Sovereign Jewish Wedding
The Zionist movement was founded not only to provide a political framework to enable the Jewish people to live securely “like all the nations.” In fact, the purpose of Zionism was and remains to ensure the ongoing creative existence of the Jewish people as such. This is the position of cultural Zionism, and it is no less valid today (and perhaps even more so) than during the days when Ahad Ha’am (predating Herzl) first presented the vision of the cultural and spiritual center.
Cultural Zionism means re-forming Jewish society and culture. Many of the founders of the Zionist movement (and particularly the pioneering Zionist movement) believed that cooperative self-realization on the land of Israel was sufficient to guarantee this goal. The Jews who arrived during the waves of Aliyah in the early twentieth century abhorred the distorted nature of the halachic –– rabbinical community, both in the Diaspora and in the old Jewish community in the Land of Israel. These communities were neither egalitarian nor democratic, and in large measure they were anti-Zionist. Many also felt contempt for cultural and spiritual (“non-practical”) Zionism. The founding fathers and mothers of Zionism were insufficiently aware that human culture and social ties are shaped by a world of symbols repeated according to the seasons of the year and the individual lifecycle, and that these two axes in turn are connected to the collective life of the community and the nation. This is the essence of cultural Zionism –– now we must realize it.
Every couple committed to the heritage of our fathers and mothers seeks a wedding ceremony that will reflect their bond with this heritage. However, an increasing number of couples are rejecting the legal stranglehold by which halachic rabbinical Judaism is authorized by state law to impose its cultural and religious approach in marriage ceremonies. The ceremony is laden with elements that contradict the equal value of human life (and gender equality in particular). Couples who care about this have the option to express their egalitarian cultural Zionist commitment in a practical and creative manner at the beginning of their joint life together. During the process preceding the wedding, and under the Chuppah itself, couples have the option to express their common bond to their people, while at the same time acknowledging not only the continuity of the heritage, but also its renewal. The sovereign and egalitarian wedding ceremony constitutes an expression of cultural and democratic Zionism and promotes an egalitarian Jewish Zionist identity that is relevant and vital in present-day Israel. This leaflet is intended to assist couples, culture committees and others to promote this ideal.
The Editorial Board
The Components of the Jewish Wedding Ceremony and Some Ideas for Innovation
Written by Michael Livni, with the assistance of Osnat Elnatan, Doria Pinkas-Naveh and Ofek Meir
We examine here the main components of the Jewish wedding ceremony, and offer some ideas for innovation. We certainly make no claim to exhaust the subject –– indeed, the idea of “exhausting” the field of creativity is a non-sequitur. The ideas presented below have all been implemented in actual wedding ceremonies, but they are presented purely as examples and starting points for further reflection. Our suggestions emphasize an egalitarian ceremony that is not subject to rabbinical or halakhic authority, but which maintains the overall framework of the traditional components of the wedding ceremony. Our approach reflects in part the position presented in the book Dancing At Several Weddings –– see “Further Reading.” It goes without saying that until civil marriages are recognized in Israel, sovereign ceremonies will not be recognized by the current law. Couples interested in registering as married outside Israel, before or after the ceremony, should also consult “Further Reading” below.
The components of the marriage process and ceremony include: Hennah (Hinnah); calling up to the Torah on the Shabbat before the wedding (“Ufruf”); fasting on the wedding day; the Chuppah; the Hakafot; the blessings over the wine; the Betrothal blessings; the act of Kiddushim (with witnesses); breaking a glass; the Ketuba (with witnesses); the Seven Blessings; and the rejoicing of the bride and groom.
Hennah (“Hinnah”): This custom probably has its origins in North Africa. The bridge is traditionally painted with a red powder derived from camphor flowers. In some communities, the women all die each other. The red color is supposed to scare away demons who try to spoil the bride’s joy –– a kind of precursor of the “girls’ night.”
Idea: Hold a hennah party for the bride and groom, instead of the usual “girls’ night.” The party could have two parts, beginning with separate parties for the bridge and groom, in which both are colored with hennah. Then the couple come together for the joint part of the evening.
