Reconstructing the Ketubah: Finding the Sweetness in Tradition

I attended services at Mishkan Shalom last spring.

A friend of mine led the Torah study that preceded services. We read from the haftarah, Hosea, in which the prophet addresses his unfaithful wife, Gomer. Their troubled marriage is really a metaphor for the relationship between Israel and God.

Here’s a sample of what Hosea says: “Assuredly, / I will take back My new grain in its time / And My new wine in its season, / And I will snatch away My wool and My linen / That serve to cover her nakedness. / Now will I uncover her shame / In the very sight of her lovers, / And none shall save her from Me.” (Hosea 2:11-12, JPS Tanakh.) Hosea goes on to assure Gomer that he will take her back and shower her with love. (So too with God and Israel.)

Grim stuff. It reminded our modern sensibilities of an abusive husband addressing his battered wife. “Okay,” our teacher said, “we understand the psychology of it. So how do we reconstruct this?”

I think about that Torah lesson every time I encounter a practice with which I’m uncomfortable: How do we reconstruct this? How do we maintain the integrity of the tradition while also making it relevant and meaningful? The ketubah, or Jewish wedding contract, is a good case-in-point.

Traditionally, the ketubah was a legal document. It was a contract that stated the obligations of the husband to his bride. The husband promised to work and support his wife, to provide her with food and other necessities, and even to fulfill her conjugal needs. Should the husband prove remiss in his duties, he was required to financially compensate his wife. And that’s it.

The ketubah was a significant development in Jewish marital relations. It was written in Aramaic, the lingua franca at the time it was codified, and thus comprehensible to the parties entering into it. It attempted to provide some security for women, too, by assuring them some material support. But there is no doubting that it is a pre-modern artifact. A traditional ketubah insures a bride for the dowry that she brings to the marriage, “whether in silver, gold, jewelry, clothing, furnishings or bedding” plus an additional amount agreed to by the groom’s family. The insurance is calculated in zuzim, the Jewish currency used in Roman Palestine.

There is power in the age of certain Jewish traditions. Consider the ancient sound of the shofar calling us to repent, or the lighting of the menorah, a reminder of the survival of the Jewish people throughout the ages. But there are some things liberal Jews have trouble connecting with, and the traditional ketubah is one of them. That Shannon and I can’t imagine celebrating our union with a traditional ketubah is only partly related to our status as outsiders in terms of halakha. We know we’re outside the Law. Rather, we find the spirit of the ancient ketubah lacking, too.

So what to do? How do we reconstruct this?

An example of a modern ketubah, courtesy of Gene B., Once Upon a Paper

Shannon and I chose to have a custom ketubah. We reviewed possibilities we found on the Internet and settled (appropriately) on a Reconstructionist-inspired ketubah. We chose the text we did because of its emphasis on community, social justice and tradition. “We promise to honor our community by offering and accepting support, love, and friendship,” it reads. “Our home will be a place of openness and generosity, enriched by Jewish tradition. Together, we will work for peace and justice with empathy and hope, taking action to help heal the world.”

We liked the text so much that we made only one change, adding to the ketubah, after the first sentence quoted above, “We will honor Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, and other family customs. If we are blessed as children, we will raise them as Jews.” Shannon and I have agreed to keep a Jewish home, but we want to make sure that she never feels out of place or excluded, hence “other family customs,” which covers a range of potentialities. (For instance, it is not Shannon’s custom to fast on Yom Kippur.) We engage in reconstruction to bring modern meaning to ancient ways.

The service I attended at Mishkan Shalom included an aufruf, or blessing over the Torah, by a couple soon to be married. (My friend, who led Torah study, and his fiancee.) After that, we threw candy at the couple. As the rabbi prepared to return the Torah to the Ark, she discovered a Hershey’s Kiss in the scroll. (To which there was no damage, I promise.) “There is much sweetness in Torah,” she quipped.

That is what Shannon and I have aimed for in our nontraditional Jewish wedding: to capture the sweetness of custom by actively reconstructing it.

(Special thanks to Gene B., the artist who is designing our ketubah and gave me permission to use an example of his artwork in my post. You can find more of Gene’s work at his shop on Etsy, Once Upon a Paper.)

L’shalom,

Matt

Naming Our Fears: When Have We Asked Too Much?

A Muslim man greeted me with “As-salamu alaykum” on Rosh Hashanah morning. Having seen the kufi-style yarmulke I wore, he acknowledged me as he passed the bench on which Shannon and I sat. “He said ‘hello’ to you,” Shannon told me as I wrested my attention away from my smartphone. “He did?” I said, blinking in surprise. I caught the man’s eye, but reacted too slowly to respond to him.

