This post continues the weekly series on the Nishmablog that features responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. This week's presentation is to one of the questions to which Rabbi Hecht responded.
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Question: Watching the Royal Wedding, I was struck by how different it is to a Jewish wedding. Traditional Jewish ceremonies seem not to include vows to each other, for example. How can that be? Isn't that the whole point of the ceremony?
Our initial response may be that they certainly are. Are they not formal acts used on a religious occasion? But is a Jewish wedding a religious occasion as we generally understand this term? Within the context of the religions that surround us, weddings most certainly are, for it is a clergyman that is the active individual, marrying the couple. Within the world of Halacha, Jewish Law, though, this is not the case. Rabbis do not marry. The technical function of a Rabbi at a Jewish wedding is simply to ensure that all the legal (halachic), technical details marking this formation of a contractual entity of marriage are met. I know, this doesn’t sound too romantic. Yet isn’t this what marriage is really all about? You wonder why there are no vows in a traditional Jewish marriage ceremony for as you question: “Isn’t that the whole point of the ceremony?” Well isn’t the whole point of a marriage the formation of a new contractual entity, formed by a man and a woman, which defines the variant rights and obligations of these two parties to this new entity? The objective of the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony is thus to mark the exact moment that this new entity is created, not to define the nature of this commitment. That is already inherent to the formation of this entity.
It is within this context that we can understand the Jewish wedding. At its basic simplicity, at a Jewish wedding, a man and a woman marry each other. They are the participants in this activity. They marry themselves -- another, such as a rabbi, does not marry them -- just as in any contractual arrangement, the parties to the contract are the ones who form the contractual bond. The first mishna in Tractate Kiddushin thus informs us that there are three ways that this bond may be formed. The mishna’s use of the Hebrew root verb of koneh, generally translated as acquire, is often misunderstood. The mishna states that “is acquired (niknit) in one of three ways,” but what the root of this word koneh really reflects is a change in legal status due to a new association and what the mishna is stating is that a new marital unit can be formed in one of three ways. The practice today is to do so through a monetary transaction, namely the giving of a ring (an object of value) from the man to the woman done so with a statement that this transaction is done so for the purpose of marriage, i.e. to create this contractual entity. See, further, Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha’ezer 27:1. The universal practice of using a ring is already mentioned in Tosfot, Kiddushin 9a, d.h. V’hilchata.
We still, though, should be able to refer to this undertaking as a ceremony for, albeit it is not performed by clergy per se, it is still of a religious nature. Further discussion of this issue would take us into a whole investigation of what we mean by the term ‘religion’ and that is clearly outside the parameters of this response. The fact is, though, that the term ceremony may still be most applicable to this event for a wedding is clearly a public occasion. There is the further necessity that this action of marriage be done in the presence of two witnesses. On one hand, a traditional Jewish marriage ceremony is a private action undertaken by the parties to a contract that formalizes the exact moment that this new unity is formed and thus new rights and obligations emerge. It is done, however, in public – as indicated by this need for two witnesses and by the very nature of weddings to have guests – to inform the world of this new entity which must now act as so in the public domain as well. There are no vows in this “ceremony” for any responsibilities of the parties of this new contractual entity are already understood by the parties as inherent to the creation of this very entity. The ceremony simply marks the new entity’s institution.
The fact is, though, that the ketuba, the marriage contract, which explicitly outlines many of these obligations (especially those of the husband to the wife) is still read at a traditional marriage ceremony. The ketuba, in Aramaic, is, actually, an interesting focus of traditional weddings in that, in addition to being publicly read, it is signed publicly, prior to the wedding, by witnesses who are assured by the groom of his acceptance of his obligations. For more on the ketuba, one may wish to read The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage by Rabbi Maurice Lamm, pp. 197-206. The reading of the ketuba and its public signing by witnesses, however, are not necessary parts of the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony. These activities should not be seen as supplanting the vows found in other wedding ceremonies. The simple fact is that the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony is qualitatively different than other wedding ceremonies. The purpose of other, religious wedding ceremonies is to sanctify the union within the context of the religion. This is done by invoking the religion’s acceptance of this union through the declared vows within a religious context and the declaration of the officiating clergy that this union is indeed sanctified. Traditional Judaism, however, believes that a marriage union is inherently sanctified if the parties to this new entity themselves form this union in a proper fashion and with proper intent, accepting the rights and obligations that are inherent to this new union. It is then the public demonstration of this private commitment which marks the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony.