Are Egalitarian Jewish Weddings Possible?

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

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Another component of the wedding that has been adapted to embrace feminism is the ketubah. Traditional ketubot were simple documents that laid out the financial terms of the marriage, including a "purchase price" for the bride's virginity, but said nothing about love. Nowadays, many couples write their own, including personal facets of their relationship, such as things they like to do together, or a pledge to share all housework.

"To me, the ketubah--their sacred vows to each other which will hang on their wall and be looked at every day--should contain in their own words their most sacred commitments" as well as some specifics about their relationship, said Fred Dobb, rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Rockville, Maryland. "I joke that you can even include things about toothpaste and toilet seats. I'm three-quarters facetious on that."

Regardless of what a couple puts in their ketubah, the process of sitting down together to discuss their relationship and their future can be a very important step in the marriage process, rabbis say. The finished document then becomes a blueprint that the couple can refer back to, not so much for toothpaste etiquette as for a reminder of the shared love and aspirations that brought them together on their wedding day.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow and his wife, Phyllis Berman, leaders in the liberal Jewish Renewal movement who officiate jointly at weddings, require couples to write what he describes as "a real ketubah," addressing such issues as child care, gender roles, and property ownership.

Like the innovations in the wedding ceremony, egalitarian changes to the ketubah make some nervous. Even some outspoken liberal rabbis are concerned that an alternative ketubah won't be considered a legal document under Jewish law. When a couple uses an unusual ketubah, Levithan, the JCC rabbi, has them sign a traditional one, too. (Levithan, however, draws the line at male-only witnesses.)

Changing Customs, Not Laws

For more visible displays of equality, couples most frequently consider other rituals that are not so entrenched in Jewish law. Rabbis rarely object to having both bride and groom break a glass, or to having them circle one another in a variation on the ritual in which, traditionally in Orthodox weddings, the bride circled the groom seven times to protect him from evil spirits or the glances of other women. The bedeken, or veiling ceremony, in which the groom places a veil over the bride's face, is based on Rebecca veiling herself as a geture of modesty before she encountered Isaac, her soon-to-be husband. To complement the tradition of the groom putting the veil over the bride's face just before the wedding begins, some rabbis are having the bride place an article of clothing--like a yarmulke [skullcap] or a tallit --on the groom.

None of these modifications really address the feminist problems that arise from the original rituals: To what extent did the woman's circling put her in symbolic (or actual) thrall to her husband? To what extent does the reference to Rebecca's veiling require brides to assume a osture of modesty when that may not reflect how they want to experience their wedding? To what extent does the breaking of the glass signal male power--or his potency--later that evening?

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Heidi Gralla is a freelance writer living in New York.