The Ketubah: Evolutions in the Jewish Marriage Contract

Once a protection for women, the traditional ketubah has been critiqued by liberal Jews on several grounds.

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1.      the lack of mutuality, given the dramatically changed social and economic circumstances of women today;

2.      the reference in the document to the woman's previous marital status--and specifically to the usual use of the term betultah, or "virgin," as it is commonly translated, to refer to a previously unmarried woman--with no mention made of the man's marital or sexual history; and finally,

3.      the one-sided focus on financial issues.

Potential Solutions

The two most obvious solutions to these objections are to do away with the ketubah altogether, or to revise it. While the Orthodox community continues to use only the standard text, practices in the other movements vary. Some Reform rabbis have simply dispensed with a ketubah, and many Reform and liberally inclined Conservative rabbis also use nontraditional texts, pointing out that no single ketubah text was ever adopted universally by all Jewish communities. Research into ancient ketubot has shown, for example, that some traditional communities avoided making any reference to the bride's marital or sexual history, while others used terms such as penita (unmarried), thus avoiding the issue of virginity.

Similarly, although Maimonides claims that a nonvirgin must be identified as such by use of the term be'ultah (married woman), other equally significant sources deny this. In the Talmud, Rabbi Meir suggests that the classification of the bride ought not depend on her physical virginity but on whether her societal attractiveness has been affected in any way. And Rabbi David Hoffmann, the leading light of German Orthodoxy at the end of the 19th century, urges that if a woman is not a virgin, no term be used to designate her.

Some communities also sought to include in the ketubah some mention of nonfinancial elements of the marriage; one ancient ketubah has been located in which the groom declares his bride to be not simply "my wife" but "my friend and my wife in covenant" (ha-veirati ve-eshet beriti).

Today, many liberally inclined Jews who still elect to use a ketubah make much more significant changes in the text, usually omitting virtually all financial elements of the document and ensuring that obligations be assumed by both partners. Those who choose to use nontraditional marriage documents often do so fully cognizant that they thereby depart radically from tradition and that no halakhically [Jewish legally] sanctioning community stands behind these new texts. Rather than emulating the public nature of the traditional text, these tend to be rather private documents, expressing the feelings and commitments of the couple rather than the communal nature of the institution of marriage that is implied by use of the traditional text.

Proponents of these new texts further argue that even if more traditional communities reject the legitimacy of creative ketubot, that rejection will have no bearing on a couple's marital status. Because Jewish law effectively recognizes common-law marriage, even the most traditional communities, they assert, need to recognize these arrangements as marriage, even if a ketubah is not included. The argument for the new marriage documents, despite their lack of universal acceptance, has been voiced most eloquently by Rabbi Daniel Leifer [a Conservative Hillel rabbi who was an early supporter of the havurah movement]:

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Rabbi Daniel Gordis

Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis is Director of the Jerusalem Fellows program and a member of the Senior Staff of the Mandel Foundation Sector on Jewish Education and Continuity. His most recent book, on the demise of peace in Israel, is entitled If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches from an Anxious State; other books include God Was Not in the Fire: The Search for a Spiritual Judaism.