Reclaiming Egalitarian Jewish Wedding Customs

 Jessica Rosenberg

Illustration of abstract figures lined up along the aisle of a wedding, with the central couple surrounded by light

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj.

 

Among many contemporary American Jews, there exists a significant gap in meaningful Jewish involvement between the life cycle events of the bat or bar mitzvah and the wedding. Only 15 percent of American Jewry considers being Jewish a matter of religion.1 This means that the wedding will often be a liberal Jew’s first public declaration of their Jewish identity or religion since childhood.2 When thinking about this gap in the American Jewish experience alongside the American wedding industry, the contemporary Jewish wedding sits at a crossroads between tradition and trend. In many cases, decisions about the ritual and religious elements of the wedding are deferred to the rabbi or religious movement and not given much thought; couples prefer to write their own vows rather than curate their own Jewish ceremony, devoting their time and resources to other decisions about guests, venue, entertainment, and speeches.

There is a communal understanding of what a contemporary Jewish wedding—with all its necessary symbols and rituals—entails. These wedding customs do date back many centuries, or perhaps millennia, but their roots are not just traditional, they are also patriarchal. The choreography, words, and objects used in wedding ceremonies are all endowed with the ancient understanding that a wedding is a transfer of property, and the standard of this property value is a virgin—ideally, with a full intact hymen (Mishnah Ketubbot 1). The most recognizable symbols included in a Jewish wedding today, the huppah (canopy) and the breaking of the glass, are actually impossible to understand without understanding marriage traditionally as the acquisition of a woman, and a woman’s value as inexorably tied to her virginity status.3

Our modern-day incorporations of the huppah, breaking the glass, the ketubah (marriage contract), and even the processional, or “walk down the aisle,” are millennia-old traditions steeped in the notion of woman as property—first her father’s and then, with the completion of the wedding, her husband’s. Each custom and ritual that creates the wedding ceremony is fraught with this language, imagery, and symbolism:

The bridal procession—as old as the Bible—was originally the actual transference of the bride to her husband’s home, and the chuppah, or canopy, under which Jewish marriages are still celebrated, was in ancient time either the canopied litter occupied by the bride during the procession, or the actual apartment to which the married couple retired when the wedding had been solemnized.4

Today’s Jewish bridal procession has also largely been assimilated into contemporary American norms. It is usually a restrained and reverent moment during which the bride is preceded down the aisle by modern-day shushvinim (bridesmaids and groomsmen), and is then escorted down the aisle, either by her father or by both her parents. In front of a rapt audience, the bride is met before the huppah by her groom and handed off by her parents or father; then her groom escorts her underneath the huppah. The audience stands, literally, in witness to this moment and is seated once the couple is situated beneath the huppah, ready to complete the acts of kiddushin and nisuin—the marriage ceremony.

The majority of young, liberal, American Jewish women today consider it of utmost importance to create and maintain an egalitarian relationship—before and after marriage.

While there has been a lot of work done by contemporary liberal Jewish movements to create more egalitarian Jewish weddings,5 the core meanings of these elements are often overlooked. The majority of young, liberal, American Jewish women today consider it of utmost importance to create and maintain an egalitarian relationship—before and after marriage. But considered less are the deep implications of the rituals that create the transformational moment that changes a single woman to a married wife. Is it possible to have a modern Jewish wedding replete with these iconic rituals and customs that still reflects contemporary, egalitarian, feminist values—the very values many modern Jewish identities are built upon?

Rather than create new rituals that continue to move us further away from our ancestors’ minhagim (customs), and which would no longer serve contemporary Jewish identities, I suggest instead that we look to the innovations made in the minhagim of Jewish communities of the Middle Ages and early modern period. These communities were facing some challenges similar to those confronting American Jewry today: they were minority communities in Catholic, Christian, or Muslim majority countries facing anti-Semitism and fearing cultural assimilation. Taking cues from their Jewish knowledge and local culture, they established customs that evolved but remained within the bounds of halakhah (Jewish law) and Jewish tradition. I propose a reclaiming of old traditions that have mostly fallen out of use in the United States6—thereby allowing the generations who came before us to guide the generations to come.

