Meaning in marriage

The Jewish Family Identity Forum

Rituals in Jewish life series

By Candace R. Kwiatek

Candace R. Kwiatek

In the midst of my annual whirlwind cleaning spree in preparation for Passover, I managed to pause for a few moments to reminisce over my decades-old wedding album.

The momentary calm of the indoor bedeken (veiling) undone by the blustery outdoor breeze.

The dizzying circling of the groom in the blazing June heat.  The restaged ceremony for the photographer who forgot to load the film. (Really!) And then…visions of a different time and a different place but the same ceremony, for my son and his bride just two years ago.

Based on the oodles of books, magazines, websites, and industries devoted to weddings, you might think marriage would be on the rise, but that’s not the case.

As unmarried cohabitation has gained greater acceptance, more women have become financially self-sufficient, and out-of-wedlock children have lost the social stigma, the obligation to marry for sex, security, and family has nearly disappeared.

Other social trends have impacted marriage as well.  Paraphrasing from a fascinating article by Jan Latten at (Trends in Cohabiting and Marriage), the secularization of society has led to an increasing rejection of religious norms, such as marriage rites. At the same time, the loss of religion’s “otherworldly perspective (has) reduced man to a creature living only for the here and the now… This means relationships are tested on the basis of their (immediate) value…”

Relationships are no longer a “social matter,” Latten continues. They are personal connections based only on emotion and reciprocity.

“All emphasize the here and the now, all aim for perfection and all prefer enjoyment over self-sacrifice.”

The result, Latten concludes, is that relationships are legitimately dissolved “when the first cracks appear in the emotional foundation.”

Latten’s observations are reflected in the much-celebrated Atlantic cover story by Kate Bolick, All the Single Ladies: “Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things…To account for my behavior, all I had were two intangible yet undeniable convictions: something was missing; I wasn’t ready to settle down.”

Modern relationships: Self-centered. Functional. Reciprocal. Entertaining. Precarious. Somehow, they don’t sound all that desirable.

What values does Judaism celebrate in relationships, especially in marriage? Could Jewish ritual suggest a more admirable model?

Chupah & ketubah
In contrast to modern views, Judaism asserts that marriage is not a private affair. It is a public declaration of commitment, announcing the desire to create a family, the bedrock of a healthy society.

The chupah (wedding canopy) symbolizes the home, held aloft by family and friends, open on all sides to welcome guests and to symbolize the many pathways to building relationships.

The ketubah, a written document of obligations, provides the guidelines, security against the vicissitudes of passion, age, and illness. Relationships are much less fragile when supported by family and friends, and, as in a marriage, when legally documented.

Circling & ring
Marriage is other-centered.  As she circles her groom in front of the chupah, the bride turns to keep him always in view; the focus of the groom as he puts the ring on her finger is his bride.

Meaningful relationships are about wanting to act for the benefit of the other person, even to the point of self-sacrifice. This consideration of the “other” before oneself is a sign of maturing, of leaving behind the instant gratification, “it’s all about me,” “never-grow-up” Peter Pan mentality of the young child.

Sheva Brachot
A number of the Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings) are about joy and celebration, beginning with the first one over wine. Relationships – especially marriage –  should be fun.

In contrast to the somewhat lighthearted blessing over wine, the second introduces an element of the marriage relationship that has no parallel.  “Marriage makes the relationship divine,” writes Aron Moss in Why Get Married?

“Until they are married, a couple’s commitment to each other is a human commitment…The blessings made under the chupah invoke God’s name upon the couple, and bring God into the union as a partner…”

Blessing transforms a worldly act into something profound and holy, just as a candlelit dinner is transformed when preceded by the Shabbat blessing.

And what is the point of invoking Adam in the third blessing? In Genesis, Adam’s mate is described as an ezer k’negdo, “a help opposite him.”  The ideal partner is one who both supports (help) and challenges (opposite): one who expresses love and confidence and encouragement and who also challenges the other to consider new possibilities and ideas, to grow and mature.

Breaking the glass

This sobering act cautions us that no relationship remains at the emotional high of the ceremony or “rose-colored glasses” perfection of the moment. The realistic relationship is one that pursues a long-term balance, harmony rather than fanfare.

Are the “use ‘em and lose ‘em” revolving door relationships of today really that fulfilling? Have we also been hoodwinked into believing that a marriage today reflects the unchanged ideals and values of the “ancient patriarchal institution of marriage?”

Keeping a tradition doesn’t necessarily mean turning back the clock; in fact, when done right, it’s likely to create a more fulfilling future.

Family Discussion: Current research suggests that health and longevity are intimately connected to quality relationships. What can you glean about such relationships — whether with friends, family, or partners — from the Jewish marriage rituals? Can your gleanings tell you something about what it means to be a mensch (good person)?

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