In Which a Man Is Not Acquiring a Woman: A Wedding Redesign

Some Jewish couples are developing alternatives to a gendered, heterosexual matrimonial ceremony that can still work within Jewish tradition and law.
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Sketch by Maurycy Gottlieb (Wikimedia Commons)

I'm a rabbi whose marriage isn't, strictly speaking, kosher. That is to say, we didn't marry according to standard understandings of Jewish law.

On purpose. It could be argued that one key part of the Jewish wedding ceremony involves the formal acquisition of the bride (or possibly "just" exclusive rights to her sexuality) by the groom. And I didn't really want to get bought by anyone—not even by my partner.

Certainly, it's complicated. There are myriad interpretations of any Jewish text, and many people argue that during the betrothal ceremony—known as kiddushin, nowadays part of the wedding itself—the groom is only acquiring his obligations to the bride, not the actual woman. But I, and plenty of scholars along with me, think that's a pretty hard sell. The original second-century text draws parallels between the acquisition of a woman through marriage to the acquisition of slaves, animals, property, and land. And even understood in the most optimistic possible way, kiddushin is still a gendered ceremony with a heavy power dynamic that favors the husband.

For some people, that's fine—this is, after all, how Jewish law has staked out matrimony for the entire history of the religion. But others are not as enthusiastic about sanctifying their love in a way that would, both symbolically and legally, enshrine a non-egalitarian dynamic. Shouldn't ritual—and Jewish law—reflect our highest aspirations for our relationships on the ground?

To further complicate matters, kiddushin is a transaction between a woman and a man—so for Jewish same-sex couples looking to wed, the classic marriage model is not even available.

So, then what? What do you do you're getting married, but you don't want to—or can't—get married using traditional kiddushin? And what do you do if you're committed enough to the Jewish tradition that the legal framework in which it exists matters to you?

For those who believe, as I do, that rituals do things, there's a certain alchemy to the fact that a dunk in the ritual bath can transform a non-Jew into a Jew, that lighting two candles can, palpably and viscerally, bring in the Sabbath. There's a certain danger to mucking around with the source code, with the ways in which a religious tradition has been refined over hundreds or even thousands of years to bring us as close as possible to the sacred. Taking ritual alchemy seriously means that it might not work to slap any old thing together in place of these ancient mechanisms for binding two people to each other. And taking LGBT relationships seriously means finding a way for same-sex nuptials to have the same heft and substance that we assume straight weddings to have.

Fortunately, a few possibilities have emerged over the last 20 or so years that address the twin problems of feminist and queer weddings simultaneously, with varying degrees of dialogue with Jewish law. One way to sacralize the values of equality and egalitarianism is to make sure that weddings don’t require any particular gender to perform specific symbolic roles. (Of course, there are a wide range of gendered customs embedded in the traditional Jewish ceremony, so any couple who chooses to have the bride circle the groom or the butch cover the femme’s face with a veil has those resources available.)

Some of the ceremonies that feminist and queer Jews have been using in place of traditional kiddushin involve a declaration of commitment in the form of a formal oath to God. Rachel Adler, in her landmark book Engendering Judaism, looked to the laws surrounding business partnerships to create a ceremony in which two lovers bind themselves together, legally, as partners. Some people argue that both parties can acquire one another, so it’s an egalitarian, bilateral exchange. Another approach—my personal favorite—looks to a loophole in the Talmud to suggest that there’s a way, coherent within Jewish law, for a couple to get married “in the manner of kiddushin,” without actually invoking kiddushin and its acquisition—so it doesn’t require heterosexual partners, or the husband’s permission to divorce.

Ultimately, the last of these is how my partner and I got married. Rather than him handing me a ring (the "money" in the acquisition) and declaring, "Behold you are consecrated to me," we exchanged rings and both said, "Behold, you are made special to me," using a Hebrew word that connotes both specialness or uniqueness and togetherness.  We also took pains to explain what was happening in our wedding handouts and reworked the language in our ketubah, our wedding contract, so that it, too, reflected the marriage we intended to have.

These sorts of decisions are becoming increasingly widespread as our culture changes on several fronts. Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman suggests that, even though many of the new alternatives to kiddushin came out of an attempt to solve the feminist problem of a woman’s acquisition (or its unsavory twin, Jewish men’s almost unilateral power to divorce), the increasing number of same-sex weddings is influencing straight couples’ decisions about how to marry.

“More and more couples are looking at the options, I think, and saying to themselves, if I can have this [traditional betrothal] or this [newer ceremony that reflects their values], why would I choose something that doesn’t reflect my values?” she muses.

And yet, of the possible ceremonies floating around these days—entire databases full of them—it’s still unclear which will withstand the long trek through history. Judaism has grown and evolved many times over the millennia, and many things that we consider canonical now—such as a substantial amount of our liturgy and the order in which we say it, and many holiday customs—were once hotly debated or competing with alternate versions, sometimes for centuries. I imagine that with this, as with so many other innovations and changes in the tradition, the Jewish community—at least some factions of it—will slowly come to favor one particular formulation of a new betrothal ceremony.

Approaches to the problems of kiddushin have the potential to create splits between different communities. As it stands, issues regarding the status of women and LGBT Jews are major fault lines dividing Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, and recently, even within Orthodoxy, questions around women’s participation in Judaism have become major talking points.

But regardless of possible controversy, the revolution in Jewish weddings has already begun, and in recent years it’s began to gather momentum and steam. As for me, I just want to make it possible for couples to create a powerful, transformative bond between them that reflects everything that they hope to engender in the hopefully long life of their marriage. Whatever way they choose to get betrothed, I hope that when they look each other in the eyes under the wedding canopy, they feel that they have a ritual that represents the truth and integrity of who they are together. 

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Danya Ruttenberg is a rabbi and writer based in Evanston, Illinois. She is the author of Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion.

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