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In the Covenant of Whom?

I was staring at my computer screen and trying to decide what in the Jewish wedding I think is particularly Jewish and what might be universal …

Signing the ketubah is probably my favorite ritual aspect of the Jewish wedding ceremony. I think that one of the main reasons the ritual around the ketubah is powerful because it allows an intense personal focus on the couple while also drawing their community around them to support the decision they are making.

After my wedding, many of my non-Jewish friends told my husband and me that they found a lot of meaning in our ceremony and would think about using pieces of it in their own “imaginary future weddings.” I was both surprised and delighted when Nikole, one of my best friends, contacted me to tell me that she and her partner were planning an interfaith wedding and had decided to incorporate a “non-Jewish ketubah ceremony” (even though neither of them is Jewish). She asked if I would officiate that portion of their wedding. I was thrilled that she wanted me to officiate a religious ritual–especially since this would be the first wedding I would help officiate.

Nikole emailed me a photo of her ketubah, which was mostly in English and used much of the traditional Jewish text. While reading it, it suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea how to officiate a “non-Jewish ketubah ceremony.” The ketubah and its traditions are based in the “covenant of Israel,” a bond with the larger Jewish community. Yet the ceremony also reflects a desire to write out our commitments to each other—as a contract, a love poem, or some hybrid. I reminded myself that the wedding was a long way off and I would be able to figure this out.

And then, suddenly, it was the day before the wedding, and I had not written a word. I realized I had severely procrastinated the task of figuring out how to simultaneously bless my dear friends and honor my tradition. I finally admitted to myself that I was nervous about being the representative “rabbi” to nearly everyone in the room. So there I was, in a lawn chair in my sister-in-law’s back yard, staring at my computer screen and trying to decide what in the Jewish wedding I think is particularly Jewish and what might be universal. I had never thought that this was how and where I would formulate my rabbinic approach to Jewish weddings!

The next day, I stood in front of two people who love each other deeply, and here is some of what I told them:

“In a Jewish wedding, the ketubah, or marriage contract, is signed in order to specify the commitments that the partners are making to one another. In ancient times and still in some Orthodox Jewish communities, the ketubah is mainly about the financial commitments that the husband owes the wife if they should divorce.

However, as we have evolved, so too the tradition of the ketubah has evolved into a variety of forms. Many Jews now use the ketubah to describe the emotional and spiritual commitments that they make to each other, and thereby craft a vision of the life they intend to create together. And now we have an even newer iteration of the ketubah–one made between non-Jews.

The word ketubah means contract. It derives from the Hebrew root katav that also turns into the word for “writing” and for “that which is written.” The ketubah comes from a tradition that considers writing to be a powerful force. Through writing, the words become clearer and are saved for our future selves. Today, you write the commitments into being. You take your good intentions and make them more than just that—you make them into tangible commitments, tangible words springing from feelings of hope and love.”

After the couple, their witnesses, and I signed the ketubah, I ended the ceremony by telling them:

“In a traditional Jewish wedding, you would now be considered legally bound to one another. However, as you have signed outside the bounds of Jewish faith, and thus you have no religious legal body holding you accountable to how you treat each other, it is important that you remember that it is you who are accountable for remembering these commitments. I hope you will use all of your resources to help you.  Call upon your families, your friends, your spiritual communities, and even the queer family you have been so blessed to find. I wish you luck in keeping these resources close to you even when difficulty comes, which it will. And may the writing of these words make them come into being every day of your lives.”

Then, I looked up from my speech and out into the crowd. I was surprised to see that many of the guests were crying, and it was immediately clear to me how silly I had been in my nervousness. This opportunity was not a task to be managed but rather an incredible opportunity to share the beauty of my tradition. Rather than lay sole claim to that tradition, I could instead share the deep Jewish tradition of writing words to bring meaning to our world. I could share the sense of sacredness with which we approach the spousal relationship. And surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly), in sharing these gifts with my interfaith family of friends, I had deepened my own understanding of the power of Judaism.

Sarah Barasch-Hagans has just completed her first year of rabbinical school at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She is Ritualwell’s student intern.

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