Almost twenty years ago, I worked with Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Linda Holtzman to create an entirely new wedding ceremony for marriages between a Jew and a member of another spiritual community.
We felt that using the traditional Jewish form would be inauthentic for such a couple. Therefore, in our ceremony we eliminated reference to and inclusion of kiddushin [literally, "holiness" or "separation"; also the generic name for the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony], chuppah [wedding canopy, symbolizing the couple's new home], the affirmation of "Harei at ["Behold, you..."; the first words of the traditonal formula that established the marriage]--Here! By this ring you are made separate/holy to me according to the tradition of Moses and Israel."
And we felt that sending people to clergy of another religion or to the State for a non-spiritual wedding might fail to meet the full spiritual and Jewish needs of the couple, as well as of the Jewish people.
So we drew on the tradition of the Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noakh [Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah] and created a wedding ceremony of "The Children of Noah" in which all the symbolism comes from the Flood/Ark/Rainbow story. The sacred space of the ceremony is created, for example, by a Rainbow arch above and by a circle of earth within a circle of water, below.
Why turn to this tale of Torah for our ceremony? Because in rabbinic tradition, the Sheva Mitzvot B'nai Noakh are at the heart of discussions of the covenant and commitments between God and all human beings, indeed all life upon the planet.
According to the Biblical tale, after the Flood God made a covenant with all humans and all breathing life upon the planet. There was in the biblical account some content to this covenant on each side--God would not destroy the earth again; humans could eat meat but not blood, and could not rip a limb from a living being to eat it.
The rabbis added several more aspects to the covenant, making up a Jewish version of "natural law" or "the law of nations." They added points such as these: In all nations there must be law courts (might does not make right), no one can murder, there must be sexual morality, there must not be idolatry. (See Genesis VIII: 21--IX: 17 and the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a-59b.)
This Noakhic covenant does not include Shabbat, Sabbath, or worshipping YHWH (God). Those are obligations for Jewish people only.
When we wrestled with the intermarriage question, we concluded that all human beings are invited (not required) by the Noah covenant to create marriages and households. So we felt it is therefore authentic to Torah, and spiritually enriching, to root a universalist wedding ceremony in the Noah story.
The original version of the ceremony was published in Menorah (November/December 1983; in those days an independent journal of Jewish renewal, and since 1985 published as New Menorah, the quarterly journal of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal) and as an appendix to Anita Diamant's book The New Jewish Wedding. I have used the ceremony, and know other rabbis and mesadrim/ot [mesader (masc.), mesaderet (fem.), mesadrim or mesadrot (pl.): literally, coordinator/s or officiant/s: the person/s who actually conduct the ceremony. Usually, but not necessarily, a rabbi.] who have used it or parts of it. As a result of actual experience, I have modified it somewhat. The modified version can be found on the *Shalom Center Website at: www.shalomctr.org, under "Life-Cycle Ceremonies."
Since this ceremony does not use chuppah, etc, it does not evoke the specific wedding memories among those who have been present at many traditional Jewish weddings before. Some families may find that a missing factor.
For others at such a ceremony--precisely the friends and family of the non-Jewish partner--these memories would not have arisen anyway. For them and for guests at the wedding who may not have grown up in Jewish families, the symbols of the flood and rainbow may actually carry stronger meaning than those of a traditional Jewish wedding. And for many Jews, these symbols also carry power.
In any case, this "Jewishly affirmed universalist wedding" represents the truth of the situation--and it does draw on Torah in a deeper and broader way.
On the occasions when I and others have used it, those present have found it spiritually and emotionally very powerful.
If it is reasonable to say that the "Children of Noah" ceremony is a worthy midrash (teaching story) arising from Torah, why, until now, has Jewish tradition never seen it as necessary or desirable for Jews to create forms in which a non-Jewish marriage could be hallowed?
In periods when the boundaries of Jewish peoplehood have been clear and have been accepted by the Jewish people and by other peoples--when Jews married Jews, Christians married Christians, Muslims Muslims, Buddhists Buddhists--and that was that--the issue was irrelevant.
Now, however, the shattering impact of modernity on the whole broad pattern of Jewish law and practice that was rooted in the Talmud--and on the analogous patterns of classical Christianity, Islam, Buddhism--has led large sections of the Jewish people to experiment with new definitions of the boundaries of Jewish peoplehood (in regard to conversion and patrilineal/matrilineal descent) and new approaches to marriages between Jews and non-Jews.
Already when we first created the ceremony twenty years ago, the rate of marriages between a Jew and a non-Jew as a proportion of all marriages involving Jews was about one-third, and rising. These facts--which seem to be rooted in the basic choices most Americans, and American Jews, have made about their life-paths--are causing agony to many rabbis and congregations.
It may help us to see that the development of a major new life practice like this one is legitimate if we keep in mind that the inter-marriage issue/opportunity is only one of a number that modernity has thrust upon and offered us. This one, together with others, may be moving us toward discerning a whole new level or aspect of Torah, a post-modern pattern of Jewish thought and practice. [Torah: narrowly, the Five Books of Moses; more broadly, the ancient and still-growing stream of sacred Jewish wisdom; originally from the vocabulary of archery, evidently meaning the process of aiming the arrow.]