The European Jewish communities of medieval and early modern times can point us toward a meaningful reclaiming of traditional rituals and customs for the modern Jewish wedding. In Marriage Rituals Italian Style, Roni Weinstein provides the historical basis for this idea:

Studies of Ashkenazi Jews revealed highly surprising findings on the importance of custom. Even in the prestigious yeshivot of Mainz and Worms, where the hermeneutical traditions of the tosafists developed, custom was foremost in religious life and sometimes more authorittive for religious praxis than talmudic study.7

Traditionally, the marriage ceremony did not begin at the huppah (at the synagogue or the bridal/event house), but rather at the homes of the bride and groom. They would be escorted individually to the huppah by shushvinim, relatives, and the whole community in a ceremony known in early modern Ashkenaz as the meien. The shushvinim are a perfect example of a ritual innovation from early Judaism that holds a different, but still functional, ritual role in the modern Jewish wedding.8

Though the cultural evolution of the contemporary wedding ritual has taken us backwards in time—to an understanding of marriage as acquisition, the virgin bride as property, and marriage as the act that, both literally and metaphorically, moves the bride from the house of her father to the house of her husband—this understanding is less present in the European Jewish minhagim. In fact, as Maurice Lamm points out, “There is no expression in all of Jewish tradition of the bride walking with her father only, as a symbol of the father ‘giving away’ the bride.”9

The contemporary bridal procession can be reimagined using the meien custom. We know of it from the seferei haminhag of the seventeenth-century Rabbi Schammes and the sixteenth-century Rabbi Moelin (best known as the Maharil), both of whom detailed the customs of the Jewish communities of Worms, Germany. The bridal procession in these communities was a communal act that occurred at daybreak—a time of transition—by the light of torches and the music of the klezmerim (klezmer musicians). Music was so integral to the atmosphere of the wedding ceremony for the Maharil that he did not allow weddings to take place without it.10 The Maharil details his community’s pre-wedding ceremony:

At dawn on Friday, when the beadle called the people to prayer, he summoned the bridegroom to the Meien ceremony, The Rabbi led the way with the bridegroom to the courtyard of the synagogue, and a crowd of people followed, brandishing lighted torches and playing on musical instruments. Having escorted the bridegroom, the torch-bearers and musicians retraced their steps and soon returned with the bride and her company. When she reached the entrance of the courtyard, the Rabbi and other notables brought the bridegroom forward to receive her. He took her hand, and . . . they stood there clasped together. . . .”11

The physical movement of the couple from each of their homes to the huppah created the liminal space where the bride was no longer of her father’s house and was not yet of her husband’s house.12 Thus, the meien custom and bridal processions of the Middle Ages and early modern period created, in effect, a suspension of typical gender and communal norms. When considering the roots of these rituals in biblical texts, the Mishnah and the Talmud, it becomes clear how innovative these rituals were at the times they came into being. By reiterating and reframing the customs that formed the boundaries of women’s ownership and value, these communities began to push against certain foundational ideas. And because of a community’s investment in its own customs, a liminal space was created in the halakhic place that previously was not present. Opening this liminal space within the minhag made it possible for the woman to be seen, for the first and only time, in her own right—something that is lost in the contemporary Jewish bridal procession.

The procession as currently practiced creates a divide between ceremony and celebration, between before and after the marriage, whereas the meien creates a liminal space of transition.

Two distinct features from the meien should be particularly emphasized when reclaiming and reinstituting this bridal procession ritual in contemporary Jewish weddings: community involvement and joy. The meien procession would not be possible without the involvement of the greater community—from the klezmer musicians to the torchbearers, from the relatives to the shushvinim. The entire community involved in the wedding creates the custom and the ceremony itself. The contemporary Jewish wedding procession lacks the involvement of the full community and the participation of all attendees: only a select few family members and friends participate. The procession as currently practiced creates a divide between ceremony and celebration, between before and after the marriage, whereas the meien creates a liminal space of transition. With this ritual, our ancestors show us that this separation within the wedding ceremony is an unnecessary modern construction.

The contemporary Jewish community in the United States can reclaim these rituals and endow them not only with contemporary progressive meanings, but also with the localized meanings from the times of the custom’s creation—enabling seeing a woman, if just for a moment, in between her attachments to men.

