The people & the book: Updating the marriage ceremony

The Jewish traditional wedding ceremonies evoke the steps of Rebecca and Isaac’s revolutionary betrothal and marriage.

Updating the marriage ceremony (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
Updating the marriage ceremony
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
This year, when I read the story of Abraham’s servant going to find Isaac a wife, I am struck by how closely the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony resembles the steps of Rebecca’s and Isaac’s betrothal and marriage.
When Abraham’s servant (Abraham and Isaac’s proxy) decides that Rebecca is “the one,” he adorns her with a nose ring and bracelets (evoking the kiddushin ring ceremony). When Rebecca sees Isaac in the distance, she covers her face with her scarf (the bedekin or veiling ritual). Then Isaac “takes” Rebecca into his dead mother Sarah’s tent and seemingly consummates their marriage sexually with her (huppa and yihud).
While it is comforting to read a story of our forefathers and mothers and recognize our own reality in theirs, it is also discouraging that in a culture that has experienced a feminist revolution, traditional Judaism has not only not progressed in this area but has actually regressed.
Before Rebecca’s family will send her off with Abraham’s servant, they ask her if she agrees to go. Her answer is a succinct but clear “I will go.” It seemed obvious to Rebecca’s family that she must verbally consent, whereas today any Jewish couple who marries legally in Israel (or marries in a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony anywhere!) follows the traditional unilateral model of the groom giving the bride a ring and reciting a line sanctifying her to him. She says nothing, and gives nothing.
Some rabbis approved by the Israeli Rabbinate will allow the bride to give the groom a ring and even recite a poetic verse, as long as it is clear that her act has no Jewish legal significance. She is set aside for him alone, but the same is not true for him. That is why it is much easier for a man to remarry if his wife does not agree to a Jewish divorce, and that is why a man can father children with as many women as he wants. None will be considered mamzeirim unless the mother is married to another man.
Rashi comments that we learn from Rebecca’s story that a woman cannot be legally married against her will. My take on this is that if a woman had even then to verbally agree to a wedding proposal, how much more so must she now not only do likewise under the huppa, but also show in ways that are acceptable today that she agrees to its terms, as must he. In other words, the wedding ceremony and the entire Jewish legal marital relationship model should be updated to match current egalitarian marital relationships. Moreover, any ceremony that does not reflect the couple’s actual reality is a farce, an empty show, with no legal significance.
It fascinates me that modern – even feminist – women agree to be even less empowered during the ritualization of their own marriage processes than Rebecca was. Most women do not verbally accept the ring under the huppa nor show any other sign of approval except the motion of putting out their ring finger. And most even agree to walk veiled down the aisle – although if you asked them what they think of veiling in modern day Iran they would say it is appalling! Moreover, many walk to meet their groom while he stands under the huppa, signifying that they are entering his “tent.”
Perhaps Rebecca’s family asked for her verbal consent because they knew her well; Rebecca is not one to be pushed around.
Even with the limited power she was then granted as a woman, she manages to get her way most of the time. Perhaps because the only way for Jews to marry legally in Israel is to marry through the Rabbinate, many Jewish women today feel they have no more choice than Rebecca did back then. By learning from Rebecca’s model of self-empowerment, such women may realize they have more of a choice than they think. The Rabbinate, and all rabbis who perpetuate the unilateral ceremony here and abroad, have only as much power as the public allows them.
Thankfully, I have attended and even officiated at completely egalitarian Jewish wedding ceremonies where the bride did not wear a veil and, if any rings were given at all, they were given and accepted by both parties along with the recitation of totally parallel phrases. There was no groom’s “tent,” rather a joint huppa representing the home this couple planned to build together.
These ceremonies evoke Rebecca and Isaac and a whole line of Jewish marriages that came after, but in a way that is authentic for the couple and appropriate to a world that has progressed since the day when asking a woman if she wants to marry was considered revolutionary.
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is the director of Shmaya: A Ritual and Educational Mikveh, and author of the forthcoming ‘Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening