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

Smashing the Idols: How to Plan a Nontraditional Jewish Wedding

“We should have eloped.”

One of us has said that every week since we began planning our wedding. “We should have eloped,” I say. “I know,” Shannon replies. Then we both sigh.

A wedding is a turning point. It’s the moment when two lives become one, when two individuals are sanctified unto one another. And, as Shannon and I have learned, planning one is a lot of work. At some point, romance gives way to administration and dreams become action items. Dress? Check. Synagogue? Check. Ketubah? Well…I’m still working on that one. I’ll send Shannon a meeting invitation so we can plan milestones.

Weddings so often become events unto themselves rather than celebrations of the couples getting married.

Midrash tells us that the patriarch Abraham, as a child, smashed the idols his father manufactured. When his father confronts him, Abraham tells his father that the largest idol smashed the others. His father scoffs at the story, and Abraham responds, “They have no power at all! Why worship idols?” (Midrash B’reishit 38:13.)

The rabbis used this story to explain Abraham’s righteousness and his call by God. But I think the idols Abraham smashes can be understood as a metaphor for anything that obscures the truth. That’s what Shannon and I aim to do with our wedding: smash any idols that obscure the true intent of the day. For instance, we decided to have a small ceremony, despite the size of our families. Neither Shannon nor I are comfortable as the center of attention, so only 14 people will be present, including the photographer. The wedding will take place in the chapel at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, in Philadelphia.

Entrance to the RS Sanctuary

A detail of artwork welcoming visitors to the Congregation Rodeph Shalom sanctuary. Do visit if you're ever in Philly!

Some aspects of our ceremony will remain traditional. We’ll stand beneath a chuppah. We’ll perform the badeken, or veiling of the bride. And, after the ceremony, we’ll have yichud, a brief time we’ll spend alone as a newly married couple.

But we’ll smash idols along the way, ensuring that the ceremony is wholly ours. The chuppah will be a quilt made by my great-grandmother. Rather than Shannon circling me seven times, we’ll circle one another three-and-a-half times, a maneuver that may prove tricky when Shannon’s in her dress. We interpret the act of circling as the separation of our new relationship, as a married couple, from our past. In a nod to Shannon’s ancestry, her mother will read the Irish blessing (which has cultural rather than religious connotations). And we’ll walk down the aisle to the rabbi playing “Over the Rainbow” on the ukulele. (Our rabbi plays a mean uke.)

Of course, the biggest idol we face is that of intermarriage. So many people bow before it! But, as Abraham knew, the power an idol possesses is all in the worshiper’s mind. Why worship it? Shannon and I, surrounded by family and loved ones, will smash that idol on a quiet Saturday night in October.

And it won’t be about the “issues,” the flowers or even the dress. It will be about us.

And we’ll be glad we celebrated our union in a Jewish ceremony, even if, in the meantime, we sometimes wish we had eloped.

The New Jew & the Irish Girl Plan a Wedding

“I think I’m converting to Judaism.”

I said it quietly, without making eye contact, as Shannon walked by. As if, by treating it as a commonplace, like the weather or the Phillies, I’d sneak it by her without conversation.

Shannon stopped and turned to face me. “Are you serious?” she asked. I’m known for making outrageous statements. I like to push peoples’ buttons and see how they react to things. But this wasn’t a time for joking around.

“Yeah,” I said.

Shannon paused for a moment. “Finally,” she breathed.

That conversation took place in early 2011. I converted to Judaism on May 16, 2012. Shannon and I were engaged on November 29. We’re to be married on October 26 of this year, at 7 in the evening, after Havdalah.

I am Jewish. Shannon is not.

Our story is not a typical one. After all, how many couples are there in which one partner is a convert to Judaism and the other isn’t Jewish? Many people convert, in part, in order to marry their Jewish partner or satisfy the expectations of their partner’s family. (Of course, this is not to imply that anyone’s conversion is in any way less heartfelt or genuine than someone else’s, whatever the reasons!)

Our story is increasingly commonplace, too. Like many “younger” people (I use the term loosely, as both Shannon and I are in our thirties), Shannon and I have chosen our own way. For me, that meant becoming Jewish and living a Jewish life. For Shannon, that meant defining her identity outside of mine, an ongoing act of spiritual and emotional integrity that I admire. Shannon and I will defy tradition when we celebrate our union in a Jewish wedding. (Ironically, as a small ceremony, only two Jews will be present: the rabbi and myself.) An interfaith couple, Shannon and I will together establish a Jewish home. And, as more young Jewish men and women intermarry, our story becomes more typical, too.

There are voices in our community who will say that our marriage can’t be Jewish, that our children won’t be Jewish, that I’m not Jewish, that even the idea is mishegas, a shande. I’m writing to state positively, for Shannon and me and those couples like us, that we’re here, we’re real, and that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Nu?

