The road to a wedding is fraught with questions. Will it rain? Will the speeches drag on? Will you trip while walking down the aisle? For some couples, nerves around the ceremony go deeper, especially among those who want a traditional Jewish wedding – but sometimes, tradition doesn’t seem to jive with their contemporary values.
When my close friends Ashlee Woolfson, 28, and Eric Chapman, 29, got engaged, they didn’t talk too much about their ceremony. Since they wanted an Orthodox wedding, they assumed they wouldn’t have much say in what went on under the huppah. Woolfson would circle Chapman, he’d give her a ring and before Chapman stomped on a glass, a rabbi or cantor would recite the Sheva Brachot, the seven wedding blessings.
But when these millennials marry in September, their ceremony will be anything but formulaic. That’s because they’re infusing their progressive, egalitarian values into their special day, to create a halakhically Jewish wedding that feels right to them.
The Canadian wedding industry is a multi-billion dollar behemoth. But even though the party is a seudat mitzvah (a celebratory meal following the fulfillment of a mitzvah), some young couples are becoming more interested in what happens before the hora. And they’re working closely with their rabbis to reinterpret what goes on between the four poles of the huppah.
“The requirements for a kosher wedding can be summed up in a few words,” writes celebrated Jewish author Anita Diamant in her 2017 guidebook, The Jewish Wedding Now. “A bride accepts an object worth more than a dime from a groom; the groom recites a ritual formula to consecrate the transaction; these actions must be witnessed by two people who are not related to either the bride or groom.”
The Jewish wedding ceremony is actually two ancient ceremonies in one – the first is known as kiddushin (betrothal), as Diamant describes above, and the second is nissuin, when the Sheva Brachot are recited.
Many of the seminal moments – such as circling and breaking a glass – associated with Ashkenazic weddings are minhagim (customs), not halakhah (Jewish law). That gives couples lots of wiggle room to play with.
“I’ve found ways to work within the parameters of halakhah, to craft weddings that are halakhically traditional and also functionally egalitarian,” says Rabbi Aaron Levy. He’s the Orthodox rabbi (and founding director) of Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism, a pluralistic congregation just north of Toronto’s Kensington Market (he’s also marrying Woolfson and Chapman).
He meets with couples multiple times before their big day, to ensure they have a solid understanding of the various components that make up an Orthodox wedding. The goal? “For a couple’s wedding to be personally meaningful and special for them,” he says.
After her first meeting with Rabbi Levy, Woolfson called me. She was ecstatic, because she realized she could truly have the wedding of her dreams – one that would marry her sense of progressive feminism with her Judaism. She and Chapman built their ceremony from scratch. “We had the base requirements of a Jewish wedding and we went from there,” says Chapman, explaining how they modified different customs to make them more egalitarian.
To start, they’ll circle each other – a common alternative to having the bride walk seven circles around the groom – as many interpret the traditional version as a bride situating the groom at the centre of her universe. By circling each other, they’re indicating that their lives revolve around one another.
There also won’t be any rings at this wedding – rings, in fact, aren’t a requirement at Jewish weddings at all. Instead, Chapman will give Woolfson a mezuzah to accept for the kiddushin.
Traditionally, in an Orthodox ceremony, the bride neither speaks when she accepts the ring, nor does she offer anything in return. Sometimes, in a nod towards egalitarianism, the bride will give the groom a ring as a token or gift later in the ceremony, while saying the words, “ani le dodi ve dodi li” (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine).
To move beyond esthetics, so Woolfson does something that has halakhic weight during the ceremony, she’ll give Chapman a tallit, if he agrees to the terms of the ketubbah. To make this work, they’re transacting the ketubbah under the huppah – a common Sephardic tradition – instead of in a pre-ceremony ritual, as is customary in Ashkenazic practice.
Rebecca, a 20-something Torontonian, and her husband held their pre-ceremony a full week before their 2016 wedding. During her engagement period, Rebecca was doing graduate work in religion and Jewish studies at the University of Toronto and dedicated about half a year to creating a uniquely personal wedding that was steeped in her and her husband’s values.
“We are both observant Jews who really value egalitarianism, feminism, equality and equity and we really wanted those values be shown in a visceral way at our wedding,” she says. They worked closely with an Orthodox rabbi to ensure their wedding was 100 per cent kosher, while still reflecting their progressive beliefs.
The changes they made included the pre-ceremony, where their ketubbah and halakhic prenup were signed. What really made it distinctive was that they did kiddushin at this time. They had qualms about this part of the wedding, because kiddushin can be interpreted as a man acquiring a woman. “It was so anxiety-provoking and so emotionally problematic for both of us, but especially me. I didn’t want that to be a public spectacle and I didn’t want to undergo that in front of other people,” she says.
Along with doing the kiddushin and ketubbah signing in relative privacy, they incorporated as many female voices as possible into their public wedding ceremony.
While men said the Sheva Brachot in Hebrew, they had seven women read the English translation for each blessing. They also added an additional prayer, a so-called eighth Sheva Bracha by ninth-century scholar Amram Gaon, which one woman read in Hebrew, and another in English.
Instead of reading their ketubbah under the huppah, a friend of theirs read a brit ahuvim, an alternative wedding contract created by theologian Rachel Adler. This beautifully written document (which is often used for same-sex marriages) touches on the contemporary pillars of marriage, including monogamy, companionship and caring for each other in death and dying. It’s what Rebecca and her husband display prominently in their home instead of their ketubbah.
Since creating their alternative, yet halakhic, wedding, they’ve fielded questions from other newly engaged couples who are looking to shake up their ceremonies. “I’m happy we’ve become an unofficial resource for other people,” says Rebecca. She wants couples to know that they can play a role in shaping their own ceremonies. If you can choose your flowers and decor, you can also choose how you get married –and still keep it within the boundaries of Jewish law.
Yet, while Rabbi Adam Cutler – from Adath Israel, a Conservative congregation in Toronto – is happy to work with couples to create ceremonies that are meaningful to them, he estimates that 95 per cent of the couples he meets want a very traditional ceremony, regardless of their values.
“I think that they find meaning in tradition and they like being part of a line of Jewish couples who have done something very similar for hundreds of years,” he says.
Rabbi Sean Gorman, who leads the Conservative Pride of Israel congregation in Toronto, doesn’t get much pushback from couples, either. “I wish I did,” he says. “It would force me out of my box to let me think about these things a little more.”
There’s plenty of space for out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to having a traditional, yet progressive, Jewish wedding – Orthodox or not. Rabbi Julia Appel, the senior Jewish educator and campus rabbi for Hillel at the University of Toronto stays close to tradition for the weddings she officiates, while still reflecting contemporary values, especially around gender parity. “These life cycle ceremonies have been powerful for so many years because something essential about them works for people, so I try to maintain the essential ritual elements and the flow as much as I can,” she says.
For those who wrestle with how to amalgamate their progressive, 21st-century values with their traditional Jewish beliefs, there’s comfort knowing that they can still find real meaning in their wedding ceremonies – regardless of their denominational affiliations. For Woolfson, realizing she could have a feminist, Orthodox wedding was revelatory. “It was the first time I’d been excited about Judaism in a really long time,” she says.
As her big day approaches, the excitement is building for the moment when they both – like Rebecca and her husband – take part in one of the most iconic Jewish wedding customs. Yes, they’ll both be smashing a glass before everyone shouts, “Mazel tov!”