Given the inequality in Jewish Law regarding marriage, is it better to just have a civil marriage and avoid a rabbinic wedding altogether? What advantages does a Jewish wedding have? What can my rabbi do to guard my (the woman's) position and assure safety and security in this type of union?
When I read your question, I was reminded of the recent TIME magazine cover story, "Who Needs Marriage." TIME used statistics from a Pew study that shows less couples are opting for marriage these days. My sense is that even if the traditional marriage as outlined in the ketubah (Jewish wedding contract) and the Talmud is imbalanced, that is not the type of marriage we advocate for today. No relationship between two people is ever perfectly 50/50, but that is a wonderful goal to have and one I encourage couples to strive for.
For me, one of the best parts of being a rabbi is the experience of officiating at a wedding between two wonderful people. I have been fortunate to stand under the chuppah with many beautiful couples and when I do, I am reminded of how meaningful, spiritual, and most of all holy marriage is.
In Hebrew, there are two words for a wedding. Chatuna is used to describe the actual wedding (the ceremony and the reception following). However, the second word describes the actual ceremony. That word is kiddushin and it comes from the Hebrew word kadosh -- holy. The Jewish wedding is a holy event. A couple may choose to live together, even call each other a partner, but without the actual religious act of marriage, their relationship is not a holy relationship.
There are ways to guard the woman's status should the marriage dissolve and that can be done with an clause in the actual ketubah that was authored by Rabbi Saul Lieberman, known as the Lieberman Clause. This statement in the ketubah prevents the bride from ever being an agunah - a chained woman whose husband refuses her a get (Jewish bill of divorce).
Marriage may be less popular than it once was, but couples who stand under the chuppah with a rabbi, find that their union is blessed according to the ancient laws of our people.
First, congratulations on your upcoming marriage! It is somewhat sad that we feel, at times like this, the need to protect ourselves against possible negative outcomes; I hope, in your case, this is an excess of caution and self-protection, and that your relationship with your future husband is a loving and mutually fulfilling one.
As to your questions, I guess that as an Orthodox rabbi, I have to question some of your fundamental assumptions. I know that it is common to say so, but I do not believe there is inequality in Jewish Law regarding marriage; Judaism chooses different strategies for constructing a productive marriage than Western society, but I think that careful study of the sources shows that few if any of those create inequality, and many of those apparent inequalities (such as in monetary issues) are less matters of law than a reflection of the society in which those monetary arrangements were conceived, but which are fully amenable to adaptation. So, for example, while American practice leaves the ketubbah stuck in the form it took back in the time of the Talmud, the ketubbah was actually meant as a document to lay out the financial responsibilities of the husband to reasonably and properly take care of his wife, according to the standard they had both agreed upon. Even if we no longer feel comfortable changing the ketubbah itself, there is no reason for a couple not to formulate such an agreement, to insure that both partners are well taken care of.
When you ask whether it is better to have a civil marriage, I think you are missing two points of Jewish law: first, there is a mitsvah in the Torah for Jews to get married in the Jewish way (with a two stage process, kiddushin and nisuin, the ring ceremony and then the symbolic living together). So one advantage of a Jewish wedding is that it fulfills a Divine command. The Torah does not fully explain why it has set up a different marriage process for Jews than non-Jews, but one possibility, it seems to me, is that the two stages emphasize that Jewish marriages are meant to last for the whole lives of the couples (there are many fewer legitimate reasons for divorce in Jewish law than accepted by Western society).
The question of divorce brings us to the second flaw in thinking that a civil marriage might be better than a Jewish one-- while civil marriage does not fulfill the mitsvah of Jewish marriage, it is quite possibly enough of a marriage to incur the requirement of divorce, which is what I assume you were looking to avoid. The one demonstrable area of disadvantage in Jewish marriage is not in the marriage at all, it is in its dissolution. So here, you might have thought that civil marriage would avoid the issue, but from a Jewish law perspective, it is not at all clear that it does.
Before I suggest an alternative, let me note that I think even that disadvantage has become exaggerated because of particular rabbinic rulings, but not the system itself. I think it is fully plausible to read the Talmud and important rabbis as saying that any time it has become clear that a couple will no longer live together as husband and wife, courts can coerce the husband to give his wife a get, a bill of divorce. Rabbinic rulings of the last several hundred years have gone in a different direction than that, and we have to work within the rulings of our time, but I do think it worth noting that this is not the system or the Torah's view-- as I mentioned before, the Torah's expectation was that marriage should be life-long (barring a few exceptional cases). When a case like that came up, and a husband refused to grant a divorce, the secondary expectation was that the court would effectively and expeditiously secure a get for the wife. Modern rabbinic practice has become leery of using coercion (overly cautious, in my personal view), creating some of the problem to which you allude.
But those same rabbis have worked hard to find a solution, and a popular one today is one that your rabbi can use to easily guard your-- the woman's-- position and assure safety and security. The RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) has formulated a prenuptial agreement that conforms with the strictest standards of halachah but has also proven highly effective in convincing husbands that they gain nothing by withholding a get. I would urge you to ask your rabbi about such an agreement, which I have repeatedly heard reduces the incidence of recalcitrant husbands to almost nil.
Once again, let me extend my best wishes on your forthcoming wedding, my hopes that you and your chosen one experience marriage as fulfilling, and that it lasts in health and happiness for the rest of your (long) life.
Behind this question I sense a more basic concern about ritual that deserves to be noted. We often see ritual as a fixed reality, something we need to go through to achieve our desired goal. For example, in order to have a Jewishly-sanctioned marriage you need to go through the standard wedding ritual. I know many people who have questioned that assumption.
Over the past 50 years many individuals have opted to design their own rituals in ways that honor the tradition but respond to contemporary concerns. New rituals have been created to welcome daughters into the Covenant of our ancestors and that has prompted changes in the way some people construct the Brit Mila ceremony for their sons. New ceremonies have been created to mark the onset of menopause. Innovations have even been developed for such a venerable ritual as preparing the body for burial. At root these changes have occurred because individuals do not want the ritual done to them, they want a hand in crafting a ritual that is responsive to our sacred tradition and to their contemporary reality.
Weddings are no exception. There now exist a variety of texts for the Ketubah, the marriage contract, which reflect different theological and sociological understandings. Some rely on examples that were developed centuries ago but never came into popular usage. Many exemplify an egalitarian approach to the marriage relationship.
Similarly individuals have adapted the rituals of the wedding ceremony in creative ways. At some weddings both the bride and the groom circle one another as a symbol of their mutual roles within the marriage. Double ring ceremonies affirm the mutuality of the relationship into which these two loving friends enter. If there is a place within the wedding where Torah is taught, it can be taught by both bride and groom, each in their own voice. Among the most beautiful ceremonies I have witnessed are those where the sheva berachot, the seven wedding blessings, are paired with prayers presented by the closest friends of the couple. The sanctity of the moment is sealed not only by the Divine blessings but by the clear articulation of love and support from friends and family as an integral part of the holy ritual.
The choice to have a Jewish wedding brings with it several advantages. The couple takes their place within a chain of tradition stretching back to the very roots of our history. Within the boundaries of the ceremony, even with the changes any couple may introduce, the couple acknowledges that their relationship is connected through the generations of our people and by the Presence of God.
The wedding ceremony can be a ritual that reflects the concerns and the sensibilities of bride and groom. It does not need to be something done to you, but can express the love you have for one another in ways that echo our ancient traditions. May the voice of the bride and the voice of the groom be heard celebrating under the huppa and for many years to come!
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