A Wedding Dilemma

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This past weekend I went to the wedding of a friend of mine. During the ceremony, I cried. But not tears of joy as I normally do during all ceremonies. These were tears of sorrow.

The wedding was conducted by a Chabad rabbi close the couple; they however are not ultra-Orthodox or Orthodox for that matter. The ceremony itself was rather off putting. It ran incredibly long due to the inclusion of numerous Jewish folk tales–completely unrelated to the couple–that centered around inappropriate wedding topics such as alcoholic friends. The speech about the couple focused almost entirely on the groom. Any mention of the bride was in context of the groom. As different Jewish rituals occurred the rabbi failed to mention what was happening underneath the obscured huppah or what any of the practices meant.

Perhaps worse of all for me was that I was sitting in between two close friends who are also being married by the same rabbi. Both future kallahs had a look of panic on their face.

I understood exactly why.

In the context of the Jewish lifecycle, a wedding marks the beginning of a Jewish family and household, just as a bar or bat mitzvah recognizes the beginning of Jewish adulthood. The wedding ceremony sets the tone for how the couple will live together. Those who are more committed to Judaism will inevitably have a more traditionally Jewish ceremony. Presumably the bride and groom will choose along with the officiant to include or omit certain ritual because it reflects their philosophy and belief.

This is true for the secular aspects of the wedding. The choice in decoration, attire, location, band, and menu all reflect the style of the couple.

So I struggle when a couple cannot have their ideal ceremony due to the regulations of the officiant. This is particularly true when it comes to having a double ring ceremony, the text of the ketubah, and other issues of equality. A wedding can be and arguably should be one of the most spiritual days in a person’s life. Can one have a fulfilling experience without practicing one’s preferred customs? To me, it is like trying to have a spiritual High Holidays while davening in a foreign synagogue.

The argument on the other side is that it is crucial to have an officiant who knows the couple well. A “ringer” who is of the same religious observance cannot enable a couple he or she doesn’t know to have a meaningful ceremony. In my case, all three grooms in the case are close with the Chabad rabbi (I leave the issue of the woman’s role in all of this to a separate discussion.)

I’m curious what you think? When in such a situation, is it more important that the English, non-religious part of the ceremony, the one that most people will understand, best reflect the couple? Or is it more important for the Jewish ritual to be meaningful to couple involved?

Posted on August 14, 2007

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19 thoughts on “A Wedding Dilemma

  1. jskobin

    I’m so glad you posted this. Especially after reading Anita Diamont’s “The New Jewish Wedding,â€? I am more excited than ever to practice the traditional rituals, such as circling my groom 7 times, and sharing our wine. I am not an Orthodox Jew, rather a very conservative Reform Jew, and have always been a very spiritual person. So, when my groom-to-be and I decided we wanted an Orthodox Rabbi to officiate our ceremony, I’m sure you can imagine how many issues and questions were raised. The best I can say is that I highly recommend Diamont’s book to any Jewish couple preparing for a wedding, because it is within those pages that I learned that most of what we consider parts of a Jewish wedding ceremony today are optional. It is my understanding that the only things that MUST exist to make it a traditional Jewish ceremony are the chuppah with 4 open sides, a marriage contract (albeit an archaic one), and a 1 ring ceremony. The rest is just personal icing on the proverbial cake. I look forward to sitting down with our chosen Rabbi, and explicitly sharing with him what my groom-to-be and I envision for our wedding. If all goes well, we’ll have a beautiful ceremony without sermons about alcoholic friends, and a speech that addresses us as a couple.

  2. ZeddZull

    One has to wonder how and why a Chabad Rabbi was selected to perform the ceremony. You say that the groom is close to the Rabbi, but not the bride. Did she have a say in the matter? Did she meet him? Was there any consultation. My experience with Chabad is mixed. They are very welcoming and non-judgmental, but they have little understanding or interest in the non-Chabad world. Of course, maybe they simply chose the wrong Rabbi.

    There is an argument to be made for the value of affilication with a Jewish community whose views are similar to and supportive of your own. Chabad is rarely this community – they are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Their interests, their views, their concerns, their outlook are different from that of most Jews. Yet people flock to them because they seem authentic and warm and welcoming.

