So you’ve discovered that you are ready to get married, and it dawns on you that you need a rabbi. First of all, mazel tov! You are one of a long line of Jews who have fallen in love, or have decided to enter a committed relationship, hopefully both. What makes your inquiry about a rabbi different is that you are distinguishing yourself from much of the secular culture you live in. Many people are just in search of a rubber stamp. However, you ought to be thinking of the person who officiates at your Jewish wedding in different terms.
On this page, you will learn about:
- Why a Rabbi?
- Questions you should consider before you meet with the rabbi
- Conversations you should have with your partner
- Couples counseling is a good idea
- What to bring to your first appointment with the rabbi (Don’t come empty handed!)
- Interfaith marriage considerations
- Straight/gay marriage issues
- Setting a date for your wedding
- Alternatives to using a rabbi
- The ketuba
- The parts of the wedding ceremony
- What to bring on your wedding day
- The architechtural design of your wedding
Why a Rabbi?
Groucho Marx asked why a duck? So why is it that you want a rabbi? Have you honestly thought about that question beyond wanting to satisfy your uncles and aunts or the grandmother coming in from Baltimore? This guide deals with some of the issues you might want to consider.
A rabbi cares about past, present and future. He or she is in the business of making marriages. The weddings follow. Especially if you are coming into this thing with someone who is not Jewish, shouldn’t you be paying some attention to what might come about a few years down the pike? Let’s say that we can remove the layer of guilt, you know the kind where the tribe comes down on you for even imagining falling in love with an outsider & (Never mind that in many cities upwards of 70% of Jews are marrying out “it’s a product of an open society,” and statistically speaking, there’s nothing we will do that will reverse this trend.) But, still, assuming that you are auditioning a rabbi and the whole shebang (a chuppah, the wine, the blessings), why not open yourselves up to the scintillating possibility that Jewish ideas and practices will make your marriage exciting! Remember, a rabbi cares about past, present, and FUTURE.
So why not come in with questions? After all, a rabbi is a spiritual teacher. Rabbi Joey wants people to think about paying attention: to the bigger picture, to the interrelatedness of things, to the inner rhythms of people and all sentient beings. His assumption is that you would probably like to pay attention too. It’s in this sense that a rabbi’s priority is to truth-telling. The Jewish way is to look at the powerful questions, to honor them. You want a rabbi to marry you? Then come in prepared not to answer questions, God forbid. That would be asking too much of anyone! No, come in prepared to ask the questions.
Questions you should consider before you meet with the rabbi
Here are some good ones: What are some good books to read (if you like reading – not everyone does!)? Are there certain ones that can explain why Jews don’t only read up on history in general, but on something called Jewish history? Is there a certain way that Jews traditionally think of what’s past? What’s the difference between history and memory? And what’s my role (and the role of my partner – Jewish or not!) in making Jewish memories? How do we create memorable moments together? What can we actually be doing on a regular basis? What might we consider a spiritual practice? What holds us back from genuine spiritual practices?
Want some more? What are kids going to do that will inevitably shake us up? What kinds of questions are they going to ask? Why tell them stories, if they’re not true? Should we consider things true only if they are scientifically verifiable? Hey, what’s the role of science? (An awful lot of the world’s most eminent scientists have what we might consider to be the most religious minds!) Most important: can the two of us talk about these things, without fearing being dismissed, discounted, laughed at by one another? Can we get behind the rather artificial divide between what the last generation of Jews called cultural and religious? Is there a way that we can be spiritual at the same time that we attune ourselves to the mechanics of ritual? Can we learn to do a delicate dance, by actually first learning the steps – or will one of us undermine the other? Isn’t this all creative fiction, and should that matter? (Hey, one of us isn’t even Jewish!? Does that matter?)
See how many questions invite themselves. Remember, the worst thing you can get in the habit of doing is maintaining a silence in the face of possibility.
So come in to see the Rabbi with a few conversations prepared:
1) Talk about what it would be like to actually celebrate a Shabbat. It’s important to note that anything you do counts, and will make a huge difference in your lives. Don’t go for the total Shabbat. Don’t even worry about it: it doesn’t exist. Who cares anyway, when you’re already having fun! So explore (in advance of coming in) what you might do on Shabbat (Friday night or Saturday some time), or what you might actually like to learn how to do together.
