Do you take this..?

As regular readers of this blog may have noticed, we had a wedding in the family recently. And it was just absurdly gorgeous, from the warm autumnal sun slanting through the trees to the beatific happiness that transformed all the faces.

It was a Jewish ceremony, with chuppah (the canopy,) the broken wine-glass (said to symbolize the destruction of Jerusalem, although one suspects a far more primal sort of symbolic breakage lurking beneath,) ketuvah (a contract, written in Hebrew on parchment, describing among other things how many sheep the bride’s family gets if the marriage breaks down) and all. I found the most moving moment that in which the groom raises his tallit (prayer shawl) over his new wife as they shelter together beneath it, turning their backs on everyone but the rabbi. This is, I’d suppose, a version of the tradition of sending the couple off to a room by themselves for a few minutes, but either way, it is a clear statement that these two people now form a unit of their own, thank you very much.

And yet, any traditional wedding ceremony makes for an interesting challenge to a thoughtful feminist. The bride is quite clearly (sorry, hon) a commodity, with the ceremony a contractual agreement linking two groups of people—or rather, two groups of men. The two mothers light the candles and then shut up. The bride’s father/brother/uncle delivers her to the groom, in the presence of his family and a (male) supervisor of contracts. The men read the blessings (although in this case, one mother read a translation) and the men sign as witnesses. Fortunately we (and the bride) were spared the traditional carrying of the bride around on a chair, when the men raise their new possession for all to see.

However, don’t get me wrong. I don’t object to the ceremony. No matter the trappings, no matter the men given (or, claiming) the glory, the bedrock meaning of the wedding ritual is this: It’s the woman who matters. The real power, the true authority, is in that young female person the men imagine they’re exchanging. But like fond mothers who listen to their kids laying claim to objects and abilities far beyond any child’s control (like the two kids here on Saturday who solemnly built a house for Medusa), the mothers of the people involved know quite well that it’s all a nice show, and makes the men feel important, which is good for them.

But we know where the ultimate power lies, in a wedding ceremony. And it ain’t with the boys.

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  1. The Zelkaim on November 12, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Hey, at least I was a HOT commodity! ;0)

  2. elleemmiss on November 12, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    Here, here!

  3. Antigonos on November 13, 2007 at 2:47 am

    Laurie, you got some of the basics quite wrong, sorry!
    The ketubah guarantees financial security to the bride should the marriage end (in most cases). Judaism has always permitted divorce (and in certain cases, mandates it. If the husband can’t sexually satisfy his wife, she has grounds for divorce). The marriage vow (yes, traditionally made by the man only) does not mention “purchase” at all: Behold you are CONSECRATED to me by the laws of Moses and Israel. You’re right that the first Mishna of Kiddushin does use the word “purchased” (“a woman is purchased by money, contract, or sexual intercourse”) but in fact the concept of purchase ended very early, since the Sages made it clear that the only acceptable way of performing a marriage was by contract. And I presume you were being somewhat tongue-in-cheek about the sheep. However, here in Israel, the rabbinate take the amount of money specified in the ketubah VERY seriously in divorce proceedings.

    Jewish marriage ritual is very, very old. There was NO independent life for women outside of their families in that age. There isn’t any real reason why the bride doesn’t say the same phrase to the man, and many rabbis, even Orthodox ones, don’t care if she does or doesn’t, or gives the groom a ring, because it doesn’t affect anything: by Jewish law, that the groom has done so means the legal requirement has been fulfilled. (In point of fact, the marriage is not regarded as complete until the couple have had a few minutes alone with each other–yichud–after the ceremony. Of course, we know what USED to happen during those few minutes, but nowadays it’s all very “civilized” ) I think you’re right about breaking the glass.

    Mothers-in-laws lighting candles is not at all traditional, and is, I guess, a sop to the families. AFAIK, in Christian weddings there is no direct participation bythe parents of the couple getting married, is there? In fact, I think it’s rather nice that everyone is together under the chuppah.

    As to the women being in charge in reality, I hope the groom now reads “Eshet chayil, mi yimtzah” (“A woman of virtue, who will find”) to his wife every Friday night from now on…and everyone knows Yiddishe Mommas aren’t wimps 🙂

    In any case, mazel tov!

  4. Kerry on November 13, 2007 at 8:12 pm

    I love traditional ceremonies of many and varied stripes, even while I often decry the reality beneath the symbolism. As far as I can tell, marriage in most cultures has always been about economics, with the bride (and her child-bearing capacity) a definite commodity. Whether the arrangement was about cementing political alliances or garnering wealth for one or another of the families involved or simply assuring the man that ensuing children were his and not someone else’s, it’s hard for me to envision that women (historically) were in charge of much of anything. I’m really glad that’s changed, at least for some of us. And I think it’s great that the Jewish tradition includes explicit provision for the wife in case of divorce (as long as it’s the wife who gets the funds, and not her family . . .).

    None of that, of course, would have stopped me from weeping buckets at the ceremony you’ve so beautifully described, Laurie (heck, I nearly did the same watching my daughter play Tzeitel in her high school production of Fiddler on the Roof!). It sounds absolutely lovely, rich with meaning for everyone. As Antigonos said, mazel tov!

  5. corgimom on November 13, 2007 at 11:16 pm

    I went to the full military version of this ceremony, which included the service “buddies” swatting the bride with their swords as she left with her new husband. Think I would have preferred the chair bit.
    I agree that the ceremony as blessed by the happiness of all present was lovely!

  6. jmehringer on November 14, 2007 at 11:32 am

    Nice description. When it’s male v. female, I always remember that it’s the rooster that crows, but it’s the hen that delivers the goods.

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