    A real community, that is a community in which a person can be a part and not just a client, is one that shares a common outlook and concern and lifestyle. Did this couple make the effort to find such a community? Did they seek out a Rabbi whose views and Jewish outlook were similar to their own?

    To JSKobin – seeking out an Orthodox Rabbi to perform the wedding for “conservative Reform Jew(s)” is a betrayal of your commitment to Reform Judaism. Surely there is a Reform Rabbi who is capable of performing a traditional, halachically valid and acceptable wedding.

    Regardless – Mazel Tov on your upcoming nuptials. I hope that your marriage is happy long after you have forgotten anything that the Rabbi might have to say on your wedding day.

  3. Matzah2

    What?

    Nonobservant, reform, or nonorthodox Jews decide they want an orthodox wedding, and then they expect to be able to dictate to the rabbi how the ceremony should be done? How absurd!

    Why do they want an orthodox wedding? Because deep down inside it matters to them. And just like many other things in the orthodox world, there are items that the unorthodox will find uncomfortable be it a wedding, circumcision, or even a barmitzvah. One who is not used to the orthodox way is going to be shocked. That’s the way it goes. Those who are used to it are the same ones who understand it and are not offended for that reason.

    Now, this could have been a bad apple too. I have seen many chabad weddings where the bride and groom are treated equally, although yes, the bride gets the ring and the chtubah, not the groom.

    Hey, you want to give the groom a ring too? Why not give him a chtuba also? Better yet, why not dress him up in a white dress with a bouquet?

  4. jskobin

    I would have to respectfully disagree with the idea that my choosing an Orthodox Rabbi betrays my commitment to Reform Judaism. It was at my Reform synagogue that I learned that being a Reform Jew means being informed enough to decide how you want to live, religiously speaking, and apply the practices which are meaningful in your life. I think that my decision is a prime representation of this freedom and choice I so strongly support.

    What a great topic of discussion!

  5. kstempel

    Indeed, a very interesting topic. I would like to begin by noting that with the exceptions of the double vs. single ring ceremony, and the (Aramaic) text on the ketubah, (which few couples can translate) a Jewish wedding is a Jewish wedding. The couple can choose to mix and match most traditions at will. The spirituality of the ceremony will come from that personal combination and the knowledge of the meaning behind the rituals being performed. The act as a final culmination of the growth of the couple through the engagement period, and being surrounded by people who know and love the couple, including the officiant, are also very important.

    It is the final item that is most applicable to this topic. If the rabbi knows only one party (or neither) the ceremony may as well be reduced to going through the motions. I should clarify that knowledge does not necessarily mean a long-standing relationship with both the bride and the groom (although it helps). If perhaps, the rabbi holds a special place in the life of one half of the couple, knowledge of the couple can be gained by having the bride and groom write love letters to each other and deliver them to the rabbi, or even through get-togethers where the three parties sit down a few times before the wedding to talk about life, love, and marriage.

    If these steps aren’t taken, and the rabbi isn’t close to both parties, then shame on the rabbi, and shame on the couple. Not shame on orthodox rabbis in general. It sounds like this is exactly what happened at the wedding ceremony that the author attended. In addition, although hard to believe and not necessarily my style, it is possible that the couple asked to be addressed as two individuals, rather than as one entity. This may not have been normal for this or other orthodox rabbis. Until the author has attended multiple weddings performed by this and other orthodox rabbi’s, her conclusion is poorly founded.

    I take issue with the author’s other assumptions that because she didn’t find the ceremony to be spiritual, that the couple couldn’t have found the ceremony spiritual, and that everything that was “wrong� with the ceremony was because of the orthodox views of the rabbi. I would argue that poor planning by the couple, and a poor performance by the rabbi caused most of the problems. After all, nowhere in the Talmud does it say that the chuppah should be obscured (I assume this was by the placement of the wedding party in relation to the congregation), or that inappropriate extra stories that mean nothing should be told to make the service longer. The inability for the congregation to see was the couple’s inattention to detail. Inappropriate wedding topics were the result of poor orating by the rabbi.

