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem voices of joy and gladness, voices of bride and groom, the jubilant voices of those joined in marriage under the bridal canopy, the voices of young people feasting and singing. Praised are You, O Lord, Who causes the groom to rejoice with his bride.

After the Blessings Are Recited

During the recitation of these blessings, as was the case in the first ceremony, the rabbi holds a cup of wine aloft. And once again, upon completion of the blessings, groom and bride drink from the cup.

Erusin: The First of the Two Ceremonies

Excerpted with permission from Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

The Jewish wedding ceremony comprises two major sections: erusin (betrothal) and nissuin (marriage). When the bride and groom have reached the huppah [marriage canopy], the erusin ceremony begins. It is a simple ceremony, marked by two blessings recited by the presiding rabbi, who holds a cup of wine. The first blessing, over wine, is one said at almost all joyous occasions. The second blessing is unique to this occasion and reads as follows:

"Blessed are You, Lord our God, Master of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us regarding forbidden unions, and Who forbad betrothed women to us, and permitted to us those married to us by huppah and kiddushin. Praised are You, Lord, Who sanctifies His people Israel with huppah and kiddushin."

After the completion of the second blessing, the rabbi gives the cup of wine to the groom, who drinks of it; the cup is then presented to the bride, who drinks from the same cup, symbolizing their commitment to sharing their lives from that moment on.

What Does the Blessing Mean?

Several crucial themes of the Jewish wedding are expressed in the seemingly simple language of these few lines of this second blessing. First, the liturgical language points to older customs, for in earlier times the Jewish wedding took place in stages over the course of an entire year. At the first ceremony, erusin, the couple were reserved for each other and were forbidden to have relationships with anyone else. But it was not until approximately a year later, at the nissuin ceremony, that they were permitted to consummate their relationship sexually and that the bride moved into the groom’s home.

The language of the second blessing, "who forbad betrothed women to us, and permitted to us those married to us by huppah and kiddushin," reflects this earlier practice, and apparently served in ancient times as a warning to the couple not to cohabit until the completion of the second ceremony.