2) Suppose you are going to have a Pesach seder. It’s likely you’ve never done this before. So how are you divvying up the tasks to get ready? Who’s doing what? Who is on the haggadot (books)? How are you making the decision as to which ones? Who is going to sit where? Why are you placing people in the manner that you are doing it? Are you going to ask people to prepare something, to bring something with them? Which one of you is on that? Are you sharing the physical aspects of getting ready, as well as the cerebral ones? Talk about these things.
3) Say you are going to take a vacation. Where are you going to go? Do you think there will be anything Jewish about what you do? Should there be?
4) Imagine yourselves getting into a heated argument. (I know, it never happens.) Do you think that any element of spiritual guidance will light the path towards a resolution, a way out of the woods. We are all quite aware how taxing, even devastating, a good fight can be, but conflict is not the root of the problem – it’s how we fight things out that determines if we will still be friends, perhaps even better friends. Do you already notice patterns? Are there specific things you want to be working on?
5) When a couple begins its work, it often takes a while before both partners can feel at home with the couple identity. It’s easy to lapse into judgmentalism. We all can go through periods feeling uncomfortable with one another, with ourselves, with the world. Sometimes we can get into the habit of putting others down, speaking ill of people who are actually quite close to us. (When we’re feeling threatened, no one is any good.) Talk about ways that Jewish teachings can cut through this bramble of hurt and confusion.
6) How much work outside the home do you both anticipate doing? Before kids and after kids. Will there be time you set aside from work, and if you become inundated, what spiritual guidance will be in the offing – so that you can rest together, find time to frolic, to make love? Are you measuring these things right now?
These forays into areas that couples should talk about right now, when they’re planning a wedding, require spiritual guidance, clear thinking. But, again, they offer incredible opportunities to explore the endless possibilities! The glass is half-full – no, three-quarters full!
It can’t be said enough that couples counseling is a good idea. Especially when people are relatively new to one another, and they detect aspects of the relationship that could use some improvement, it’s best to get in the habit of getting help early on. It’s simply amazing how a good technician can clarify what’s happening in a way that removes not only the level of fear, but the onus for a problem being there in the first place. What we all want is the excitement that comes from being in relationship, rather than the exhaustion and hurt that we can feel from being out of joint.
Don’t expect a rabbi to convince you or be convinced that a Jewish ceremony is the right thing. There are still people in the world – plenty of them – who think that it was a rabbi back there in Minneola who slammed the door shut. Had it not been for him, this couple might have made a Jewish life. It’s always someone else’s fault. We all stand on the fault line. It’s as if we have this unbelievable power to make the single-most important difference in a person’s life. Don’t buy it.
It’s really important that you not be passive about this stuff. That means either of you. When one of the partners comes in on empty, it’s as if the only fuel that’s left is wishful thinking. There are Jewish partners who let their non-Jewish partners flop around (like fish out of water) on their behalf for what seems like a lifetime. Perplexed and anxious, they bear an unfair burden. And then there are Jewish partners who genuinely love Jewish ideas and celebration, whose partners will stop at nothing to sabotage their joy. (Usually, the first scenario consists of a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman, and the second the opposite gender arrangement, but not always.) Again, incredibly unfair. Don’t bring this stuff forward unexamined. Think hard about a marriage predicated on such an imbalance. A rabbi won’t always see this stuff and be able to avert it, but we all know the stories of lingering sadness and wasted hopes.
It’s amazing that people actually believe this to mean that there is no element of subjectivity involved. They think that once a rabbi decides that he will do them, he’ll do them all. Well, that’s crazy. Know that there is nothing inherently redeeming about doing interfaith marriages. It’s a statistical wager, that’s all. It’s a beginning, and all beginnings point toward destinations. To the extent that the rabbi, who is called a me’sader kiddushin (an arranger of marriages), can imagine a path lit up – he or she will feel reasonably comfortable, even happy, about doing the marriage.
