Thursday, 12 July 2012

I've Been Thinking About Getting Married


No, not that, I’m happily married already thank you! But the process of marriage as understood in Jewish Law has been on my mind. Jewish marriage rituals are suffused with rituals and language borrowed from Jewish contractual law. At the heart of Jewish marriage ritual is an act of ‘Kinyan’ – purchase. ‘A woman is acquired in three ways’ opens the Talmudic Tractate on Kiddushin – marriage and the Halachic process of bringing man and woman together is seeped with a sense of a woman as chattel, sometimes ameliorated, sometimes excused, but irreducibly present. Of course none of the couples I support around their marriages sees their marriage in ‘acquisitive’ terms and certainly none of the women sees themselves as chattel and, indeed, very few couples seem particularly worried this acquisitive taint. I invariably suggest some minor ways to lessen some of the acquisitive nature of the traditional service, but these offers are often declined by the couple in search of a supposedly fully authentic service. But there are theoretical and also practical concerns with the acquisitive model. Despite polygamy disappearing from mainstream Judaism centuries ago, theoretically only the wife commits to monogamy in a traditional service – the husband doesn’t. More practically problematic is the case of women refused divorce by men who refuse to let go of what they perceive as their personal property to make suffer. There is also a spiritual problem with celebrating commitment using language and rituals that no-one under the chuppah, Rabbi or couple, literally commits to.


My colleague, Rabbi Joel Levy, pointed out a different problem. If a woman does not think she is being acquired, in a marriage, and if a man does not think he acquiring, maybe the words and the rituals performed are, and should, be void – even if they are fully traditional. In other words, in these modern times, we need to become more untraditional in order to achieve anything.


Masorti and liberal Orthodox religious thinkers are looking at other models with which to celebrate marriage and the most popular is ‘shutafut’ – partnership, again making use of rituals and language taken from contractual law, but this time acknowledging and building from a base of mutuality. It seems that while the Government is thinking about abandoning civil partnerships in favour of traditional marriage ceremonies, there are a good many religious leaders thinking about abandoning old forms of marriage in favour of new kinds of civil partnerships.


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