May 21, 2010

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Friends, this evening we are celebrating Shabbat as Melanie and Richard Blitz will be hosting our Oneg in honor and gratitude of their 35th wedding anniversary. Earlier this week one of the more precocious Nursery School children came up to Richard and asked: “Did you know that in some parts of Africa a man doesn’t know his wife until he marries her?” Without missing a beat, Richard quickly responded, “Why single out Africa?” Marriage is indeed a continual revelation of one person to the other … In truth, while speaking with Melanie and Richard about tonight, theirs is a deep and abiding love, the kind of love that grows and deepens over the years, forged by triumphs and challenges.

Part of my joy as your rabbi is performing weddings, particularly for the children of the congregation, now grown into adulthood, many of whom I have known from their earliest years. In the next few weeks I will be conducting four such ceremonies. So, with those in mind and with the context of this Shabbat, I thought it might be a good opportunity to speak on the Mitzvah of Marriage from a variety of perspectives.

From the Gates of Mitzvah, published by the CCAR, written by Rabbi Peter Knobel we learn: “It is a mitzvah for a Jew to marry and to live together with his/her spouse in a manner worthy of the traditional Hebrew designation for marriage- Kiddushin- set apart for each other in a sanctified relationship. In Judaism the decision to marry implies a willingness to enter wholeheartedly into a sacred covenant with another person.” (p. 29)

Like many mitzvot, no where in Torah does it actually say that you have to marry. In truth it is no sin to be single. Still, marriage is the norm. The starting points for marriage are the statements in the Book of Genesis Chapter 2. First God comments, “Lo tov heyot ha-adam l’vado- it is not good for a person to be alone. I will make a helpmate. (18) and then later concludes, “So it is that a man/woman will leave his father and mother and cleave unto his/her spouse.” (24) Hence the institution of marriage is designed for men and women to be with one another, support one another, as they separate from parental ties. We call this growing up, not that one discards parents at marriage, but there is a significant reorientation as a new generation prepares to continue the cycle of life through love.

I thought you might be interested to know my process for dealing with marriage and the Jewish ceremony that I conduct. My technical title when it comes to marriage is the “M’sader kiddushin.” I am the person who sets the order of the Kiddushin rituals, which set a couple apart from all others according to Jewish tradition. I consider this a great responsibility as well as pleasure.

However, my first concern is not what happens on the day of the wedding, but more upon the days, weeks and years after the wedding. And so I conduct multi-session pre-marital counseling meetings, based upon a program in which I have been trained. During these discussions we cover issues such as communication, conflict resolution, goals and values, personality challenges, sexuality, Jewish genetic diseases about which couples should be aware, creating a Jewish home and much more. Most couples find these talks enjoyable and helpful.

And of course we cover the wedding itself, inclusive of the meaning behind the rituals, much of which links bride and groom to a variety of aspects of Jewish history.

A typical wedding ritual begins with what we think of as pre-ceremonies. Prior to walking down the aisle, we usually have a Bedecken and Ketubah signing. As opposed to non-Jewish weddings, bride and groom do see one another before the chuppah. First is the Bedecken, where the groom places a veil over the bride’s face, just as Rebecca wore a veil prior to uniting with Isaac. The groom also ensures that this is in fact the correct bride, lest he make Jacob’s mistake of marrying the wrong sister. In an egalitarian way, I also confirm with the bride that this is the right groom. As Rebecca was blessed by her family, I invite the parents of the couple to offer words of blessing at this juncture.

Then we sign the Ketubah. Traditionally, this was a legal document inclusive of terms for dowry and essentially contracted the bride from her father’s house to her husband in a patriarchal society, signed by two witnesses not related to either bride or groom. Our Ketubah is a statement of equal commitment of husband to wife in the context of creating a Jewish home. Today there are magnificent artistic expressions available on line, not the simple certificate that I imagine Richard and Melanie received years ago from Rabbi Share.

Now it is time for the wedding to begin. Participants will proceed down the aisle to the chuppah, which is a reminder of Sarah’s tent and the Jewish home that the couple is committed to create. There are many customs as to who walks down the aisle and in what order, but in truth no absolute rules. After all is said and done we need the rabbi, bride and groom to arrive. All else are nice, but not required.

Many have seen the tradition of bride circling the groom either seven times or three. This has multiple explanations, but primarily reflects the old concept that the bride is leaving the parental orbit and entering into her husbands. There is also a nicer concept that she is building an invisible wall around the new couple entity. The number of times links to different verses of the Bible. Today, if my couples circle at all, each will circle the other three times and then united, circle once and proceed to the chuppah, with the bride standing to the groom’s right, according to a verse in the Psalms.

Now we really begin. We welcome bride and groom and can proceed with the Kos Erusin. I say “can proceed,” since some couples choose to skip this Cup of Betrothal. Its roots are in a time when betrothal was a formal process with strict rules concerning contact between bride and groom, which no one kept. So, the rabbis merged two separate ceremonies. Still, we do this to mark the idea that couples are engaged and now committed to one another in all ways.

Next come vows and rings. In truth the vows are purely a modern insertion. This is where bride and groom respond, “I do” to a pledge, usually “to love, honor and cherish one another through good fortune and adversity and to seek together with the other a life hallowed by the faith of Israel.” It is not unusual today for couples to create their own vows.

