Monday, March 23, 2009

Bow Your Head

I love weddings. I realize that may sound a little metro, but I love weddings, especially orthodox weddings. It doesn’t happen to matter whether they are ultra frum or orthodox lite. What I like most is the attention to detail and tradition. I even like taking notice of the evolution of the detail within the orthodox ceremony. Let me modify my enthusiastic acceptance and love of the orthodox wedding: I love the ceremony itself; in the vernacular: the chupah. It’s a ceremony laden with meaning, rich and textured history and pregnant with symbolic value. But that’s not how I always felt. After all I’m a cynic!

It is a ceremony that has morphed from its humble beginnings to the opulent and ostentatious pageantries demonstrating the immense wealth accumulated by hard work and smarts over the past generation. I have never placed much stock in ostentatious ceremonies. My wife and I were married on a shoestring without any prenuptial planning. Our chupah was a tallit supported by four friends (and ever sagging in the middle) at my sisters home officiated by a good friend (may he rest in peace) and chavrutah. No frills, no flowers, no booze and no band; just a few good friends who mattered to us and family. But not everyone is like me. Some people need to party. Some need to show off. Others need the admiration of the masses. And so, because of human nature the chupah has undergone much change: from the simple metal or wood frames supporting some insignificant material to designer chupahs today which have become statements of good art or in appreciation of the fine arts, some with a price tag in the tens of thousands.

The ceremony has morphed from the accepted mixed seating to separate seating, from sitting and schmoozing in hushed tones while the bride and groom enter the room; to rising out of respect when the bride and groom elegantly and gallantly make are accompanied to the chupah. I used to think this latest embellishment ridiculous and ought to be reserved for a very, very important dignitary. The ceremony has morphed from the whinny voice a baal tephila’s rendition of the “Baruch Haba” to the beautiful sound of a professional singer expressing his appreciation of the bride and groom as he chants melodiously with a contemporary sound the welcoming of two loving spirits coming together under the chupah.

I admit that I never liked the use of the kitel by the groom under the chupah for several reasons: The kitel while worn on the High Holidays signifying spirituality, solemnity and purity also symbolizes a shroud. I don’t find a shroud appropriate to don under the chupah unless it is symbolic of a marriage not made in heaven. There is also the esthetic consideration. I can’t see covering a beautifully fitted tuxedo with a cheap cotton kitel. It turns an otherwise smartly dressed groom into a shnook resembling the appearance of a meat butcher!

This past weekend changed the way I feel about traditional ceremonies. My wife and I attended a wedding ceremony that was disturbing to say the least. Had the ceremony not concluded with the breaking of a glass I wouldn’t have been certain that it was a Jewish ceremony. And I thought I had seen it all in my lifetime – but was I ever mistaken. I have witnessed (not as an eid) egalitarian ceremonies where women participated in the kedushin, I have seen women participate in the sheva berachaot under the chupah and I have seen the so called double ring deal done with a stretch of the halachic imagination. But I have never seen a ceremony like this.

Officiated by a reform rabbi and a cantor, appearing in a talit (more like a thin prayer shawl worn by ministers when dispensing last rites or extreme unction) he replaced the kidushin with poetry readings. The sheva berachot were chanted by the cantor as though it were a funeral dirge. And of course there was a clear and undeniable double ring ceremony. I wouldn’t have expected otherwise. What I found objectionable was the wording of the double ring deal. The groom said to the bride the traditional “harei at mekudeshet li batabat zo k’dat moshe v’yisrael”. The bride then turned lovingly to the groom and said “herei ata mekudash le batabat zo k’daat moshe v’yisrael”. Really!! Do you honestly think that Moshe would have been happy about this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The bride didn’t circle the groom seven times and the groom didn’t don a kitel under the chupah. He did however wear running shoes (New Balance) – perhaps because we wear them on Yom Kippur. After all, the kitel too is worn on Yom Kippur; maybe this was his unique imprimatur, his own twist on the swapping the kitel out.

The real zinger however was when the rabbi asked the audience, the wedding guests, to bow their heads in prayer fro the happiness of the couple. I couldn’t do it. I kept my head high commenting to the person sitting to my left that this wasn’t the Jewish way. It was at that moment that I turned to my wife on my right and expressed my sorrow in ever having been critical or cynical of some of our cherished minhagim. I missed the separate seating, missed the monotonous and sometimes tedious reading of the ketubah and missed the groom shrouded in a kitel and many others of the particulars that embellish the richness, weightiness and holiness of one of our most sacred rituals.