Calling up to the Torah (before of after the wedding): In egalitarian Judaism, this requires a community where women are also called up to the Torah. If the couple do not wish to hold the ceremony in a synagogue (even an egalitarian non-Orthodox congregation), they might prefer to plan a morning study session focusing on the weekly Torah portion, or any other source they find meaningful, together with friends, parents and relatives. If the weather is agreeable, the study session could be held outdoors. The study might relate to such issues as intimacy, partnership and family.
Fasting –– a personal decision. Fasting can express a type of energy that counters that reflected in the joy of the wedding. One possibility is to allow for a partial fast (the Chuppah is held in the afternoon, so that the couple can complete almost a full day of fasting).
Dress at the wedding ceremony: White symbolizes purity and a fresh start as the couple begin their life together.
Accompanying the couple to the Chuppah: If parents (or adoptive parents) cannot be present, a spiritual mentor or special friends may be chosen. Choosing accompaniers who come from an older generation symbolizes the concept of the link of the generations –– an important concept in Jewish heritage. In a small community, the whole gathering might accompany the couple to the Chuppah.
Idea: The men encircle the groom and the women encircle the bride. The two circles gradually move together, dancing as they come together under the Chuppah.
Who will lead the ceremony? The couple should choose friends –– perhaps friends who are also a couple. In close-knit communities (such as kibbutzim), the cultural committee may provide an appropriate framework. In a sovereign ceremony (as opposed to a rabbinical one), the ceremony need not necessarily be led by a rabbi. However, it should be noted that most rabbis from the non-halakhic streams of Judaism (such as the Progressive movement) will be glad to cooperate in holding an egalitarian ceremony.
Chuppah: A symbol of the “Tent of Consortium” of previous generations. Today, the Chuppah symbolizes the new home and joint life that are about to be formed. The Chuppah can also be seen as Sukkat Shalom –– the tabernacle of peace (“spread over us Your tabernacle of peace,” as we read in the evening prayers). Men and women may play an equal role in holding the poles of the Chuppah.
Hakafot: In the traditional ceremony, the bride encircles the groom on reaching the Chuppah; some traditions say she should do so seven times, while others do so just three times. The groom “makes sure” that she is really his bride and there has been no mistake (recalling the way Jacob was cheated). The Hakafot also symbolize a protective wall. In an egalitarian ceremony, the Hakafot may be planned on an equal footing.
Idea: The Hakafot may be accompanied by appropriate songs or readings.
Blessing the wine: This is a routine part of all festive events, symbolizing joy and plenty, which is why the cup is filled to the brim (even to the point of allowing a little wine to spill over).
The Kiddushim blessing: This point marks the connection between two groups of symbols, ending the period of engagement and opening the wedding ceremony. In previous generations, the engagement and wedding took place in separate ceremonies. Today, the blessings relating to incest and prohibitions do not reflect modern reality. Couples might adopt an alternative blessing: “Blessed are you, Lord [blessed are you, Shechina], who sanctifies Israel [the couple] through Chuppah and Kiddushin.”
The act of Kiddushim: Traditionally, the groom places a ring on the bride’s finger and declares “You are hereby wedded to me by this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel.” The placing of the ring (a custom that seems to have developed in ancient Rome) symbolizes the fact that the women was the property of the man. In most egalitarian ceremonies, the bride and groom each place a ring on each other’s finger, symbolizing their mutual commitment (this is also reflected in the Ketubah –– see below). Two witnesses must hear the Kiddushim. In an egalitarian ceremony, they certainly do not have to be men. The number of witnesses could also be increased to four –– two men and two women.
Breaking the glass: This is only a custom, but one that has become hallowed. The idea is that too much joy is an invitation for demons and the devil. Accordingly, something sad (such as the destruction of the Temple) must be found to distract the evil spirits. The joint statement “If I forget you, Jerusalem…” may be seen as referring not only to the mundane city, but also to ethereal Jerusalem. Couples could also add a sentence such as: “We shall also not forget to continue the act of Creation, working and striving to repair the world, for we have the power to build and to mend, and to bring redemption through our hands.” (Adapted from Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings).
