The Rite Stuff

This summer I’m going to be the mother of the bride. And of the groom. Both my kids are following their mother’s example — being Jews marrying non-Jews.

When David and I got married, my mother was fairly insistent that we have a Jewish wedding. She found a local rabbi who specialized in intermarriages to officiate. After he’d recited the Seven Blessings and collected his check and gone home, David’s mother and his aunt marked our foreheads with vermillion and recited a Zoroastrian blessing.

David and I didn’t put too much thought into the whole thing. Neither one of us was particularly interested in rites or religion. Basically, we wanted make our mothers happy.

Since then, I’ve gotten much more involved in Judaism and knowledgeable about what goes into a Jewish wedding. I’ve even officiated at a few, using the authority vested in me by my online ordination as a minister in the Universal Life Church to perform Jewish weddings for intermarrying and other couples who can’t find a willing rabbi. I take this job very seriously, explaining the meanings and origins of the various elements that comprise the Jewish rite, and helping the couple craft a service that follows the tradition and works for their situation.

Given this background, you would think that when my kids asked me to suggest Jewish elements they might include in their weddings, I would have my answer ready. I didn’t. It took me a little while, and a conversation with my rabbi, to understand why.

My own wedding and those I’ve helped orchestrate begin with the Jewish rite and tweak it to suit a marriage that’s not strictly kosher. My kids and their significant others are starting more or less from scratch, drawing on Judaism and other sources to create a rite that’s appropriate and meaningful for them.

 

Marriage is a cultural construct and the wedding ceremony – whether it’s signing a paper in City Hall, reciting original poetry on a mountaintop or following a 1000-year-old script in front of 500 close friends – is a ritual. That is, a human invention in which objects and actions are invested with metaphorical meaning.

These meanings are fluid. Even in weddings that are strictly “by the book,” elements are usually interpreted in lots of different ways by the different people in attendance, or even by the same people. And happily so. When the groom breaks the glass at the end of the traditional Jewish wedding, he is simultaneously recalling the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, reminding the participants that the “broken” world still needs fixing, enacting the breaking of the hymen, warding off the Evil Eye, and signalling the end of the formal wedding ceremony. He’s also honoring Jewish tradition.

The breaking of the glass is probably the best known and most unique element in the Jewish wedding. But others lend themselves better to universal meanings.

The ketubah / wedding contract: Marriage is a contract. The ketubah was originally a contract in which the groom and the father of the bride agreed to the terms under which the woman’s financial support was being transferred from one man to another, including what would happen in the case of divorce. Today the contract is between the people getting married, and spells out their intentions, hopes and promises.

The hupah/ wedding canopy: Marriage officially establishes a home, and the canopy under which the couple stands during the ceremony represents this.

Wine: A wedding is a celebration. In pretty much all Jewish celebrations, from the birth of a child to a holiday to the beginning of the Sabbath, wine denotes joy, bounty and sensual delight. Saying a blessing over the wine before drinking it expresses gratitude for these things, and separates the occasion from just another drinking party. You don’t have to be Jewish, or even believe in God, to recognize the specialness of the occasion and be grateful for it. At Jewish weddings the couple drinks from a single cup, symbolizing their shared lot from the wedding day forward.

 

 

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