Jewish weddings don’t need God

Crossposted to Jewschool.

How did the creation of this new blog, JTA’s The Life Cyclist, pass me by?

At The Life Cyclist, Dasee Berkowitz (full disclosure–I know her) writes:

As a Jewish life cycle consultant who guides couples and families toward creating meaningful ceremonies, I am presented with all sorts of creative, sometimes puzzling requests from couples planning their weddings.

One client had a particularly interesting request — a Jewish wedding ceremony that left God out of it.

Apparently, the couple in question are scientists–which Dasee informs us of as though that should explain why they’re atheists, reinforcing a dichotomy I’m far from comfortable with. The point is, the are atheists, but they both feel connected to their Jewish heritage. They want a Jewish wedding, but they want God to stay out of it.

Their request made me wonder: While adapting a Jewish life cycle event to reflect a couples’ lived values makes the event meaningful for them, does altering it by leaving God out undermine what makes it Jewish in the first place?

Maybe this an obvious question to many, but to me it seems odd. Is the presence of God in a wedding ceremony what makes it Jewish? Obviously, that can’t be the only thing that makes it Jewish. Many wedding ceremonies involving non-Jews include God. So that must not be Berkowitz’s point.

I’d argue that what makes a Jewish wedding Jewish is a commitment on the part of the two people being joined to keep a Jewish household and raise Jewish children. Of course, that can’t be the whole purpose either. Lots of groups have weddings in which it is assumed or required that the happy couple will raise children in whatever tradition that group has. What gives a Jewish wedding its Jewish character and content is treating it like a legal arrangement.

As a liberal, modernist Jew, I wouldn’t want my wedding’s legal content to be my acquisition of my wife from her family. However, the ceremony’s legal character is still important to me. I would treat it, as I think many do these days, as a mutually binding contract in which my wife and would acquire each other, so to speak.

In thinking about the content and character of Jewish wedding, God is far from my mind. In the Torah, God has nothing to say about weddings or marriage. Marriage in the Torah is a human construction. God expects us to marry, Genesis suggests, but we arrange the marriages ourselves. Unlike a ritual like prayer, where God is inherent, the wedding ceremony seems to employ God only as part of a Jewish ritual idiom. God appears not as God, but as part of our dominant idiom.

Would a Jewish wedding still be Jewish wedding without God? I think so.

Read the whole post here.

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12 responses to “Jewish weddings don’t need God

  1. I think there are many people would argue that what makes a Jewish wedding Jewish is merely the fact that it’s two Jews marrying each other in a ceremony that doesn’t have any explicitly un-Jewish components.

    Of course, the legal and ritual components add the Jewish flavour, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many people from a certain generation that is preoccupied primarily or entirely with “Jewish continuity” and with preventing the “impending demise” of the Jewish people would be satisfied Jewishly as long as the wedding was between two Jews and didn’t involve Jesus.

  2. I can throw a lot of random thoughts at David’s question, without being sure what they add up to. But I am certain that I don’t like Jesse’s definition. A wedding at City Hall uniting two Jews would fit his criterion, but would not be a Jewish wedding, whereas a wedding in a synagogue, where one of the partners is not Jewish, would be.

    I remember attending one wedding where the officiant was a Humanist rabbi, and he diligently kept God out of the English, but still used Baruch Atah Adonai. Does that count? Anyway, a Humanist rabbi would seem to be the answer for this couple. They could thus have the ritual symbolism without any “offensive” God verbiage — the chuppah, the presentation of the ring (are there any single-ring ceremonies these days?), the breaking of the glass, and the officiation of a rabbi. And of course, for the conventionally religious, God will be there whether S/He is invited or not, invoked or not.

    David suggests that a Jewish wedding is characterized by a commitment to keep a Jewish household. That seems to be a commitment exacted from interfaith couples seeking a Jewish wedding, but when both parties are Jewish, the likelihood is that the Jewish household is an expectation, and thus not a verbal commitment.

    • So Larry, your definition of Jewish wedding is “a wedding with at least one Jewish party in a synagogue”?

      I got the sense from the post that translating around the issue wasn’t gonna be enough for this couple. And I think it’s an intellectually cheap way to achieve what they want anyway.

      Good point about the interfaith couples. I guess I meant in my definition that the commitment has to be there in some way, implicit or explicit. I think what I was thinking most of was the Reform conversion ceremony that I know well, where the rabbi asks if the ger tezedek will promise to keep a Jewish home and raise Jewish children.

