Are Egalitarian Jewish Weddings Possible?

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

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Some say this mutuality is a violation of halakhah, or Jewish law. If the bride and groom make an even exchange of rings and vows, that cancels out the acquisition. Rabbi William Lebeau, a vice-chancellor at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, believes that "there is still meaning to maintaining the traditional format." He argues that the bride is not silent in accepting the ring. "Her public receipt of the ring, and the symbol of their having made a mutual commitment is the proclamation she makes," he said. While he is not eager to have her say "haray atah," Lebeau encourages the bride to say some words of Jewish text accepting her husband's acquisition of her.

Such responsive statements certainly elevate the bride's role in the ceremony, but many Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis--and a few Conservative ones--argue that anything other than the "haray atah" is still a consolation prize for the bride. "The other things don't have force," said Conservative rabbi Carol Levithan, who helps teach a course for engaged couples at Manhattan's Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side. "This is the language that traditionally made the marriage."

Partnership Law Instead of Acquisition

But it may be time to do away with the acquisition formula altogether. In her groundbreaking book Engendering Judaism, Rachel Adler, a professor of religion and social ethics at Hebrew Union College, points out that the acquisition of one human being by another is no longer considered morally acceptable. So if it's wrong for the groom to acquire the bride, this isn't really rectified by the bride's doing the same to the groom.

Adler proposes an entirely new approach, in which couples are entering into a brit ahuvim or "lovers' covenant." The ring ceremony would be replaced by "a form of kinyan that was used in ancient times exclusively for partnership acquisition." In this form, partners pool symbols of their resources--personal items, possibly their wedding rings--in a bag, and then lift the bag together while reciting a blessing of their choice. (Adler suggests the [traditional] blessing… upon seeing a rainbow: "Blessed are you...who remembers your covenant and is faithful to your covenant and keeps your word.")

But most non-Orthodox rabbis--and most engaged couples--still seem uneasy with radical innovations. "There's the power of a few words that come from a long time ago that makes the moment a sacred moment," said Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, rabbi at Congregation Beth El Zedeck, a Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogue in Indianapolis. "Sometimes I think there's an effort to add so much that we lose the power of the symbols: the Hebrew words or phrases that the emotions immediately respond to, that evoke that sense of history."

Ketubah--Legal or Personal?

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Heidi Gralla is a freelance writer living in New York.