Jewish Wedding Traditions

This is the second of a series of postings from an interview with Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer about Jewish wedding traditions.

I want to talk about several of the Jewish wedding ceremony traditions and their symbolism, but first let’s explore the core Jewish beliefs surrounding marriage.   Pope Francis recently released an “apostolic exhortation” called “The Joy of Love” welcoming into the faith single parents, gay people and unmarried straight couples who are living together.  This is an important milestone for Catholics but the door is still closed on same-sex marriages.  The Jewish Reform movement has been advocating for change in civil laws pertaining to same-gender relations since the 1970s.  In 1996, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement’s governing organization, passed a resolution that they “support the right of gay and lesbian couples to share fully and equally in the rights of civil marriage.”  When you are asked to officiate a wedding wherein the couple is of different faiths or of the same sex how do you decide your involvement?

When I am asked to officiate at a wedding when the couple are of different faiths or the same sex there is a thinking process that I embrace that doesn’t necessarily involve the same thinking process when the couples are of the same faith or of different sex.  When I first came to Chicago and established a congregation of deaf people (our congregation has since that time transformed into a community of hearing and deaf people) and most of my parishioners were deaf, I was faced with the Jewish law that two deaf people could not get married to one another unless they showed a strong sense of mental competency.  The Talmud taught that people who are deaf are not necessarily on the same mental playing field as we are.  When the ancient rabbis saw that the deaf person could understand her situation in life by processing an excellent knowledge of sign language, the ancient rabbis were glad to officiate at a wedding of two deaf people.  (A deaf person in Talmud is called a heresh which means she who cannot speak, cannot hear and is born this way.)  If two people of the same sex today visit me and ask me to marry them, I apply the same principle that the ancient rabbis apply if two deaf people are entering a marriage agreement.  They need first and foremost to show me that they love one another deeply and secondly they need to illustrate that they fully understand the ramifications that might ensue when they marry as two men or two women.  The Talmud uses the expression “ben deah.”  This means complete mental acumen or awareness.  If the gay couple has a strong sense of ben deah, a love for Judaism and a love for one another I welcome them under the Chuppah.

When two people of different faiths ask me to officiate at their marriage, I ask if the non-Jewish partner wishes to convert to Judaism.   If she doesn’t, we enter into a period of study where the three of us regularly meet to learn Torah and see how it differs from the Christian scriptures and Christian holidays.  When the wedding day arrives, both participants to the wedding ceremony have a firm understanding of Torah academically and spiritually.  I have hopes that they will use their new found knowledge to create a healthy marriage.  My aim throughout this study period with the two participants is to teach that, even though we come from different religions, each one of us will use that which is the same and that which is different to make for a healthy marriage.  In essence, I don’t want to build walls separating us, I want to tear down walls so that we can become one family under one God.

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