Wedding Ceremony Merges Tradition and Egalitarianism

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 explores the marriage ceremony the couple created, which retained the betrothal ceremony, kiddushin (with additions to increase its mutuality), but also included a new segment they called kesharin, or connection. In a previous article, Beckerman explains the couple’s discomfort with the inherent lack of mutuality in the kiddushin ceremony. Excerpted by permission of the author from Kerem: Creative Explorations in Judaism, 1997 issue.

As our wedding date approached, it appeared ever less likely that there would be time to find a solution that would be considered halakhic (in accordance with Jewish law) without traditional kiddushin. Progress came only with Joel’s wise suggestion that we stop talking and each write up our ideal ceremonies independently, from the reception before the huppah [wedding canopy] through the breaking of the glass.

A Marriage of Minds

What Joel came up with articulated the inherent two-way essence of kiddushin… by making explicit the requirements that the bride consent and the husband be monogamous. He began by prefacing the traditional harei at ("Behold you are consecrated to me… ") [said by the husband] with a simple formula, birshuteikh u-virtzoneikh ("With your consent and by your will"). As he put the ring on my finger I would agree aloud, replying, "So am I consecrated to you." His response was taken from the Book of Hosea: "Call me ‘my man’ [ishi] and not ‘my master’ [ba’ali, the word commonly used for ‘husband’ in Hebrew]."

Joel’s next words attempted to add stringency to the ban on polygamy decreed by Rabbenu Gershom just over 1,000 years ago, since the halakhic implications for a woman accepting kiddushin go far beyond what the ban imposes upon a man [because, according to biblical law, a man can have more than one wife; hence, even if he does not grant his wife a Jewish divorce, he can remarry without having the status of his children negatively affected]. "Just as you have lovingly and willingly accepted the exclusivity that kiddushin mandates, so do I declare this day, before the Almighty and before my community, that I am bound by this same kiddushin, permitted to you and forbidden to all others. Your liberties are my liberties and your restrictions my restrictions, as it is said: ‘Whither thou goest, I will go, and whither thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’" The quotation is from the Book of Ruth, the convert who is mother of the House of David.

Desire to Possess Is Standard Male Programming

The next turning point came when we finally saw that despite Joel’s intellectual appreciation of my difficulties with kiddushin, on a very basic, even primal level, he did identify with the desire to take a wife, to possess. Once he realized this and I absorbed it, our path paradoxically became simpler. I had resisted a straight traditional ceremony on the grounds that acquisition had nothing to do with what marriage meant to us (and it was intolerable to think that my cherished tradition could not accommodate what I found meaningful in pledging myself to another). But if it really meant so much to my partner that I be "his," the gap between ritual and reality was in fact not as great. While the abstract demands of halakhah seemed demeaning and only impelled me to argue, I found myself wanting to accommodate Joel’s emotional needs.

The discomfort of acquiescing to being "taken" as wife was mitigated by a number of factors. First, I suspected that the need to possess was more or less standard male programming (as my desire to accommodate his needs was female programming). I preferred Joel, with his self-awareness about it, to the self-styled feminist men who had broken my heart in the past! And there were moments as we discussed it that I too related to a perhaps atavistic impulse to be "taken." Certainly part of me had longed all along for the familiar words of kiddushin as a sign of Joel’s commitment, whatever their halakhic significance.

I was moved by his valiant attempts to respond to my own concerns, as evidenced in his kiddushin, and I knew he was sincere in declaring himself equally bound to me by it. I recalled that in other circumstances I defend accommodating the "frummest [most religious] common denominator" when more and less stringent interpretations of religious requirements clash….

Ceremony to Express Connection & Relationship

When I scrutinized my love for Joel and my desire to be married to him, I found possession to be utterly beside the point. What was vital for me was connection, bond, relationship. Once we concluded that this reflected a truth about gender difference that went beyond our differences in personality, it made more sense to express the need for bond in a new section, rather than tacking it onto kiddushin. The attempt to parallel the structure of kiddushin helped determine the content of what we called kesharin (connection).

The new section followed kiddushin and the reading of our ketubah [marriage contract]. To parallel the invocations preceding kiddushin (Brukhim ha-ba’im b’shem Adonai and Mi barukh al ha-kol) ["Blessed are those who come in the name of Adonai" and "The One who is blessed above all"], we began with a passage from Hosea, the book of Prophets that Joel quoted during kiddushin. A common choice for incorporation into wedding ceremonies, it is said every morning upon donning tefillin [phylacteries]: "And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice and in kindness and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness." Our friend, cantor Mikhal Shiff-Matter, sang this and passages earlier in the ceremony to the melody traditionally used for chanting the Song of Songs.

We also wanted a blessing to begin this section, to parallel the presence of the blessing before kiddushin. Borrowing from the Adler/Schulman ceremony, we chose the blessing that is recited upon seeing a rainbow: "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who remembers the covenant." It refers to the pact God made with Noah and his descendants after the flood [Genesis 9:15], "a covenant of trust and a pledge not to harm." As we embarked upon our marriage, we wanted to evoke the promise of the continuity of the generations and to express gratitude that we had found each other (like the rainbow, a "quotidian miracle," in the words of our friend Peretz Rodman). And bringing Noah into the ceremony added a universalist element (as did including the verses from Ruth).

Our symbol for connection, given in place of a ring, was tefillin, which Joel had already requested as his wedding gift from me. To parallel harei at [the man’s wedding declaration during kiddushin], I found poetic expression for "connectedness" in contemporary ketubot that borrowed from early marriage contracts in the Eretz Israel [Land of Israel] tradition. The formula Heyei li l’chaver u-l’ish briti k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael ("Be my companion and my covenantal partner, according to the law of Moses and Israel") is based on a verse from the book of the prophet Malachi. I prefaced the formula with an echo of Joel’s words to me [during kiddushin]: birshutkha u-virtzonkha ("With your consent and by your will"). I followed it with an explanation: "Accept these tefillin as a symbol of bond and connection, as it is said, ‘You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand’" [Deuteronomy 6:7].

Joel gave his explicit assent: "So will I be your companion and covenantal partner." As Joel had in kiddushin, I followed formula and gift with a personal message to elaborate upon and clarify my intentions: "I will cherish and maintain the connection between us all the days that we are wed. I have chosen you as a lifelong friend, according to the teachings of Avot d’Rabbi Natan: ‘Acquire for yourself a companion.’ May this marriage be a covenant of partnership and trust, and thus may we establish a household in the land of, and among the people of, Israel."

The formula Heyei li l’chaver lacks legal standing, but the words were nonetheless a pact between us and articulated a vision of marriage as partnership, a partnership whose enterprise is the establishment of a family unit. The formula does not answer my desire that monogamy cease to be the sole legal basis of a Jewish marriage, but it begins to address it.

Perhaps companionship, covenant, partnership, and trust, the components of marriage that I wanted to invoke, are truly all aspects of monogamy when it is promised in kiddushin. I applaud interpretations in this direction, but to see these positive components of marriage as an outgrowth of a vow of monogamy only taints them for me when the vow is part of an unegalitarian institution. By balancing kiddushin with kesharin, the former became more like an exclusivity clause in a larger contract–an important dimension in the marriage but not the only one.

The covenantal language of the nissuin ceremony that ordinarily follows kiddushin might seem like an appropriate place for the sentiments I expressed, but we chose not to change it and to instead develop kesharin, lest we imply that kiddushin is more for the man and nissuin for the woman. In our eyes, this would be an unfortunate shortchanging of nissuin, whose seven benedictions culminate with God’s own rejoicing with the bride and groom.

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