This is a guest post by Jessica Haselton (above) whose wedding we featured on Smashing The Glass last month
Modern weddings are largely concentrated on the bride. From before the wedding begins to the end of the reception, the bride is principally the focus of our attention. What is her dress like? How will she do her hair? Her makeup?
We’ve so come to accept the bride as the focal point of the wedding, it’s likely never occurred to us – those in attendance, and many of us planning weddings ourselves – that the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony is by and large centered around the groom.
Now, this isn’t to say brides don’t play an integral role. It is that, historically and traditionally, the responsibilities in the wedding ceremony lay with the groom. The traditional Jewish wedding ceremony doesn’t provide the bride with a speaking role. Only the groom takes a vow under the chuppah and places a ring on his betrothed.
But the good news is that there are ways to incorporate more balance and equality into the Jewish wedding ceremony without foregoing any of its timeless and oft-beautiful traditions. If you’re interested in a more equality-driven wedding, I’ve put together a list of five ways to incorporate egalitarianism into your ceremony and elevate your big day!
A cattle-free ketubah
Let’s start with the Jewish marriage contract, the ketubah. Even before you get to the chuppah, you begin laying the foundation of your marriage through your marriage contract. Not all ketubahs are the same – the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Interfaith, Humanistic, Same-Sex texts, and many others, differ widely from one another. For this reason, it is important to take the time to select a text that is representative of you and your partner’s values (and if you need help with ketubah texts, you could contact one of these STG-recommended ketubah designers).
Traditionally, ketubahs are written in Aramaic, and many today still are. I’d like to think mine served as a detailed account of how much cattle my father was willing to fork over in exchange for my hand. Okay, obviously that’s not what my ketubah said. While the ketubah is mostly ‘legalese’, it does codify the commitment the couple is making, and details the rights of the bride and responsibilities of the groom. Unless you were an expert in your Hebrew School’s 6th grade Aramaic class, you should ask to see an English translation of your ketubah so that you know exactly what you’re signing up for.
In Orthodox communities, the ketubah is signed by two male witnesses, in addition to the Rabbi and groom. However, in many other communities, the bride signs the ketubah herself, and can invite female witnesses to sign as well.
When I was going through the text selection process with my then-fiancà© and now husband, Ryan, we selected a Conservative text, which we felt represented our beliefs and celebrated Jewish values while taking a balanced, equal and fair stance.
For example, rather than being referred to as “the virgin-bride” (sorry mom and dad) as laid out in the original Aramaic text, I was referred to instead as just the bride. We also asked to include the Lieberman Clause, which protects women in the case of divorce. I know it’s not what anyone wants to think about when preparing for the happiest day of their life, but it’s an additional sentence that importantly provides you with the right to a Jewish divorce, which remains a struggle for many women in observant communities today.
It’s worth taking the time to familiarize yourself with the text options so that you and your partner root your marriage in mutual understanding. There are good resources online that provide descriptions and explanations of ketubah texts in English, but a Rabbi or friend who’s brushed up on their Aramaic may be a good starting point as well.
A symbolic veiling of the groom
A traditional Ashkenazi Jewish wedding ceremony begins with the ritual of the badeken where the groom veils his bride. The meaning behind this custom differs depending on interpretation and denomination, but it’s a practice that dates back to the Biblical story of Jacob who was tricked by his father-in-law to marry Leah, sister to Rachel, his intended bride. This has led to a long practice of the groom “checking” to make sure his bride is in fact his intended prior to walking down the aisle.
I get it, sort of. When I was planning my wedding this custom was particularly hard for me to wrap my head around. First, it seems like a pretty outdated practice in Western society. Second, veils are pretty transparent as is, so I didn’t see the value of veiling and unveiling. But I digress. Most importantly, it reinforced for me an imbalance and power dynamic – the person who does the checking is the groom, the person being checked, the bride. And it felt oddly transactional for a moment that was supposed to be filled with love and romance.
