Though outwardly calm-looking, emotional turmoil rocks my life. Happy turmoil, but turmoil nonetheless. In a few hours I shall be officiating at my own daughter’s wedding. With my wife beside her, our daughter, in her beautiful white gown, will stand beneath the wedding canopy, the chupah, next to an excellent young man. It will then fall to me to conduct the ceremony which will bond her to the young knight she has chosen to accompany her through life. The millennia-old words in the prayer book I shall clutch will appear a little blurred through my teary eyes. It must be this cold New York weather because even now, hours ahead of the big event, this computer screen is a bit blurry too.
My dilemma is that I can think of no creative way to distinguish my daughter’s wedding ceremony from every other Orthodox Jewish ceremony.
During the fifteen years I was privileged to serve Pacific Jewish Center, the congregation I established with Michael Medved in Los Angeles, I officiated at many marriages. Although every couple was obviously unique, as was the décor and the reception menu, each ceremony closely resembled the next. Through scores of weddings I tightly followed an ancient script, exercising little creative originality. What is more, there is little of a personal and unique nature with which I could embellish Rena’s wedding. The structure of a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony is rather tightly proscribed.
It would be so easy if I could merely instruct Rena to prepare some personal prose that would describe her feelings for her chosen. Then I could direct my future son-in-law to write a few moving lines about his feelings. Add to the mix, my blessing comprising personal memories and we would have a truly memorable wedding. Better yet, why don’t we rather send the young couple out on a sailboat at sunset to whisper promises to one another? As the calm water reflected the red rays of the sun, the solitude would reflect their love and exclusive devotion to one another.
The problem is that I am only a messenger, the current courier of a Boss who forty generations ago, issued a very clear set of directions. These directions left little room for spontaneity, creativity, and romance. Instead, they specified exactly how I was to betroth a man and a woman. Here are my orders: I am to oversee the man formally accepting upon himself, before witnesses and a quorum of Jews (called a minyan), legally binding obligations.
You might consider this unsentimental process to be unduly legalistic and insufficiently attentive to the rapture and romance of the occasion. Yet, counter-intuitively the ceremony’s structure is precisely what promises a stable future. Ancient Jewish wisdom observes that relationships that start off with very clear legalities that detail obligations can lead to unreserved love. However, relationships that start off with only love can more easily lead, down the road, to the legalities of the divorce court.
Every business partner knows that beginning with a firm contract is the surest way to a happy and long-lived partnership. Though men and women are often overwhelmed by the emotional intensity of love and longing, marriage is not so different from other partnerships. It doesn’t hurt to list explicitly all major expectations. Love is a frighteningly unspecific sensation upon which to build major commitments.
Without love and attraction between them, no man and woman should be considering marriage. That is taken for granted. However, what distinguishes the noble relationship of marriage from the coupling of attraction, love, and lust between a knave and a hussy, is only the legalities.
In a few hours a young knight will stand alongside his bride. Before me and the official witnesses, he will pronounce his commitment to support my daughter. He will formally undertake to provide for her every need, emotional, financial, and physical. My daughter will then plight her troth to him by allowing him to place his ring upon her finger.
And all of this will only be legal if ten males are present in order to represent that this is a communal rather than a private affair. The secular world view argues that what a man and woman do together is nobody else’s business. The Boss’s reality reminds us that anything which can impact the future by bringing new life into the world is very much everybody else’s business. Uttering private vows on the beach in Acapulco or on a sailboat at sunset has nothing to do with marriage. No barefoot ceremonies in a grassy meadow with guitar-playing poets.
All we need is a legal contract which binds together, not only my daughter and her fiancée, but also binds the two of them to the past, the present, and the future. Standing with them beneath the chupah are both the visible and the invisible generations that carried them here, making them the latest link in the chain. They will look out at all their family and friends knowing that their bond ties them also to the community. And gazing into one another’s eyes, as I speak the traditional formula of marriage, the two of them will know they are forming a magical and mysterious bond with the future.
My wife and I will then smile knowingly at one another. This ancient legal ceremony precisely echoing our own wedding, more years ago than it seems, will, we pray, bring the knight and his lady the same joy, creativity, spontaneity, and romance that ours brought us.