Matt and Shannon

Shannon and me at Rockefeller Center Plaza in 2009

Shannon and I met in college in 2004. We’ve been together ever since, through arguments, long distance, health problems and family crises. Our dedication to one another sometimes wavered but never failed. You might say that we are bashert (meant to be).

Perhaps most impressive was Shannon’s support of my decision to become a Jew. As a rabbi and friend of ours is fond of pointing out, Shannon “didn’t sign on for this.” “This” being code for…a suddenly Jewish partner, Rosh Hashanah dinners and Yom Kippur fasts, latkes and dreidels at Christmastime and blessings recited in Hebrew: in short, all the trappings of a Jewish life. Shannon has gracefully walked the fine line of embracing Jewishness while maintaining her intellectual independence. She affirms my Jewishness by actively living the Jewish values of home and family, of giving tzedakah and honoring Shabbat. She won’t convert, though, because she doesn’t believe in the Hebrew God. Shannon’s intellectual openness and integrity are part of why I love her. Her encouragement of my choice to convert, to become who I was meant to me, is why I will marry her.

Shannon knew about my interest in Judaism from the time we began dating. I imagine, at the time, that it seemed like a minor quirk; after all, I was a history major with an interest in religion. Over time, though, as I referred more and more often to Judaism, Shannon intuited what I wanted but was afraid to embrace: conversion to Judaism. So it was no surprise to Shannon when, in the winter of 2011, I announced to her that I was thinking of converting. “Finally,” she breathed, a sigh of relief indicative of the divinity inherent in accepting the life choices of one’s partner.

Shannon encouraged me throughout the conversion process. She accompanied me to the Introduction to Judaism class offered by the URJ and talked excitedly about Shabbat dinners and the Jewish values of family and charity. She drove me to the mikveh. She was was at shul when I held the Torah scroll and proclaimed my allegiance to the Jewish People and our God. And she suffered through at least one Torah study before deciding she’d rather cook Rosh Hashanah dinner. Shannon actively lives the values to which I aspire.

During the spring of this year, Shannon and I enrolled in InterfaithFamily’s Love & Religion workshop. Although we’re (for the most part) comfortable with the role religion plays in our lives, we thought it would be good to meet other couples with similar experiences in order to learn from them. Little did we realize that we would be the most experienced couple in the workshop! Love & Religion provided us a window into the way other couples our age are negotiating the role of religion in their relationships. We learned that our accommodation of one another was not unique and that we’re not alone. It’s a shared story.

Over the next few weeks I’ll use my space here to talk about our plans: what our ceremony will be like (and why), choosing a ketubah, and what we imagine our married life will be like. I’ll write about points of contention that arose between Shannon and me in the past and likely sources of conflict in the future. And I’ll expand on our plans to establish shalom bayit (in English, a “peaceful home,” or domestic harmony). I look forward to you joining me!

L’shalom,

Matt

Our Last Vlog and Wedding Day Recap

Please note: I’ve posted this for Yolanda, who wrote the following post.

Hey there IFF,

So here we are, two months past our actual wedding date and we’re both enjoying the married life. Before we head off into wedded bliss, Arel and I are leaving you with a farewell video and some extra goodies to take a look at. We never talked about our actual wedding day so this is the video that finally covers how our day went and Arel included some pics for you guys to see how our wedding progressed that day.

We loved vlogging for InterfaithFamily.com and hoped that you enjoyed viewing our journey as much as we enjoyed documenting it for you guys. We wish you all a blessed life and for those of you getting married, good luck and enjoy the process. We welcome the next wedding bloggers, Jess and Erik, and wish them an awesome wedding and life thereafter.

Enjoy our last videos. We have video recapping our actual wedding, the video below that is a glimpse of the ceremony, and the third video showcases our unusual wedding dance. Let us know what you think.

Until we meet again,
Yolanda and Arel

Blog Post #2: Taking Notes at Other Weddings…..

Last weekend, Erik and I celebrated the wedding of our friends Raul and Sarah, another interfaith couple (Raul is a Salvadorian Buddhist friend of Erik, who grew up in Northern Virginia; Sarah is Christian, from Birmingham, Alabama).  As we enjoyed their special day, we took notes for ours.

Raul and Sarah held their wedding in a small church/community center in southwest Virginia, with about 35 of their closest friends and family—much different than the 200+ person wedding that we’re planning. The food was served buffet-style, and made by the bride’s cousin. Sarah, the bride, made all the decorations herself, and had friends help her set up the room. Although I know (or hope!) that our wedding will be lovely, there’s something to be said about the intimacy of a smaller, family-style engagement with the people you care about most in life.

One of our favorite take-aways, besides the fact that they wrote their own vows: Sarah’s grandmother, the associate pastor of the church, officiated. She told a story about how, growing up, Sarah used to play dress up with her cousin and ask: “Grandma, will you help marry me at my wedding when I grow up?” And, for 20+ years, her grandmother answered, “Yes, honey. I will be there when you get married, and I will marry you myself.”

