Are Egalitarian Jewish Weddings Possible?

A marriage tradition steeped in property law really has to stretch to be legally egalitarian.

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Reprinted with permission from Lilith magazine.

For centuries, Jewish brides and grooms have been married under a huppah [marriage canopy], a symbol of the Jewish home. Traditionally, the groom placed a ring on the bride's finger and declared her "consecrated" to him. The bride said nothing. Nothing.

If the huppah was representative of the home, then what did the bride's silence say of what was expected of her in marriage?

jewish egalitarian wedding"For me, the thought that only the groom initiates and only the bride receives is not reflective of a relationship," said Shira Milgrom, rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in White Plains, New York. "For a wedding to be complete, both bride and groom need to initiate and receive, and both bride and groom need to speak."

Like many of her colleagues, Milgrom is committed to performing weddings that maintain Jewish tradition but make the bride an equal partner in the process. It's not an easy task considering that the basic premise of the traditional ceremony was that the groom acquired his bride…. The terms of his acquisition were laid out in the ketubah, the formal wedding contract, signed of course by male witnesses. So while many couples start out thinking they can create an egalitarian wedding simply by changing a few words or sharing the breaking of the glass, many rabbis will counsel them to dig much deeper….

Change Develops Slowly, Even in the Liberal Movements

The Reform movement began addressing these issues as early as the 1850s, but changes in every stream of Judaism have come very slowly, and at times paradoxically. For instance, according to Conservative movement policy, a woman can be ordained as a rabbi and therefore can officiate at weddings, but she still has to find two men to sign as witnesses on the ketubah. Even in more liberal denominations, change may have been slowed by the knowledge that such weddings--and the offspring they produce--will not be considered legitimate by Orthodox authorities who wield power in Israel and around the world.

The Legality of a Two-Ring Ceremony

Many feminist-driven innovations have found their way into the Jewish wedding, but nothing seems to have sparked as much thought and debate as the ring ceremony. Traditionally, this ceremony was meant to symbolize the kinyan, or acquisition, of the bride. The groom would place the ring on the bride's finger and say "Haray at mekudeshet li b'taba'at zu k'dat Moshe v'Yisrael"--"By this ring you are consecrated to me in accordance with the traditions of Moses and Israel." Most non-Orthodox rabbis now routinely have the bride and groom exchange rings--a ritual that appears, to family and friends in the audience, to be wholly egalitarian. But there is little agreement among rabbis on whether the bride may say "Haray atah... ," consecrating the groom to her in return.

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Heidi Gralla is a freelance writer living in New York.