The Ketubah: This is the legal statement of commitment of the husband to the wife (and her family). Although the women in halakhic Judaism is seen as “property,” she is certainly not without rights. In innovative Judaism, the innovation must relate here to the whole concept. Instead of a legal and financial arrangement, the commitment may be perceived as an undertaking to support each other whatever life brings. Both bride and groom sign the undertaking. For example: the Ketubah could include three columns –– the groom’s undertakings, a suitable illustration in the center, and the bride’s undertakings. The Ketubah allows each couple to express their own creativity and ideological approach.
The marriage blessings (Sheva Brachot or Seven Blessings): from a historical perspective, these blessings did not develop during the same period –– only the last two blessings are directly related to the wedding ceremony. However, it is worth noting that the blessings can be seen as forming a single unit. The blessings form a series of circles –– creation in general, creation of humankind, the blessing of joy brought to Zion by means of her sons (and daughters), and lastly the blessings relating to the couple. In the sovereign and egalitarian ceremony, the couple or those running the ceremony may emend or prepare creative versions of the blessings as they see fit. Naturally, those invited to read the blessings can (and should) include both women and men.
Dancing –– rejoicing the bridge and groom: This is the chance for the friends and the community to show initiative and creativity.
Idea: The guests begin in separate circles of men and women; then the circles come together, with the couple in the center. The celebrations may continue with dancing in couples, skits, etc.
Wedding ceremonies as an expression of modern Jewish culture
Gideon Elad *
I would like to propose that the test of the Zionist Jewish community lies in its ability to internalize the new Jewish paradigm. This is also the perspective from which we should examine the subject of this newsletter –– the sovereign Jewish wedding.
The new paradigm includes three components: The Herzlian element, focusing on sovereign political fulfillment (i.e. the state) in order to ensure the existence of the Jewish people; authorization of the Jewish people’s role as a people of the world –– i.e. the Diaspora experience as a permanent phenomenon; and attention to nurturing Judaism as a comprehensive national culture –– not only as a religion, and certainly not as a rabbinical religion, which is only one expression of Jewish creativity.
Integrating these three components is far from automatic. Indeed, it is a revolutionary approach that transcends the classical Zionist distinction between “political Zionism” and “cultural Zionism.” We might liken this to a once-unthinkable blend of Herzl, Dubnov, Herman Cohen, Ahad Ha’am and Mordechai Kaplan.
The “Judaism as culture” of the eternal people (Am Olam), centered on a sovereign political framework, must inevitably be multifaceted, and strive to develop the full range of contemporary Jewish creativity. This implies a range of shades, with secularism at one end and rabbinical Jewish culture at the other. The constructive tension between these positions is the best guarantee of the ongoing vitality of Judaism. The field for this creativity is the single community, or a network of communities engaging in dialogue.
The increasing number of young Israelis seeking to develop alternative marriage ceremonies should be seen in this context. Many young Israelis are “fed up” with the spiritual sterility of halakhic Judaism in its rabbinical form, as imposed by the State –– particularly when it comes to lifecycle events such as circumcision, naming ceremonies for baby girls, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and, for our purposes –– weddings. The problem is that just being “fed up” is equally sterile in spiritual terms.
The test facing the renewed Jewish communities that I believe Chavruta seeks to reflect and represent lies not only in internalizing the productive paradigm with which I began these brief comments, but also in their capacity to transform this sense of being “fed up” into a creative cultural force based on knowledge, identification and an ability to absorb the Jewish classics in the renewed system, as reflected particularly in the adoption of the range of Jewish culture from all generations.
Wedding ceremonies are a good example of the approach we should take: Profound discussion of the symbols to which we feel a strong affinity and which we do not wish to lose –– but which we cannot accept in their archaic form.
* Gideon Elad is an educator and a member of Kibbutz Hatzerim.
Further Reading (in Hebrew)
Israel Religious Action Center: Chofesh Bechira Betekes Hanisu’in
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Editorial board: Editor - Dr. Michael Livni (Kibbutz Lotan); Osnat Elnatan (Kibbutz Tammuz, Beit Shemesh); Binyamin Maor (Hod Hasharon). Articles reflect the authors' opinion only . We welcome typed comments and responses (maximum 250 words).