It is hard to convey the depth of emotion I feel at a Jewish wedding. It is more than a ceremony sanctifying the commitment of bride and groom, because individuals are more than individuals. We are who we are because of our parents and theirs and the drama of which they and we are a part. A wedding in Judaism is a new chapter in the story of the Jewish people.
The sheva berakhot, or “seven blessings,” said over the bride and groom go back some two thousand years. In them we refer to the first couple, Adam and Eve, married by God himself with the sky as their bridal canopy. We recall a phrase, taken from Isaiah and the book of Psalms, about a “barren woman” who, against expectation, has the joy of having children. That, for us, is the Jewish people as a whole, who have so often suffered and wondered whether they would survive, but now see in this couple, hope for the future.
We quote the glorious prophecy of Jeremiah who, seeing Jerusalem desolate and destroyed, prophesied that in the city “There will be heard once more the sounds of joy and gladness and the voices of bride and groom.” It is as if all the previous generations of Jews, scattered through space and time, were present to give their blessings to the couple and to witness the miracle of the West’s most ancient faith become young again in the love of two people for one another.
Jewish weddings are usually exuberant, noisy, joyous, energetic and over the top. Ancient customs which had all but disappeared one or two generations ago are making a come back. Many brides now adopt the mystical ceremony of circling the groom seven times. Marriage contracts have become highly decorative, the way they used to be in the Middle Ages (the ketubah or marriage contract dates back to the pre-Christian era and is one of the first statements of women’s rights in history). At a Jewish wedding you see the true nature of Jewish spirituality – too serious to be wholly serious, too conscious of God’s blessings to do anything other than rejoice. Judaism is God’s invitation to celebrate life.
How devastating it is that marriage seems to have lost its power in society as a whole. A wedding ceremony is more than a formality and a piece of paper. The prophets saw marriage as the single most compelling metaphor for the relationship between God and us – because it involves commitment, a mutual pledge of openness and trust, a promise that neither will walk away in difficult times. From that covenant of loyalty and love, new life comes into the world.
Marriage is not just living together, a temporary partnership for mutually beneficial ends. Heaven help us if that is all we see in it. It is the point at which the “I” of self meets the “Thou” of an other, transforming us into something larger, more spacious, more generous and tender than we could ever be on our own. In marriage at its best you see humanity at its best, and in a loving home you can almost touch the divine presence.
Jeremiah once said, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed me through the desert, through a land not sown.” To take someone else’s hand and begin a journey together into the undiscovered country called the future: that is marriage, love sanctified by the mutual gift of trust.