It was such a special moment, that it underscored for us the importance of our choice to have family and a close friend officiate our wedding too.  We’ve decided to have my cousin, Wendy, an Orthodox Jew, and Erik’s college philosophy professor, Ken, who introduced Erik to Buddhism, preside over our wedding.  We’re thrilled about it. The next step: figuring out the vows and the ceremony.

We would welcome your suggestions and ideas as we move into the ceremony planning stage….

Thanks for reading, and Happy St. Patty’s Day to any fellow Irish-Jewish folks out there!

–Jess

Blog Post #1 – Introducing Jess & Erik

Hello IFF Community!

Check out me (Erik) and my fiancee Jess as we introduce ourselves via our first Hitch posting.  We are super excited to be a part of the IFF community, to share our story and get your thoughts and opinions as we prepare for our interfaith (Buddhist/Jewish) wedding in November. 

Thanks so much for taking the time to watch and we look forward to your comments and thoughts as we begin our journey with IFF. 

Take care,
Erik

Video 14: Aufruf and more

Hey there IFF!

Here we go with another video where Arel and I talk about the Aufruf before our wedding and the prepping required to ensure it went smoothly. We also discuss music for the ceremony and why that was challenging for us. On a side note: Arel sharpened his video editing skills with imovie to make this particular clip more interesting. Check it out!

Till next time,

Yolanda:)


Video 12: working on the marriage not just the wedding

Hey there IFF!

It’s been awhile since we last vlogged and there’s good reason for it. Yes, Arel and I are now officially husband and wife as of January 15th (woo hoo), but we had some issues to address before we could post more videos.

We’re ready now and this particular video is our most important yet and is the primary reason we’ve been M.I.A. for awhile, however, we have documented the process, and we will be releasing those videos, so please stay tuned for those.

As we got closer to our wedding date, we ran into some major fears that led us to question whether or not getting married was the right thing to do. Working through and addressing the source of those fears was the hardest thing we both ever did but we’re grateful that we had the strength, the desire, and the willingness to go through the process. I can’t say that pain is absolutely necessary to gain strength but in this case we got through the hard stuff – and persevered in spite of the hard stuff or maybe because of it… I’m not so sure which is which, but the end result is a stronger and much deeper relationship. This isn’t the stuff of fairy tales that we’re all brainwashed to believe in.

I listened to a YouTube video recently on marriage, and the poet said it’s not the love that sustains the promise, but the promise that sustains the love. Our commitment is what carried us through the last two months, not just the love. Arel and I take marriage very seriously, and you would think most couples do, but if so, I don’t think the divorce rate would be so high. We wanted to make sure this was right. Yes, we’ve been together for 9 years, but we wanted to make sure we can also do the rest of our lives together, supporting each other, loving each other, challenging each other, and elevating ourselves to be able to sacrifice for each other and compromise when needed as well as to help each other fulfill our potential as individuals and as a couple.

This whole experience has confirmed for me that couples should 100% talk about marriage before the proposal. Surprise proposals are nice and romantic but if all the important issues haven’t been discussed prior to that proposal, it’s going to be harder to go through it once you’re in the marriage (I think). In this video, we discuss some books to read and suggestions for figuring out whether or not marriage is the right step. For Arel and I, we concluded that yes, we wanted to still get married. We made some compromises, agreed to work on individual as well as couple issues, and commit fully to our marriage.

We would love to hear what you think. Did you have any fears before your marriage? Did you talk about life together as a married couple before you took the plunge?

Video 9: diy wedding invites with my best friend

Good Morning IFF!

Arel and I have been MIA for awhile: both of us have been working full time, Arel has been traveling, I’ve been teaching Zumba, and we’ve been wedding planning which has zapped up much of our time… But we’re back and have so much to update you on. Our latest adventure involved wedding invitations, and my first official melt down which ended up in tears… yes, over invitations. Oy vey. I’ll give you the details in the next post, but for now, here’s a glimpse of my best friend (and maid of honor) and I working on the DIY invites. Excuse my hair in this video, I realize I look like a hot mess. It was a long night putting together the little touches (which in the end will not be mailed along with the invites)… arghh!

Video 8: what is the point of a bridal party?

What’s going on IFF!

The days are flying by and we’re about 2 and half months away from the wedding! Ahhhh! Last night we met with our wedding coordinator to talk about everything. It’s crazy how many details have to be thought of, which apparently was so boring for my future hubby that I caught him playing Fruit Ninja and checking his facebook page multiple times as he ‘pretended’ to be taking ‘notes’ on his phone. Haha. He tried his best to pay attention but I could see he was itching to get out of there, which we did 2 and half hours later. I was proud he made it through but slightly wished that I too could have played Fruit Ninja :)

We’re hoping that we can throw an unforgettable night for our guests, but are humble enough to know we cannot do it alone, which leads us to the topic of this video… what’s the point of a bridal party? We need your help with one, so watch it till the end, and PLEASE give us your thoughts! We need it:)