    To say that an orthodox ceremony sets a negative tone for the rest of the marriage is bothersome. After all, even the most reform of ceremonies isn’t truly egalitarian. For example, the groom never circles the bride, and the bride never stomps on the glass. Should reform weddings conclude with the breaking of two glasses? To take the concept a step further, before the couple even got engaged, they lived a lifestyle dictated by gender defined customs. How often does a bride buy the groom a several thousand-dollar diamond ring and get down on one knee and ask him to marry her? Does a proposal mean less because both parties don’t buy rings and in an act of spontaneity and destiny each get down on one knee at the very same moment..? The point is, although in the reform movement some customs have become egalitarian not all have, and not exchanging two rings or some text that the couple can’t read doesn’t put the bride at the mercy of her husband for the rest of their lives.

    In the final analysis, it comes down to a cost benefit relationship for the couple. In a perfect world the couple would be close to a rabbi who shares exactly the same beliefs. If that’s the case then it’s a non-issue. Otherwise, if it is less important to have rabbi that knows the couple then to have the ceremony run exactly as one may have dreamed, then a “ringer� is right for you. Otherwise, I think you go with the rabbi who makes the couple comfortable and can create a warm and loving atmosphere under the chupah. If the aforementioned is achieved and yet the congregation is put-off and sheds a tear of sorrow, who cares…

  6. Managing Editor

    In my experience you can have a wedding ceremony that is meaningful to both of you, understandable to those watching, and reflects your values.

    But you have to be persistent and creative, and seek out and form relationships with those rabbis who champion your values–which is probably a good idea anyway.

    Admittedly, this rabbi may not be able to talk about when you were 2 years old, how how he’s seen you grow as a couple, etc., but that seems to me to be an acceptable trade-off. After all, most brisses are really beautiful, and not a single mohel has a relationship with the baby he’s circumcising!

    A good rabbi can draw on the tradition to create an intimate holy space.

  7. The Doctor

    One thing that may make this discussion more interesting: we seem to be focusing on the wedding ceremony. It is my understanding that under Jewish law, all it takes to be legally married is an accepted proposal and the transfer of something of value from groom to bride. That’s why the acceptance of the Ketubah takes place before the ceremony [and coincidentally why, in our local orthodox school, children over 13 are forbidden to even joke about “will you marry me” and hand over some gum because that might be considered a legally binding contract.

    In other words, the meeting before the ceremony is what counts; sign the ketubah and give it to the bride and you’re married. Everything else is celebration: the shark circling the drowning man, the exchange of rings, the smashing of glasses—this is all personal choice and tradition, but not what makes the marriage. And anyone who says “it’s not a kosher wedding because it was egalitarian/she only circled him 6 times/ they didn’t break the glass” or whatever has missed the main point: that they are already married and this is a celebration with the community!

  8. Matzah2

    What does it mean to have a ’spiritual’ wedding?

    As far as I know, if the wedding was kosher, meaning that it followed halacha by orthodox standards, then it was as spiritual as it could be. If the wedding was not fluffy enough, that does not make it less spiritual. If the correct procedure was done, the blessings done in the correct manner, the food was kosher, and so on, then the wedding was spirutal and binding ’according to the religion of Moses and Israel.’

    On the side, I am trying to think of what would cause an orthodox couple to choose a nonorthodox rabbi for their wedding. Hmm.

  9. Matzah2

    Hey, Doc.

    Your post arrived at the same time as my own.

    You are right about the ’Talmudic’ requirements of engagement, betrothal and marriage, but the point is that for some reason or another, this couple chose an orthodox wedding, meaning orthodox tradition. Now they are not the first to do this. There are many, many unobservant, nonorthodox couples who choose to do an orthodox wedding.

    Why?

  10. The Doctor

    Maybe it was those dubious mushrooms at the rehearsal dinner?

    If Reb Sean from Satmar is a childhood friend, there may be good reason to ask him to “do” the wedding [assuming that he would play by the groundrules you have set up for what you want]. But if there’s no other reason, it makes more sense to keep it “in the house.” I can conceive of all sorts of nightmare scenarios where either the rabbi or someone in the audience objects to something; yes, I know it’s not about them, but that thought doesn’t help if Reb Zebulon or Dodah Achmed decide to get upset midway and take a walk…

    If someone has a relationship with a rabbi from outside their denomination, all well and good; there may be an emotional bond there to have that person officiate. But to pick someone from “outside” for no particular reason may be inviting trouble [I can just hear Tante Hafche saying "vot, you coudn’t get that nice rebbe from our shul?"]