I thought about that brief interaction during the train ride back to our apartment. I felt badly that I hadn’t replied to the man’s greeting. G. Willow Wilson, writing in her memoir The Butterfly Mosque, notes that it is a grave insult when one Muslim ignores another’s “hello.” I’m not Muslim, of course, but the man who spoke to me thought otherwise. I wondered what the appropriate response might have been. Should I have ignored his mistake and replied, “Wa alaykumu salam”? Should I have smiled and said, “Aleichem shalom?” My concern was further exacerbated when the passenger sitting behind Shannon and I leaned forward and asked, “Hey, man, are you Muslim or Jewish?”

Richard Fletcher, in his book Moorish Spain, describes a piece of art in the Grand Mosque of Cordoba: the crude image of a man who appears to be shrieking in terror. It is only upon consideration that the viewer realizes that the man is not screaming, but praying. Fletcher sees in this image’s ambiguity, in the confusion it evokes in people looking at it, a metaphor for the West.

Echoing Fletcher’s characterization of Western history, my first college professor lectured about the seventeenth century false messiah Sabbetai Zvi. When not engaged in mystical study, Zvi performed bizarre public acts, marrying himself to a Torah scroll and otherwise promoting his messianic aspirations. “Is this the nature of Western history?” my professor mused. “Is Western civilization schizophrenic?”

Teaching about anti-Semitism, the same professor maintained that hatred of the Jews stemmed from our status as the “Eternal Other.” Our people’s mere existence was a provocation, serving as it did as a refutation of the West’s foundational beliefs: namely, that mankind was redeemed by the son of God. Our stubborn refusal to accept Christianity caused doubt among Christians themselves, who then projected their anxieties back onto us in violent ways. According to this argument, anti-Semitism is the result of a process similar to the formation of a pearl, only the product is not a thing of beauty, but a perfect sort of hatred.

Jews are accepted in America as we have been in few other times and places. I believe that will remain true. But some thinkers are less sanguine about the future of world Jewry. Mosaic Magazine recently questioned the future of European Jews, and Tablet ran a review of two new scholarly books on anti-Semitism under the headline “Why Literally Everyone in the World Hates Jews, and What To Do About It.” I mentioned these articles to a friend, who replied that anti-Semitism always increases during difficult economic times. I’m not convinced that there is a “reasonable” explanation for such irrational hatred.

I am not genetically Jewish. (A DNA test that Shannon and I took a few weeks ago revealed in our genes the absence of Ashkenazi ancestry. For more on the genetics of Jewish identity, see Harry Ostrer’s book Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People.) We who count ourselves members of the Tribe know that “Jewishness” is a slippery thing, comprised of, but not singularly defined as, peoplehood, ancestry, ethnicity, culture and religion. I doubt that bigots are so discerning. To anti-Semites, a Jew is a Jew. Perversely, I welcome the equality of status in the Jewish community granted me by bigots but denied me by our own hardliners.

Engaged to Shannon, though, I no longer speak for myself alone. I must consider my partner’s well being in all things. The local news station ran on the morning before Erev Rosh Hashanah a story about a fire at a home in the Philadelphia suburbs. The family was Jewish; the fire was an act of arson that appeared to be “racially” motivated. Coming as this news did amid stories about rising anti-Semitism and the looming crisis in Syria, it made for a bleak beginning to the new year.

The response the Muslim stranger’s greeting provoked in me was less worry over hurt feelings than an existential dread. Lest anyone suspect me of Islamophobia, let me be clear: it is not Muslims I fear, but the potential for confusion and violence inherent in all faiths. I have bound myself to a people who has, for millennia, been the target of the worst travesties of faith. Shannon may not be Jewish, but by marrying me, she, too, will be casting her lot with us. Am I asking too much of her? Is it wrong of me to request of Shannon that she join me on a path I freely chose?

Apples and Honey

"For a good and sweet year." My minor contribution to our Rosh Hashanah dinner. Shannon prepared the meal.

On Rosh Hashanah we recite the Unetanneh Tokef, a litany of misfortunes that might befall us during the coming year. I wonder if, by naming our fears, we’re trying to rob them of the possibility of coming true.

For those readers who don’t know, “as-salamu alaykum,” and its Hebrew equivalent, “shalom aleichem,” means “peace be upon you.” The appropriate reply inverts the words: “wa alaykumu salam” (in Hebrew, “aleichem shalom”) or, “upon you be peace.” I think there’s something lovely about such a greeting. (It also serves as “goodbye.”) “Shalom aleichem” is a favorite expression of mine, but it’s the sentiment behind it that matters. May we wish peace to friends and strangers alike in the coming year.

L’shalom,

Matt