In-Marriage and Out-Marriage
We’re giving them these names. Bear in mind that “interfaith” implies that there are two religions involved. For the most part, it’s someone who is Jewish and someone who declares that he or she is nothing in particular right now. Although we can split hairs, there are some distinctions that are relevant. If one partner has every intention of doing Jewish spiritual practice, and the other intends to observe, let’s say, Catholic spiritual practice – it’s going to be difficult. Never mind a number of fairly huge contradictory theoretical and pedagogical (think of the confused children!) issues. Just in terms of time and economy, you’ll drive each other nuts. But if you are adamant, then by all means delve into the issues with the rabbi, and most assuredly know that couples counseling is always a fine idea. Generally, Rabbi Joey will call a time-out in these circumstances, because he has rarely, if ever, seen a first marriage work out in which two partners active in two different faith traditions were intent on raising a family. Multiple affiliations (as in paying dues, if people have enough money) are feasible; but coherent spiritual practice must be clear and focused and make sense. It’s for this reason that Rabbi Joey will not co-officiate with a minister from another faith tradition.
The model in which one partner is intent on deepening his or her Jewish identity, and the other claims not to “belong” to any particular faith tradition, certainly offers less conflict. Again, what Rabbi Joey will want to know about (if you want a rabbi to do a wedding!) are the opportunities for building a Jewish conversation. Is the person who asserts no particular connection to a faith tradition saying that he or she is opposed to a connection, open but inert, or vitally and dynamically engaged with the Jewish partner? You might want to examine this question for yourselves.
The preceding examples are classic “out-marriage” scenarios. But lest you assume that since you are both Jewish, you therefore have it made – know that “in-marriage” is not the be-all and the end-all. On the contrary, far too many Jewish-by-birth partners depend too much on affinities to blintzes and bagels and lox. It’s as if they are running on automatic. In all circumstances, a wonderful Jewish marriage will require both partners to enter into conversations about how to build on spiritual practice. What will you be willing to consider in the way of bringing in Shabbat? Or would you be willing to say the Shema with your (imaginary!) kids before they go to sleep? Would you take steps to meet other
It’s a crime that at several levels of government, our society not only does not recognize gay and lesbian marriage, but still in many circumstances encourages discrimination. Know that Rabbi Joey will honor your committed relationships in a Jewish context, regardless of sexual orientation. If you prefer to call it a commitment ceremony, that’s fine too. We know that all couples need to work hard at loving one another, and we honor everyone who brings an enthusiasm for Jewish spiritual practice with a partner in the endeavor.
It’s common courtesy to check with a rabbi first about available dates. (Keep in mind that Rabbi Joey works for a community, which requires him to be available to a wide range of groups and individuals, many of which are traversing important passages.) If the rabbi is relatively busy, as is the case in the Havurah, try to provide a good six months notice. Admittedly, this won’t always work out best for the couple, but then again, you shouldn’t simply assume that the rabbi will be able to come through. In addition, how come it’s often the case that the perfect place gets booked and the band is signed up and even the caterer is on board – before anyone thinks to ask if the rabbi can make it? Take time to put things in a proper context, especially if you are unfamiliar to the Havurah and its many commitments. Remember, you are not dealing with a justice of the peace, you are talking to a spiritual teacher with an ongoing relationship to a larger body.
Not always, but sometimes. Certain folks in the community who play the intermediary role of representing Jewish tradition somewhat but not intimating that they bring rabbinic authority may be appropriate, when a rabbi is not. This may come about due to a date that is too close, or it may just be that you yourselves construe this ceremony as the first of two, let’s say. This one is a first step, but you fully intend to have a Jewish marriage ceremony a bit later on – and that one will be with the rabbi. It may be the case that the rabbi can refer you to these others in the community who will do these ceremonies, and make them beautiful.
Rabbi Joey is happy to meet with a couple whose wedding he is going to do as many times as is necessary, or put differently, as much as he can be of help. It will take six months to do it right. He uses the ketuba as an instrument to guide the process. A ketuba, traditionally, was the wedding contract. Earlier in Jewish history, these documents could be quite ornate. However, in recent times – certainly, during the first part of the twentieth century – they ended up looking like a printed legal form. It was all fill-in-the-blanks. What’s more, they were usually deposited in a drawer and summarily lost. Then things changed, as of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A few artists began to illuminate these ketubot (plural) and lend them shape and color in correspondence with the couple’s personalities and hopes. What didn’t change so much was the text, which remained medieval, as well as the medieval notion that men were the primary agents who acted, ostensibly, on behalf of women. (Despite obvious sexism, the text did not actually reference the chattel quality of the bride: it conferred upon her a measure of economic autonomy. Were she to exit a marriage – through divorce, abandonment or the death of her partner – she would do so with a considerable sum of money. It may surprise you to know that Jewish divorces were rampant in the Middle Ages, but so were remarriages!)