There have been such radical upheavals before. The Torah cryptically reports that in the exodus from Egypt and the acceptance of the Torah, an erev rav--a "mixed multitude" of Israelites and others--took part. Some who were descendants of Abraham and Sarah evidently rejected Moses, God and Torah; some who were not their descendants, accepted Moses, God, and Torah. The boundaries of peoplehood melted for a moment, flowed, and were reset.
Similarly, patrilineal descent [determining whether or not a child is Jewish based on whether the father is] was evidently the norm in late Biblical and even Mishnaic [Mishna, (adj) Mishnaic: the compilation of Jewish practice and law as it existed (or the Mishna's editor claimed it existed) slightly before the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), as written down in the second century of the Common Era.] times; it was abandoned and matrilineal [determining whether or not a child is Jewish based on whether the mother is] descent adopted instead (perhaps in the wake of Roman rapes of Jewish women). In the early days of Roman rule, the process of becoming Jewish became more fluid as tens of thousands of people evidently became "God-fearers," praying and studying in the synagogues without formal conversion.
Today, these boundaries of peoplehood are again somewhat fluid. We believe that under these conditions, it accords with Torah to provide ways in which a couple who are not both Jewish can receive from Jewish tradition an affirmation of their marriage.
Couples who after reading this ceremony and discussing its implications with each other and their families would like to explore using it, may contact The Shalom Center at Shalomctr@aol.com. We will attempt to put them in touch with a rabbi near them who might use it--bli neder (no promises). Some rabbis who in principle might be willing under some circumstances to officiate at such a ceremony have their own individual sense of what those circumstances are.
Note: As we explored these issues twenty years ago, a series of questions arose for us. Those questions, and our answers to them, draw the boundaries for what we have and have not sought to do:
o Do we see this ceremony as a substitute for a marriage between two Jews, one of whom has converted to Judaism, or as a substitute for encouraging the non-Jewish partner of an impending marriage to pursue in depth the possibility of conversion to Judaism?
Absolutely not. It is not meant to discourage anyone who is not a Jew from becoming one through the traditional process of conversion, which we believe to be valid for the sake of marriage. This ceremony is rather meant for those who are, for whatever reason, unable or unwilling to make such a full-fledged commitment to the Jewish people.
We also do not see this ceremony as in the least precluding a later decision by the non-Jewish member of the couple to convert to Judaism. Indeed, for some people we think this ceremony may become a source of encouragement toward doing so.
Should any of the traditional forms of Jewish marriage be used in such a ceremony? We think not. We do not draw on ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), harei at, two cups of wine, the shattered wine glass, the chuppah. We do not recommend using Hebrew.
What about the customary practice of Jewish weddings that a rabbi act as m'sader--coordinating and facilitating the ceremony and often taking responsibility for the ketubah? In many communities, the rabbi's presiding might be mistakenly taken as a token that the ceremony is in the traditional sense creating a "Jewish marriage."
So we suggest that rabbis who wish to facilitate this ceremony take special care to make clear to the congregants that the ceremony initiates a "Jewishly affirmed universalist marriage." And in any case there remains the traditional option that any Jew who is sufficiently learned, loving, and wise may become the facilitator of such a ceremony.
o Should there be an understanding about involvement with Jewish life and thought to be undertaken by a couple, in order for the partners to feel authentic in deciding to use this ceremony and for other Jews to feel honest in helping them to do so? We think there should--but we cannot spell it out.
We have used the formulation that the couple promises to "make Torah present" in their lives. That need not require living by any predetermined version of halakha (Jewish law) or aggada (philosophical, allegorical, fanciful, profound, and/or whimsical reinterpretations of the meaning of the Torah, meant to shape a Jewish life but not enforceable law), or any predetermined relationship to the Jewish community--but it does mean taking the tradition seriously in its broadest sense in shaping a home, raising possible children (the ceremony does not assume them), and living in the world. More specific pledges can be agreed to by the couple.
It should be noted that the promise "to make Torah present in our lives together" may carry somewhat different freight for the member of the couple who is Jewish and the member who is not. For example, Torah has in Jewish tradition been understood to apply to both B'nai Noach--the children of Noah--and to B'nai Yisrael--members of the Jewish people; but it has traditionally been understood to apply in somewhat different ways. As the couple prepares for their wedding, they might be encouraged to wrestle with this tradition and to explore how they themselves see these paths today: the same? different? intertwined? converging?
o Since we are avoiding the symbols of a traditional Jewish wedding, what symbols do we draw on? Symbols that come chiefly from the Noah story and some echoes of it--especially its insistence that not only the whole human race but all life is covenanted to God. Hosea's "I espouse you to me" comes from a part of Hosea's prophecy that parallels the Rainbow Covenant (Hosea II: 20-22). The Song of Songs (for which we use Marcia Falk's extraordinary translation) is perhaps an echo of the Garden of Eden--perhaps even a higher, Messianic version of the Garden.
This article flows from the work of The Shalom Center , a North American network committed to draw on Jewish wisdom, old and new, in order to pursue peace, justice, and the healing of the earth. It is a division of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, but these thoughts do not necessarily reflect those of ALEPH as a whole.
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