As a Jewish feminist, I’m often critical of marriage. And, as a 26-year old (this month) who attended Jewish camp, leadership/environmental programs in Israel, and was active in Jewish youth groups growing up, I’ve been frequenting my fair share of Jewish weddings lately. These occasions bring me joy, nostalgia, and an overall reminder in the beautiful power of ritual and ceremony. But they also bring me a piercing sense of anxiety – one that I’m sure I am not alone in experiencing. I see marriage as a heteronormative and ideologically oppressive institution that promotes a hierarchy of relationships – being married as the most desirable form of a relationship, and remaining single as a failure of the female, much like not having children is seen as a failure of womanhood. I see the seventy billion dollar (or more) American wedding industry as representative of the capitalist impulse involved in the planning of weddings, bachelorette parties, and honeymoons, not to mention the violence involved in the so-called “blood diamonds” of so many engagement rings.
It’s important to separate weddings from marriage, and so I am not going to make a case for or against marriage – it is an institution and ideology too large to reduce to a pro or con stance. But when it comes to weddings, Jewish weddings in particular, I am torn again and again. For those unfamiliar, a traditional Jewish ceremony goes like this, though of course it varies:
On the day of the wedding, the Bride (kallah) and Groom (chatan) are treated like a queen and king. The day begins with Kabbalat Panim (literally, the “greeting of faces”) in which the bride and groom sit in separate rooms. The bride sits on a throne-like chair while her immediate family stands around her and guests line up to greet the queen-like bride to give and receive blessings. In some traditions, the bride will bless the single guests in hopes that it will increase chances of marriage. During this time, the groom has his own holy hour, the Tisch. During the Tisch (literally, table) the male guests sit around a table greet the groom, as many of them eat and toast the groom.
Next is the signing of the Ketubah, or marriage contract, followed by the Bedecken, or the veiling of the bride by the groom. The bride and groom then proceed to the Chuppah, or wedding canopy, which consists of four poles and covered by a cloth, to symbolize the first roof the bride and groom share together. The lack of walls to the canopy encourages the bride and groom to always be open to guests in their home. The bride then circles the groom seven times, as the number seven is an incredibly auspicious number in Judaism, including the seven days of creation. The rest of the ceremony involves blessings given by the Rabbi, the reading of the Ketubah, the giving of the rings, and the breaking of the glass to symbolize the destruction of the temple and the fragility of marriage. After the ceremony concludes, the bride and groom proceed to a private room to have their first moments together, called Yihud. This is followed by the reception including dancing (I’m sure everyone is familiar the horah), a meal, and my favorite, the Shtick, in which weddings guests entertain the bride and groom with costumes, dancing, and performances.
The above is of course a general map of traditional Jewish weddings, and as weddings are lived they involve a number of deviations and additions. But with each wedding I’ve attended, and the many more I am bound to attend, I find myself having to negotiate a variety of emotions. The queen-like bride sitting on the throne-like chair represents to me the social reproduction of marriage envy and the way we fetishize brides and grooms as holier-than-thou beings. But the openness of the wedding canopy reminds me of the importance of openness in one’s home and the value of selfless giving. Watching the groom veil the bride reminds of the strict delineation of gender roles, and the way women must cover their hair and body to be modest and pure, but every time I witness the groom breaking of the glass I am reminded of tradition in Judaism to recognize ambiguity, fragility, and the desire to repair the world.
At every Jewish wedding I attend, I suppose I continue to occupy a liminal space of identification and disidentification with the bride, the community, and the traditions. I’ll never forget how beautifully my sister and her husband occupied the spaces of kallah and chatan at their wedding, and the joy I felt as I held the train of her dress as she circled her groom seven times. And I still managed to throw in a bit of marriage critique in my maid-of-honor speech. I suppose that’s just how I negotiate my hodgepodge of identities and desires, and I somehow find satisfaction in the struggle.
Amy Levin completed her M.A. in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religion, gender and queer theory, secularization, spirituality, and consumption. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer and a practicing feminist.
6 thoughts on “Jewish Weddings: Identity, Desire, and Anxiety by Amy Levin”
I’m sure weddings and marriage are wonderful and you are lucky to be straight and to decide whether you want one or not but some of us aren’t that lucky and as a feminist shouldn’t you be respectful of everyone’s right to get married or not?
Thank you for this comment. As I said, my post was not about a critique of marriage – although as I begin with in my post, I do think marriage is a heteronormative institution that in its enactment is extremely problematic. I apologize if it did not come through that I am more than respectful of everyone’s right to get married.
But for this particular essay, I’m instead interrogating the Jewish wedding ceremony as a ritual which I believe can be both meaningful and symbolically oppressive, depending on its interpretation. I know many Jewish gay couples who struggle with the wedding ceremony, having to decide which traditions to embrace and which to eschew. I also did not mention whether or not I was straight, nor was I interested in promoting my own interest or non-interest in getting married. I am looking at the symbolism involved in religious ritual, and attempting to incite some discussion on marriage as a religious tradition – one that I believe many feminists struggle with.
You don’t mention which Jewish denomination(s) said weddings take place in, but traditional Jewish weddings the bride is not a partner in the ketubah.
‘According to the Jewish view of marriage, marriage is a contractual agreement between two people with legal rights and obligations. A Ketubah is a marriage contract that explains the basic material, conjugal and moral responsbilities of the husband to his wife. It is signed by the groom, as well as two witnesses, and given to the bride during the wedding ceremony.”
The above quote which I took from a Jewish website indicates that the ketubah is traditionally signed by the groom and 2 (male) witnesses, while at the same time it glides over the fact that the bride does not sign it and establishes the fiction that the ketubah is a contract made between the bride and groom even though it was not. The traditional Jewish view of marriage is not about equality between two equal partners, nor has marriage been so in other patriarchal cultures.
I remember going to lots of weddings before I was married and always feeling “what’s wrong with me” at the same time, not wanting traditional marriage.
The gay marriage revolution, which on the one hand is great great great, also serves to make those who are not married feel like we are outside the norm.
I agree with your argument, I just wanted to point out that men feel this way as well. Sure, a single mid-40s man will not suffer the same sort of societal pressure or stigma that a similarly situated woman would, but these pressures and expectations exist for men as well.
I’m not Jewish, and it was really cool to hear about the wedding traditions in this manner. Thanks for the interesting read.
“but these pressures and expectations exist for men as well.” Yeah right. eyes roll
Yes everything on earth exists for men as well… except pregnancy, so what?
No, not all the world revolves around you guys, and NO you don’t face the kind of pressures women deal with concerning marriage. Women were once (in the west) forced to marry men to get economic support, forced, kept out of the work force. Marriage is a horrifying patriarchal institution, and I think there should be no romance around it. I’ve said this many times before.
Marriage is NOT THE SAME for men and women, not the same at all. And male pressures are just male excuses, it is the institution itself at issue.
Bully for any hetero woman who has the temerity to say NO to it. I have no sympathy for “men suffer too” — that’s not a feminist statement at all, and has nothing to do with a feminist analysis of what marriage truly is.