  11. Meredith Kesner Lewis Post author

    I’d like to respond to some of kstempel’s comments:
    By no way was I implying that simply because an orthodox rabbi did the ceremony did I find it problematic. I do not think that everything was wrong at this ceremony because of orthodoxy. In fact, in many of aspects of my religious life I agree with the values of orthodoxy and, to admit something I’ve told few people, consider on a daily basis “frumming out,” for lack of better words.

    I would have a similar issue if an orthodox couple chose to get married by a conservative rabbi and chose to have an egalitarian wedding when that was not their custom.

    I actually agree with many of your points, that this was likely a case of poor planning on the parts of the couple and the officiant. However, I personally will still struggle with ceremonies that do not reflect the observance of the couple. That is a personal opinion. I’m sure the wedding couple had and could have had a spiritual wedding.

    You only get married once, though. I personally would want to have my ceremony (and did have) be able to incorporate my ideal practice Judaism. Perhaps I’m being selfish, but I didn’t want to compromise my views.

    Lastly, as you said yourself there are few things that define a Jewish wedding legally. Much is custom. Thus I have been to plenty of reform and conservative weddings where the bride and groom circled each other, where the couple together stepped on a glass, and where the bride and groom either chose not to exchange engagement rings or gave each other rings at a similar value.

    To each is own.

    It sounds like you yourself might be engaged and going through this yourself. If that’s the case I wish you nothing but happiness in your simcha. Simply by dealing with these issues, you have guaranteed yourself a more spiritually fulfilling wedding than many others.

  12. Matzah2

    No, it is not me equating spirituality to fluffiness. I said exactly the opposite.

    My point was that when someone talks about spirituality and if something ’felt’ spiritual, then what does that really mean?

    A person cannot ’feel’ his own soul. The soul is affected by a person’s actions. When we sin, or when we do mitzvot, we do not ’feel’ the effect on the soul, although the soul is very affected by it. This is why it is easily possible to damage or to feed the soul without even realizing it.

    Sometimes there are things that are very good for the soul although they are very uncomfortable for the body, mind and ’feelings’. And, of course, some things make us ’feel’ good, but they are damaging to the soul. The ’feelings’ and the soul are frequently at odds, and this is what makes keeping the mitzvot, including rabbinic enactment (Deuteronomy), such a challenge.

    People who are used to living according to what the soul needs find it easier. Others, who are new to the game, find it very difficult at first.

    You might argue that this escoteric stuff is a bit too far off from the main issue, but I would argue that Chabad is all about that stuff.

  13. Meredith Kesner Lewis Post author

    Doctor: As I noted in my original posting, the groom did have a relationship with the rabbi. I’ll be posting a new thread later today about why many people in their 20s don’t have a rabbi “in house” to do weddings.

    In response to Matzah2: you seem to equate spirituality with fluffiness, which is rather offensive. Just because a wedding is done according to law, that doesn’t mean that the bride, groom, or any one there felt that they were acting in a Jewish way that brought them closer to God.

  14. swampjew

    I have to say – my favorite suggestion so far was that the katan get married in a fluffy white dress. I considered it but my fiancee put her foot down.

    Came across this as I write the program for my own wedding in 9 days.

    I guess the question for me is how the bride felt. if she’s cool with it, fine. If not, then what does that say about the relationship to be. I’ve had to compromise my own principles in this process–because a wedding is about two people building one household, and that’s never easy. But i made those compromises knowingly and willingly, and stuck to my guns on the things that were important.

    If she got strong-armed into this — or even, if they put together a wedding that meets reflects his spiritual commitments and not hers — that seems like it spells trouble. What a schlub!