  3. I may have been a little to quick in my comment. Looking back at it, I’m also unsatisfied with that definition (which I don’t hold as my own), and it’s probably not entirely fair of me to assume how others may define a Jewish wedding. It’s just a semi-educated guess, I suppose.

    My “ideal” wedding scenario is between two Jews in a synagogue with Jewish ritual and legal components.

    I think there may be an element of contradiction in the second scenario Larry surmised, where the wedding takes place in a synagogue, and one of the partners is not Jewish. In this scenario, why bother with the legal rituals when they apply to only one of the partners? Certainly, love and respect of one another’s religious traditions is a factor here, but in this case one of the people may only be going through the motions for the sake of the wedding. Again – this is only a hypothesis. I can’t speak for the personal intentions of others.

    If the soon-to-be-intermarried couple is going to bother with a Jewish wedding in the first place, why wouldn’t the non-Jewish spouse convert beforehand? If they don’t intend to live a Jewish life down the road, why be a partner to a Jewish wedding?

    Again, because I understand this can be a very controversial issue that involves deeply personal choices, I don’t want to risk passing judgement on others. I’m just playing with this hypothetical scenario here. But of course, it’s not entirely hypothetical, as it’s a very real reality for much of Judaism today…

    And a final, full disclosure: both my grandmothers converted to Judaism before they were married.

    • I’ll defer the question of why have a Jewish wedding in which on partner is not (yet) Jewish to my parents. Are y’all reading? They got married in a Jewish wedding before my mother converted.

      • Jesse, some people are able to see their future lives in a more deliberate and planned way than I can personally imagine. I had no vision of having a Jewish household, raising a Jewish child, or living a Jewish life because I’d never spent much time around Jews. If I’d have agreed to that before the wedding, it would have been a hollow promise.

        So what was the initial reason for this particular couple to have a Jewish wedding? It was very important to the parents of the Jew, and not at all offensive to the non-Jew.

        The benefit was that the Jew’s parents and extended family had an image of the couple under the huppah to hang onto, no matter what they thought about the Jewishness of the marriage. That image helped them accept the marriage and kept alive their hope for a Jewish household.

        Because they were able to be warm and welcoming–even somewhat enticing–with that image in their minds, Judaism seemed more interesting, possible, and attractive to the non-Jew, who eventually converted enthusiastically and intentionally.

        Oh, and another outcome of that Jewish wedding is the author of this blog! How much more concrete evidence would you need that intermarriage starting with a Jewish ceremony can work out for the best?

        This may be anecdotal evidence, but the numbers are pretty convincing; this is not an isolated or even unusual story.

  4. David, I think the primary motivation for us was that it was extremely important to my parents. At the time, I was very disengaged from the Jewish community. But a Jewish wedding was the way to get my parents “buy-in.” I don’t want to put words in your mom’s mouth, but I suspect that the kind way in which the rabbi discussed this with us became an open door that made her feel more comfortable and perhaps was a small step that led the way to conversion.

  5. I did not mean to suggest that a Jewish wedding had to take place in a synagogue. My own first Jewish wedding took place in my mother-in-law’s home, and my second Jewish wedding took place in my mother-in-law’s club. Moreover, the first wedding was not under a chuppah, nor did we break a glass. However, I still think my definition of the elements of a Jewish wedding holds up — chuppah, ring, broken glass, and rabbi — whether at home, shul, or hotel/club.

    Glenda and Harold have answered Jesse’s questions more effectively than I could. I have always been opposed to the idea of rabbis officiating at the weddings of non-Jews, and would probably not have joined my current congregation if the rabbis had been doing so. When they subsequently changed their positions and began accepting interfaith wedding gigs, I understood although I did not agree with their reasoning — which boiled down to the opportunity to create a Jewish home where otherwise there might not be one.

    But the conversation has drifted away from the original question, about keeping God out of the ceremony. Ben Gurion kept God out of the declaration of independence of the state of Israel, accepting the invocation of Tzur Yisrael, Rock of Israel. (Better he should have accepted God language and disempowered the frummies.) So all things considered, I have no problem with what this couple wants, as long as they can find a rabbi who can make it work for them and for him/herself.

  6. I would argue that a Jewish wedding is defined by intention–if it is the intention of both parties to have a Jewish wedding, then whatever ceremony they devise is in some sense a Jewish wedding. God or no God, ring or no ring–two Jews (or a Jews and a person who values/respects Judaism) who wish to ritually sanctify their relationship through the lens of tradition marry Jewishly. Simple as that.

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