Egalitarianism Confronts Kiddushin

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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.

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