  15. celesteno

    When I read this these are the things that came to my mind first.
    a) the couple chose this rabbi b/c one or both of them preferred to have a rabbi they knew officiate the wedding then bring in someone who neither of them knew. People do this all the time at weddings they choose to surround themselves with the people who are important to them, rather than focus on denominational differences (which they might have discussed and been ok with)
    b) Part of this long inappropriate stories might have more to do with the rabbi than the denomination–I’ve been to A LOT of O weddings (including Chabad) and have never run into this–however sometimes the speech about the couple is predominately about one party or in the context of the other (just b/c the rabbi knows one better or one only through the other–it can be either the kallah or the chosson–I’ve definitely seen both) but it’s not status quo
    c)I don’t know what you mean by obscured chuppa–how was it obscured and with what
    d) he might not have explained what was going on under the chuppa, b/c he might have assumed everyone would know. The only O weddings that I’ve been to where there was any explanation of anything that happened under the chuppa was when one or both of the couple either converted or were baalei teshuvah (became religious later in life) AND the couple requested it. Sometimes they don’t and the rabbi doesn’t explain it or sometimes the rabbi offers and people decline for whatever reasons. Sometimes the explanation is only in a brochure that is handed out.
    e) double ring ceremony–a lot of my non-Jewish friends or non-O Jewish friends don’t do this either b/c the guy doesn’t want to wear a ring for whatever reason or my girl friends just don’t care–was it that important to them
    f) what other issues of equality are there at a wedding ceremony I don’t get it–Jewish weddings aren’t that complicated or that long

  16. celesteno

    Their is plenty of variance in weddings throughout the O community that reflect the couple also—except for a couple things (that people have mentioned) I also don’t understand what regulations the rabbi required that created a situation where you don’t think your friends were happy with their wedding.

    Did the friends mention they were unhappy with how their wedding turned out? There’s no mention of that in the article. Just that the author was unhappy that she felt they were not reflected in the ceremony–which is interesting b/c O rabbis usually have VERY little to do with the actual ceremony–the couple picks the chuppah, the people who make the brachas, reads the ketubah, whether or not seeing as it was a Chabad rabbi they read the rebbe’s letter, etc. They are usually more for general halachic guidance for the wedding and not much else. Maybe they were willing to compromise on things that weren’t so important to them b/c they would rather have this rabbi officiate. Very few people get absolutely everything they want in their weddings ceremony–whether its not the day they want b/c someone else has the hall that day, not the hall they want b/c they want it’s not the available on the right day, something’s too expensive,etc. They could have gone with another rabbi and gotten those other things you mentioned so they apparently decided what was more important to them.

  17. celesteno

    at most O weddings the rabbis don’t necessarily lead much of the wedding, and therefore don’t set much of a tone–it might be his personal style–a lot of O weddings have several rabbis doing various parts of the wedding with most of the brachos, reading the ketubah being done by friends or relatives–there is very little to be “led”. I’ve noticed that the people who they choose to participate set more of a tone than the rabbi (unless it is a really big rav or he has extra personality).

    I think my point was that most couples sacrifice something in their weddings and it’s not that big a deal unless that something is forced upon you. Seeing as they chose this particular rabbi, I’m assuming they weren’t forced to comply unless there were no other rabbis in the vicinity. They probably knew what they were getting into, and I wouldn’t even classify them as sacrifices to be honest, by choosing an O rabbi.

  18. Meredith Kesner Lewis Post author

    In response to celeseno: I didn’t try to make the claim that the couple themselves were unhappy with the ceremony. And I would argue against your notion that rabbis have very little to do with ceremony. In the end, they are the ones leading it and set its tone. I would argue that unless couples are extremely specific about what they want to happen or not, the rabbi generally does what he or she feels is standard, given his or her background and training.

    as for some of your other questions about the ceremony, getting into all of the details was not the purpose of my post. Rather I was curious about the general idea of sacrificing one’s personal/religious desires at one’s wedding. if there are any of the specific areas that are meaningful to that end, I would be happy to clarify.

  19. Meredith Kesner Lewis Post author

    it’s a shame that “most couples sacrifice something in their weddings.” I don’t think this has to be true. There are so many ways of practicing Judaism, but there are so many spiritual leaders as well. while one part of the couple will likely compromise with the other, why should that couple, on arguable the most special day of their lives together, be denied what they want to include in the ceremony. In the end, the wedding should be about and for the couple, not any one else.

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