Knowing this, at my wedding, my friend and Rabbi (a proud feminist) suggested I symbolically veil Ryan, for the sake of equality. And so during the badeken, just after Ryan lifted my veil, I pretended to lift a veil as well so that we both got to “check” that we were standing in front of our intended partner. For a different take, one woman commented on a recent blog post of mine that at her wedding some forty years ago, as her husband veiled her, she wrapped him in a tallit, in an effort to foster more equality (a trailblazer!). Another woman wrote she put a kippah on her husband. Either way, being actively engaged in this moment, rather than passive, helped me appreciate the ritual more fully, and made it feel less transactional, and much more meaningful.
An inclusive circling
Traditionally after being walked down the aisle by her parents, the bride circles the groom seven times. There are many reasons for this — perhaps the most common being that the world was created in seven days so the seven circles symbolize the seven days of creation. But in many contemporary circles you may notice the bride circle the groom three times, the groom circle the bride three times, and the couple join in unison for a final circle together, just before their first blessing under the chuppah.
We did the 3-3-1 approach at my wedding and I highly recommend it. Our friends and family in attendance remarked that the moment felt emblematic of our mutual respect for one another. For me, there was something also particularly spiritual about completing a final circle together before entering the chuppah, which symbolizes a home, and the next chapter of our lives.
Choosing your English translations
The Sheva Brachot, the seven blessings donned on the bride and groom during the ceremony, can take many forms. In Israel, where wedding ceremonies tend to be shorter, the Rabbi may recite all seven alone (and sometimes under one breath). In more progressive circles, the blessings may be given out as honors, and various friends and relatives may approach the chuppah to bestow their blessing on the couple.
Even in more traditional circles, there is no reason why women can’t participate in the sheva brachot. A Rabbi or Cantor can read the Hebrew passages, and the English translations can be read by others.
At our wedding we asked our friend and female Rabbi-in-training to lead the blessings. She recited each one in Hebrew and then we called up a friend or family member to recite in English the corresponding text we selected. This is another place where you’ll find there are many English text options to choose from and likewise another good opportunity to seek out translations that resonate with your values.
Why smash one glass when you can smash two?
The Jewish wedding ceremony concludes with the ritual of the groom stepping on a piece of glass. Okay, more like stomping down hard on a piece of glass. Like everything in Judaism, there are many reasons for this tradition, but the most highly regarded (and moving in my opinion!) is that even in our most joyous and celebratory moments we remember that the world is still shattered and we should strive to make it whole again. In many observant circles, this is a direct homage to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
When I first started writing this I really wasn’t sure how to turn this ritual into a more egalitarian-friendly practice. But in the past few weeks I’ve noticed lots of pictures on the wedding blog-o-sphere of men and women each smashing a glass under the chuppah. I love this idea and wish I had thought of it for my wedding!
If you’re not interested in breaking a piece of glass in your wedding stilettos, and taking the chance that a shard may get stuck in your foot right before the hora begins, there are many other more subtle ways to bring an egalitarian perspective to your wedding day. For instance, in honor of the guests who attended our wedding, we made a donation to a nonprofit organization that works to empower women and marginalized communities around the world. I know many women today are keeping their maiden names, and even some grooms are taking up their wives’ last names. I had one friend who took her husband’s last name, and in exchange, her took her maiden name as his middle name.
There are many ways to keep alive the traditions and values that are important to the Jewish wedding ceremony while playing a more active role in it. I hope that by sharing some of these egalitarian approaches we can make the Jewish wedding ceremony a little more balanced and more inclusive of both the bride and the groom.
I would love to hear from you what ideas you incorporated or plan to incorporate to make your wedding more equality-driven. Please share them with the Smashing the Glass community below!
About the author: Jessica (Risch) Haselton is a recent bride and guest contributor to Smashing the Glass. She is from Santa Monica, California, where she lives with her husband, Ryan. Jessica is a social entrepreneur, frequent traveler, and beach-goer. She currently works for a national education-focused foundation where she helps make grants to organizations providing educational opportunities and building career pathways in underserved communities.