For most couples who are familiar with the Jewish wedding ceremony, “harei at mekudeshet li” is powerfully resonant. I have found that for many couples it is emotionally significant to say those words – it makes them “feel” married.
Offering an alternate statement, whether for a woman in an opposite sex couple, or for same sex partners, feels “less than.” A helpful analogy is the conversation in the civil arena, where pundits and politicians search for any word other than “marriage” to describe unions for same-sex couples, because they say that “marriage” should be reserved for heterosexuals. This argument offers a pale version of so-called equality for same-sex couples, while reserving the real thing, the authentic language, for heterosexuals. If we truly believe that these unions are of equal status, there is no problem using the same word for them.
Obviously, the halakhic (Jewish law) issues are more complicated. But, if we practice a truly egalitarian Judaism, and believe that men and women are of equal halakhic status and that marriages between a man and man, woman and woman, and woman and man are of equal status, then kiddushin poses a real challenge.
Many scholars and rabbis have persuasively argued that we must abandon language of kiddushin if we are to achieve true egalitarianism in wedding ceremonies. I agree that we need to reframe the ritual. Two equal people cannot acquire one another. A partnership ritual, such as that suggested by Rachel Adler in her book Engendering Judaism, seems much more appropriate for an egalitarian couple of any sex in this age.
Yet the formula of “harei at” continues to feel like the “real thing.” I believe that the emotional resonance of these words is significant. So much of the significance of weddings lies in symbolism and emotion. This is why we craft elaborate public rituals rather than perfunctory business transactions. Whereas the transaction of kiddushin feels outdated and inherently unequal, the idea of using language of kedushah (holiness) to sanctify the ritual and infuse the marriage with holiness is compelling.
Combining the partnership ritual that Adler describes in her brit ahuvim (explained in this article) ceremony, placing the rings in a pouch and raising them, with the traditional formula of “harei at/harei ata,” achieves an egalitarian ritual with deeply resonant language.
Some couples have suggested coining a new phrase: hitkadshut, to retain the language of holiness while maintaining a greater agency, “I sanctify myself to you,” rather than “you are sanctified to me.”
Many couples, less versed in the intricacies of rabbinic language but intent on having a “real Jewish wedding” prefer the traditional formula, and I encourage them to use it.
For Hebrew versions of the following blessings, written by Rabbis Ayelet Cohen and Marc Margolious, click here.
Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings)
Blessed are You our God, Source of Life, who creates the fruit of the vine. Blessed are You, our God, Source of Life, who frees us from fear and shame and opens us to the holiness of our bodies and their pleasures. You guide us to entwine our hearts in righteousness, justice, loving kindness and compassion. Blessed are You, who sanctifies Israel through love that is honorable and true.
Birkat Erusin — Betrothal Blessing
The betrothal blessing expresses the commitment to enter into this next stage of a sexually exclusive, committed partnership. Although the standard text concerns prohibitions, this reframing of the blessing affirms the holiness and wholeness of a healthy, liberated sexuality, and sanctifies the couple’s commitment to a relationship founded upon rigorous honesty and mutual respect.
Blessed are You our God, Source of Life, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Blessed are You, our God, Source of Life, who frees us from fear and shame and opens us to the holiness of our bodies and their pleasures.
You guide us to entwine our hearts in righteousness, justice, loving kindness and compassion.
Blessed are You, who sanctifies Israel through love that is honorable and true.
© Ayelet Sonya Cohen and Marc J. Margolius, adapted from a blessing by Tamara Ruth Cohen, Gwynn Kessler, and Ayelet Sonya Cohen
Reprinted with permission of Keshet, a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.