Back to the ketubot drawn up by artists in the 1970′s. So a newly-married couple was lucky enough to be gifted with one calligraphed and even painted by a talented artist, it was still usually unreadable. This was the case unless you were fluent in Aramaic, which is not the case for most Jews today.
So Rabbi Joey figured that it was at least as important to regard the content of the ketuba as capable of being as idiosyncratic as the form. With this in mind, over the past 20 years he has insisted that a couple write their own text.
What goes into the text?
He works with couples to focus on what qualities each one brings to the wedding? There are lots of aspects of who we are that we might want to boast about or claim are high in priority, but only those aspects that are significant to one’s partner, those that signify what draws him or her to you, are of quintessential value. So, for instance, you might both like to ski, but 15 years from now an injury to a knee or a back might put an end to that particular common adventure. Or you might have a dog that you’d like in the ketuba. Think it over, because a dog’s life is usually shorter than the life of a marriage – hopefully by a good deal.
What you will have to think about together (or separately, it depends what works best for you!) are those qualities that single you out at the same time that they draw your partner toward you. And then… and this is the hard part… you will have to think about those items that you may feel vulnerable about. They lay bare your weaknesses, but at the same time they may afford your partner a way to be an emotional resource. Have you recognized those qualities in him and in her? And are you aware of how they work on you? As you figure these things out, you will know what it is you bring to the marriage. You will compile a list, and include three or four of them in the ketuba, the positive ones – but each person’s list should take into consideration (without explicating them) the weaknesses of the other. Lastly, it’s nice to envision what your home might look like. Not so much where the TV will go, if you have one, or what color rug you’ll put down in the living room. Rather, what qualities will emanate from your home. Will it be a home filled with books? With children? With the smell of grilled meat? With the fragrant smell of herbs used to cook meals for guests, guests, and more guests? How do you see the two of you creating a space that will reflect who you are?
These are the items that will go into your ketuba. Rather than reflect an economic commitment, it might be said that they, at their best, will stand for a psychic picture that you can be proud of. What’s more, you’ll be able to hang the ketuba on the wall and know what it says. It will be beautiful and it will be accessible too.
The wedding ceremony is actually very quick. Before the partners to be wedded come out into the assembled entourage, they meet for a few moments with the rabbi, two witnesses, and whoever they deem to be the most significant people on hand. It’s at this point that the ketuba is signed, and it’s a powerful passage. The witnesses take upon themselves the responsibility of standing by the words that the couple have authored; and if there are to be blessings or important teachings imparted privately – this is the time.
The range of choices of a processional is entirely up to the wedding party. There is nothing particularly Jewish or not Jewish about the array of choices. Family politics! It is recommended that a circling occur before the couple steps under the chuppah. It’s a love dance, an intertwining. What Rabbi Joey recommends is that one partner circle the other three times, then vice versa, and finally, they hold hands and revolve once. The number seven is the number of completeness.
Then, as the couple steps under the chuppah, the welcoming words are sung. They are quick and simple, as is the English prayer that goes with it recognizing that it is somehow significant that the space we enter transforms us. Immediately thereafter, the first of two cups of wine is raised, and the betrothal blessings are sung. You might ask, why betrothal? It’s because once upon a time (many centuries ago) two people were designated formally for one another, within a system of arranged marriages. (Please also bear in mind that the arranged marriage system was a response to pressure from the outside world on the Jews. There was no assured longitudinal relationship between kin and land, or for that matter, between kin and possessions that were not moveable. Uncommitted members of families, without the promise of a measure of economic security, were vulnerable. So matchmakers worked hard in order to counteract a precarious future. At a later point in history, the betrothal ceremony became incorporated with the larger wedding ritual.
Getting back to the betrothal blessings, a cup of wine is lifted and each partner drinks from it, and then the rings are exchanged. By exchanging rings, the partners concretize a transaction. In gift-giving, something tangible is passed from one to another person. And special words drive that point home.
Not Vows But Words Nonetheless
Jews are wary of vows, which is to say that much ink has been spilled pertaining to the laws of getting out of promises made that should not have been. A great deal of the problems which beset civilization today have something to do with erroneous assumptions about the importance of this hour in which we live. We are arrogant to believe that we are in a position to declaim about what will come next, whether in two years from now or in twenty years. The most we can say is what we know to be true about what we bring forward right now.
