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.

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