What is more significant from the Jewish perspective will be the exchange of rings. This is the key legal aspect of the Jewish wedding ceremony. The groom will place the ring, which historically is symbolic of the support that will be forthcoming for the bride upon her right index finger (not the ring finger). The lore is that there is a vein that leads to the heart, but practically, she can publicly show all in attendance that it has been bestowed upon her.

Today all of my brides and grooms wear rings and then recite: “Harei at/atta mekudeshet/m’kudash – With this ring, be consecrated unto me as my husband/wife in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.”

This is followed by the sheva brachot, seven wedding blessings, essentially a seven part toast to the couple with the Kos Kiddushin, the cup of sanctification. The blessings commence with blessing the wine, then expand to bless humanity, men and women coming together, the reality that this couple is unique, such that there never has been a couple like them since Adam and Eve. Then it focuses upon the fact that they are married in the context of a Jewish community which celebrates their joy and culminates in multiple forms of good wishes for the happiness and fulfillment of the couple. The couple will then drink from the cup of wine, often sharing it with parents.

As we near the end of the ceremony, I will publicly read the Ketubah, pronounce the couple married according to both Jewish and civil law, and pause for a moment of silent prayer on their behalf, followed by the Priestly Blessing, found in this week’s Torah portion… “May God bless you and keep you.”

Then comes everyone’s favorite ritual, the breaking of the glass. With multiple explanations available, we realize this is simply a custom, but a very popular one. No, it has nothing to do with being the last time the groom gets to put his foot down in the marriage. Rather, it links to shattering moments, either historically linked such as the destruction of the Temples of Jerusalem, or personal moments that will occur in life. My take is the hope that there will be few, but when they occur, the love that is consecrated that day will fortify the couple for all such occasions.

Bride and groom then kiss and go off for a few moments to be alone, known as yichud. Traditionally, this was to break the fast that they had been on prior to the wedding and consummate the marriage, which along with the ketubah and the exchange of rings are the three different ways that one technically can marry in Judaism. Realistically this is a moment for the couple to catch their breath and enjoy some brief intimacy in what otherwise is a very public day.

Our hope is that they will live happily ever after. Of course we know the reality is otherwise. The divorce rate amongst Jews is probably not that different from the rest of the population, somewhere between 40-50%. I have not done an absolute study, but I believe my success rate among couples is approximately 75%, but I take no credit. It has more to do with the couples with whom I am privileged to officiate.

When speaking of marriage in the Jewish community, of course there is always discussion of interfaith marriage. A recent headline in our Times Picayune read: “Reform Rabbis Embrace Intermarriage- New position meshes with growing trend.” The headline was actually somewhat misleading if you read the article. For the past three years a Task Force on the Challenges of Intermarriage for the Reform Rabbi, consisting of a spectrum of well respected members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, some of whom do and others who do not perform interfaith ceremonies, explored the many facets of how Reform rabbis can best respond to the reality of interfaith marriage. This study did not rescind the long held resolution on the performance of interfaith marriage, which would have been highly divisive. Rather it focuses on the many different paths that rabbis can positively pursue to interfaith couples who are part of our Reform Jewish community. This includes everything from simple sensitivity to finding ways of respectful inclusion, while maintaining Jewish integrity and respect for the beliefs that others hold.

While we open the door to the possibility of conversion for the non-Jewish partner at some time, that is not something we should or do push. Education about Judaism? Yes. Encouragement to convert? No. That is up to the individual should he or she ever so choose. At Gates of Prayer we already incorporate much of what has been suggested by the study in our culture.

As many of you know I am among the majority of rabbis who do not perform interfaith marriage ceremonies. If you reflect upon how I have described that ritual this evening, I think you can see how it would not be appropriate unless both partners are committed, not only to each other, but to Judaism. My position is not a judgment on the couple, but based upon how I see my appropriate role as a m’sader kiddushin and rabbi.  In response to the request to be involved with an interfaith couple and their wedding, I do not simply turn them away, but instead offer alternatives. First, I provide pre-marital counseling as I do for all couples. Marriage is a holy opportunity and I am willing to guide them towards success. I also assist couples to create loving, meaningful ceremonies, which will incorporate themes that the couple fully share, love, family, friendship and faith, but not those they do not. Then I help them find an officiator who can conduct the ceremony. Is it the same as a Jewish wedding with a chuppah and breaking the glass? No. Those symbols have specific Jewish meaning, thus not reflective of whom the couple is, but it can be a lovely, spiritual ceremony.

Many studies on interfaith couples and their subsequent involvement in Jewish life have shown that the wedding alone is not a significant indicator of future commitment. Rather, how they are treated and how synagogues provide programming, policies and opportunities to feel comfortable are more important. I believe we do a pretty good job of that here, but can always do better and welcome input.

Friends, all weddings begin with hopes and dreams. Many are fulfilled, some shattered. For the successful marriages, couples learn to adjust, change and grow, continually nurturing the relationship. On this Shabbat we celebrate one couple and their marriage, as we honor all couples who participate in the mitzvah of marriage.