Religion & Beliefs

Don’t Want to Get Symbolically Sold Into Marriage? Consider a B’rit Ahuvim.

There have been quite a few recent posts here about issues regarding ketubot. In April, the lovely Laurel posted about problems of aesthetics and wound up discovering some pretty awesome options. Earlier this month, titillating Tamar took it a tad … Read More

By / August 30, 2007

There have been quite a few recent posts here about issues regarding ketubot. In April, the lovely Laurel posted about problems of aesthetics and wound up discovering some pretty awesome options. Earlier this month, titillating Tamar took it a tad further with a conversation about the actual language in a traditional ketubah, and how the document mainly functions as an outdated legal and financial contract. A commenter on that post noted the "lack of a woman's voice in the traditional ketubah."

As a woman, a writer, and a Jew, I am deeply affected by words and symbols. When I first heard that the wedding tradition of breaking a glass might have been meant to symbolize the anticipated breaking of the bride's hymen, I was more than a little distressed. Likewise, when I learned that the traditional Jewish wedding is a legal ceremony in which the man purchases the woman I found myself looking for more evolved alternatives that might still satisfy my taste for tradition. The incredibly inspired and creative Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold led me to a book by brilliant author and professor, Rachel Adler, titled Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics.

Engendering Judaism considers how women's full participation can transform Jewish law, prayer, sexuality, and marriage. Chapter 5, "B'rit Ahuvim: A Marriage Between Subjects," concerns itself entirely with the "unresolved tensions between woman as possession and woman as partner [that] are embedded in the classical liturgy upon which all modern Jewish wedding ceremonies draw." Adler calls the traditional legal language for Jewish marriage "fundamentally incompatible with egalitarian relationships," and demonstrates how we may "engender a truly covenantal marriage" with "a lovers' covenant, b'rit ahuvim."

These texts depict the marriage of a young virgin as a private commercial transaction in which rights over the woman are transferred from the father to the husband. This commercial origin is reflected in the relational terminology. The word for husband is ba'al, the general term for an owner, master, possessor of property, bearer of responsibility, or practitioner of a skill. No specialized relationship term exists for wife; she is simply isha, woman. The owner of a house is ba'al ha-bayit, the man responsible for an open pit is ba'al ha-bor, the owner of an ox is ba'al hashor, the owner of a slave is ba'al ha-eved, and the husband of a woman is ba'al isha. The sole signifier for marital relationship is the grammatical form of the construct (semikhut), which binds man and woman as subject and object of an implied preposition: ba'al isha, the master of a woman; eshet ish, the woman of a man.

Rabbinic espousal — kiddushin — bridges the girl's passage from her father's hands to her husband's. This transfer procedure is designed to prevent the anarchic and world-disordering expression of autonomous female sexuality that could occur during the dangerous hiatus between these two statuses of daughter and wife, when a girl might consider herself in her own independent domain.

In the Mishna, there is only one approved method for appropriating a wife: monetary acquisition.

At the same time, the rabbis etherealize the commercial transaction of biblical bride purchase into a symbolic act in which, at the ceremony at least, only a token sum of money changes hands. This sum, as little as a penny (peruta) according to the academy of Hillel, represents the biblical bride price, now transformed into a marriage settlement, written into the ketubbah document and paid not to the father but to the woman herself in the event of divorce or widowhood. It is as if the woman were purchased with an annuity due to mature at a future time. As for the token sum used for kiddushin, Ze'ev Falk explains, "the amount was then returned to the husband together with the other items of the wife's property, so that the 'purchase' had become a mere formality."

Adler says that "some apologists argue that marital acquisition is merely a figure of speech and bears no relation to its literal meaning." Of course, modern brides know that they're not actually being purchased, even if that is what the ancient text implies. Why, then, with this intellectual knowledge, can it prove to be so emotionally and spiritually troublesome? I decided to ask my friend, Dr. Jennifer Kaplan, a Jew, a woman, and a practicing psychologist.

"You wouldn’t sign a contract for a house with terms that you didn’t agree to. Seeing is believing. When we see what’s in the contract, it has an affect on us. There’s a part of us that’s offended, and there’s another part of us that says, “Yeah, it’s okay, it’s not literal.” But there’s still that part of you that signs your name to something you don’t subscribe to, and that doesn’t feel good."

Adler argues that women have good reason not to "feel good" about the ketubah, and the ritual of kiddushin. She explains that while "the purchase of the bride may have dwindled to a mere formality in the rabbinic transformation of marriage, her acquisition is no formality. The language of acquisition still accurately reflects a relationship in which the woman has been subsumed and possessed."

So, how do we reconcile our love of tradition with our desire for evolution? Adler has been kind enough to conceive of an alternative ceremony and contract, all the while working to ensure that as many elements as possible from the traditional ceremony were preserved. Here's a description and outline:

The b'rit ahuvim section that replaces the elements of kiddushin (the erusin blessing, declaration of acquisition, giving of the ring, and reading of the ketubbah) is both preceded and followed by traditional words and traditional melodies — and, of course, the ceremony is performed under a huppah. The order of the service reflects this "frame" of traditional elements:

1. Mi adir 'al ha-kol (traditional invocation of blessing for the couple). 2. Officiant's speech (traditional). Following the invocation is a traditional time for the officiant to speak briefly, outlining and explaining the ceremony and its meaning and speaking personally about the couple. The officiant should take this opportunity to explain what a b'rit ahuvim is and to distinguish it from kiddushin. 3. Blessing over wine (analogous to the tradition, but distinct from it). In the kiddushin ceremony, this blessing would be followed by the erusin blessing, and only the couple would drink from the cup. Here, the officiant should explain that a blessing over a cup of wine is a way to begin a holy celebration. To distinguish this cup from the erusin cup, it may be passed to all those around the huppah. 4. Reading of the b'rit document in Hebrew and in English (analogous to the reading of the ketubbah but clearly distinguished from it by its contents). 5. Kinyan, acquisition of the partnership by placing symbols of pooled resources in the bag and lifting. This will be the most unfamiliar part of the ceremony, but it may also be powerful precisely because it is new. If the partners have put in distinctive personal objects and intend to talk about their significance for the partnership, they should do so before lifting the bag. Wedding rings can be placed in the bag at this time. The partners then lift the bag together and recite the blessing. They could then put on their rings. 6. The Sheva Berakhot, Seven Blessings (traditional). 7. Shattering the glass (traditional). 8. Yihud (traditional). Immediately after the ceremony, the partners go into a room to be alone together.

Adler's approach is deeply respectful and truly inspired. You can check out an example of a b'rit covenant in PDF form, courtesy of Rabbi Korngold, who chose a b'rit ahuvim for her own wedding.

B'rit or no B'rit, women ill at ease with the idea of being symbolically purchased can take this dilemma even further, turning it into an act of Tikkun Olam. The way I see it, we are the lucky ones. We get to question and debate the symbolic meanings of ancient rituals, then we get to choose what we want, dance the Horah and eat wedding cake. Our concerns are linguistic and theoretical. Not so for the thousands of women and children who are sold into slavery around the world each year. According to the Not For Sale Campaign, an estimated 27 million people around the globe are the victims of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation from which they cannot free themselves. Perhaps the best thing that those of us who are uncomfortable with the idea of being commodified can do, whether we choose a ketubah or b'rit or neither, is take that passion and emotion, and funnel it into working on behalf of those who truly have been sold.