The literal translation of meien is to increase merriment.13 The joy and celebration for all involved in the wedding can start (as it did in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Worms) before brachot (blessings) are made, rings are exchanged, and yichud (seclusion, or time alone for the newly married couple) completes the marriage ritual; the joy and celebration was, literally, taken through the streets, from within the couples’ family homes toward the huppah—from the private to the public. The joy of the married couple is the joy of the community, and vice versa. While few contemporary couples get married in locations that would allow for a full reenactment of this ritual, the meien can easily be restaged within the wedding venue. If the entire wedding is involved in the procession of the bride and groom, the chosen community of the couple participates in the act of creating the marriage, increasing joy for the couple and the community. This custom, physically and metaphorically, can create a more egalitarian space in which the bride and groom are wed—not as an act of acquisition but as an enactment of partnership and participation within community.

Weinstein underscores the importance of having the community bear witness to all ritual aspects of the wedding, in addition to the ceremony itself:

The community is considered a basic source of legitimation in the validation of the marriage. Conducting the ritual according to halakhic instructions, then, is not sufficient; without the community’s tacit agreement to the marriage and the acceptance of the new couple, the ritual is not complete.14

Contemporary weddings are occasions for family and community joy, as they have been for millennia. As our conceptions of marriage and gender norms continue to evolve, so must our wedding rituals. The Jewish wedding is ripe for a new iteration of its rituals, just as it was for our ancestors. Historically, Jewish wedding traditions have been inexorably tied to the patriarchal concepts of marriage as acquisition and in the valuation of women based on her virginity. By claiming the meien as a traditional and innovative wedding procession, the contemporary American Jewish community will again be creating this liminal space in the ceremony, enabling a wedding’s customs and rituals to stand for more egalitarian values and allowing women’s own identities to be fully recognized as they engage in this important life transition.

 

Notes:

  1. Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans (Pew Research Center, 2013).
  2. “Liberal” here does not refer to political leanings but to religious affiliation—to Jews who identify as non-Orthodox (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, nondenominational, renewal, etc.).
  3. Daniel Sperber, The Jewish Life Cycle: Custom, Lore and Iconography; Jewish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave (Bar-Ilan University Press; Oxford University Press, 2008).
  4. Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1911), 192–93.
  5. Anita Diamant, The Jewish Wedding Now (Scribner, 2017).
  6. Traditional/Orthodox Jewish weddings in the U.S., Israel, and around the world often retain certain elements of the customs discussed in this article.
  7. Roni Weinstein, Marriage Rituals Italian Style: A Historical Anthropological Perspective on Early Modern Italian Jews (Brill, 2004), 462.
  8. In the Talmudic period, the role of shushvinim (see Nissan Rubin, Time and Life Cycle in Talmud and Midrash: Socio-Anthropological Perspectives [Academic Studies Press, 2008]) is one of a male guardian to both the bride and groom through the betrothal period.
  9. Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage (Jonathan David Publishers, 1991), 212.
  10. Sidney Steiman, Custom and Survival: A Study of the Life and Work of Rabbi Jacob Molin (Moelln) known as the Maharil (c.1360–1427), and His Influence in Establishing the Ashkenazic Minhag (Customs of German Jewry) (Bloch Pub., 1963), 49.
  11. From Sefer Maharil, in Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, 204.
  12. Rubin, Time and Life Cycle in Talmud and Midrash, 105. Note that Rubin is discussing the bridal processions from the times of the Babylonian Talmud; I believe his theory regarding the procession creating liminal space is applicable to the much later meien custom and is perhaps even a better example.
  13. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, 204, has “to make merry.”
  14. In his detailing of Italian Jewish wedding customs, Weinstein explains that the weddings often took place in the home of the groom. The bride would process into the groom’s city before the entire city’s population. Weinstein, Marriage Rituals Italian Style, 464.
 

Jessica Rosenberg is a second year master of divinity student at Harvard Divinity School interested in the future of ritual and American Jewish life. She has previously worked with Jewish organizations in New York, Israel, and Krakow, Poland.

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