The Meaning of Marriage

On occasion, on long walks with our dog or on long drives, I imagine situations which might arise in my work as a Rabbi and consider how I would respond. One of the situations which I envision goes like this. A man and a woman come into my office to talk about their upcoming marriage and to request that I officiate. They fulfill all of the Jewish legal requirements for a marriage and appear to be very much in love and ready to take this step in their lives. But, just before we set the date, they tell me something that they feel I should know. They tell me that they plan to have an “open marriage” in which they can engage in extra marital sexual relationships with each other’s permission and blessing.

My dilemma: Do I agree to officiate?

As I have played this scenario out in my mind, I keep coming back to the same answer: No. I would not agree to officiate at a wedding ceremony for a couple who had decided, in advance, that marriage did not mean exclusivity in sexual relationships. The entire concept of marriage within Judaism is based upon the idea of “kiddushin” sanctification, which means to set someone or something aside as unique and special. When the groom gives the bride a ring during the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, he says; Haray at mikudeshet le, behold you are consecrated unto me as my wife. Consecrated means sanctified, set aside as holy and is defined by the exclusivity of the sexual relationship.

Since the year 1000 Ashkenazi Jews (later to be joined by all Jewish communities) have rejected polygamy and therefore, the kiddushin now works in both directions. That is why I prefer that the bride make a similar statement during the ceremony to the husband: Haray atah mikudash li, behold you are consecrated unto me.

Exclusivity of sexual relationships, is, of course, not the only important aspect to a marriage but it is the explicit promise made by the bride and the groom and an overt, purposeful intention to not have exclusivity undermines the entire principle of marriage.

Of course, no marriage is perfect and, again, there are many more challenges to a relationship than this one. But, this is the essence of marriage: that intimacy, both physical and emotional, defines the relationship and when that promise is broken, the relationship is damaged. Going into such a relationship without this promise invalidates the kiddushin in my opinion.

So, when two Jewish men or two Jewish women walk in to my office to talk about their love, having promised each other that they will treat each other with kedusha, with holiness and sanctification, that they will love and provide for each other’s physical and emotional needs to the exclusion of all others and that they want to be married under the huppah, I will be honored to officiate at their marriage. When two people are in love and promise to love each other exclusively, physically and emotionally, they should expect no less from their Rabbi.

I believe that they should expect no less from this country.

And, the Supreme Court took a huge step in this direction on Wednesday by allowing federal benefits to same sex couples. There is much further to go but I believe it is a step in very much the right direction.

The first time I signed a marriage license for a couple, my hand was shaking as I realized what I was about to do. While my hand has stopped shaking over the years, I still realize the statement that that license is making and feel honored and priviliged that I can do this as part of my job.

I look forward to standing under the huppah with a same sex couple, and I sincerely hope that when I do, I will be able to sign a Michigan marriage license as well. I anticipate the first time that happens, my hand will shake again realizing how far we have come.

There is a tradition within Judaism that every time a couple gets married and pledges their commitment to each other, the world is improved, a piece of the “tikkun”, repair, necessary in the world is accomplished. I believe that that applies to all couples.

To me, it  is as simple as that.

One thought on “The Meaning of Marriage

  1. Laurel F.

    Men and women are fundamentally different, and the male/female dynamic is the basis for life. A father can never be a mother and a mother can never be a father. It’s not just some arbitrary thing that can be changed with political correctness. Forcing everyone to recognize, accept, and support a lifestyle that many if not most of us believe is wrong, is far from being tolerant. Sometimes people make decisions that should not be supported.

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