There’s a formula that is said when two Jews marry: “Behold you are sanctified to me according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” When there’s a focus on what’s legal, these words make sense. However, in many cases (interfaith and same sex, for instance) we opt for words from the Song of Songs: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (This stuff about promises and never-ending love can be vacuous, so it’s best to say what we know to be true right now. And it’s good to affirm what’s powerfully present, and then build on it.)
A Word of Torah
Rabbi Joey makes it a point to bring in Torah from the week of the wedding. In this sense, it belongs to the couple getting married. It’s their Torah. A few words that unite both partners and assembled family and friends with a sacred rhythm take up four or five minutes. This notion of quoting from a text anchors what’s happening in a sacred narrative. For instance, if we read from the story of the sorcerer Balaam that week, it is as significant to the couple that it orients them as much as it does that they are getting married in the Willamette Valley. Text and context are everything.
The Public Reading of the Ketuba
Then comes the reading of the couple’s personalized ketuba. It’s out there for everyone to see, and the words are easily recognizable as reflecting these two people specifically. There are all kinds of “generic” ketubot, but this one clearly belongs to them!
The Sheva Berachot
These seven blessings bring us back to the Garden of Eden. They are cosmically potent, in that they complete the story of two people magically reuniting the bond that was broken in the original chapters of Genesis. A world is created again. Better yet, everyone present can relate to a vision of a restored house. When two people wed, they intermesh hopes and pictures of what life might be like, when people make the effort to till the garden. The sheva brachot (seven blessings) are first paraphrased in English (and there are a number of contemporary versions); and then they are chanted in the Hebrew. It’s particularly nice to get the crowd to sing “Amen” after each one.
The Breaking of the Glass
There are all kinds of reasons for this ritual. Commonly, it is understood that Jews mingle an experience of great happiness with a recollection of the sorrow that still accompanies us. We recall the Destruction of the Temple (twice, at the hands of the Babylonians and later on, the Romans), The Inquisition and Expulsion from Spain, the Crusades, the many pogroms and in this century the Shoah. However, it’s worth questioning why we persist with this tradition? Isn’t it enough that we celebrate a wedding, in order to overcome all of this sadness? Shouldn’t we be trying harder to put it aside? There are numerous teachings which shed light on this deep tradition. They all have to do with consciousness and the nature of love. If we naturally find it difficult to remain awake to who we are and how fortunate we are to be alive, if we fail even for a moment to treasure the intimacy that brought us in touch with our beloved in the first place – then how fragile we are. It would seem that the world goes on, outside the domain of the chuppah, capitalizing on the weaknesses of people. There is so much loneliness, poverty of spirit, and mindless competition. So often, people are like broken glass. The ritual which brings the Jewish wedding ceremony to a close is abrupt, like awakening from a dream. The work of love begins in a world that is, on the surface, often absent of love.
Have a small table set up at the chuppah, with two glasses of poured wine (of your choice). There should be a small glass (not a light bulb!) wrapped in a linen napkin, and an easel for the ketuba. The last item is not necessary, if the ketuba is small, but it can be unwieldy to try and have someone hold it during the wedding. Of course, have your rings on hand; and it may be a good idea to put them in the hands of one or two ring-bearers.
There are all kinds of taste, so we will not venture to make a recommendation as to where to hold a wedding. There are advantages to going outside on a beautiful day, but know that nature can be a distraction just as easily as it can serve to focus one’s ritual. A synagogue invokes a link to tradition, and yet sometimes it can be too large a space for the number of people who are going to assemble. A backyard can make the affair so much more personal, as can a living room create a sense of intimacy. What’s important is that two partners in a relationship understand that the people who come to a wedding play a role beyond serving as spectators. So if you set it up in a rectangle, with a “front” and a “back”, there is more of a chance that your friends and family will be watching from afar. If, on the other hand, you make every attempt to squeeze them around you (in a circle, or semi-circle), they will have access to the ritual. It will be as if it is their own, as well as yours. And you will feel their supportive presence up close. It makes every difference in the world to have this sea of faces all around you, as you grasp the power of the moment. In fact, many traditional weddings set it up that guests actually stand around the chuppah, rather than sitting it out. Up to around 120 people, this is an optimal arrangement, and it’s always easy to leave a couple of chairs up close for elder members of the family.
Siman Tov u’Mazel Tov!!!!! May it be a good sign for everyone!