Lord or Lady of the Rings: Should an Orthodox chuppah be more gender-balanced?

Many people today are uncomfortable with the apparent lack of equality at a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony.  Two individuals are getting married.  But only one of them plays an active role – while the other stands there for most of the chuppah time, hardly doing anything at all.  Shouldn’t a modern-day Jewish wedding ceremony be more balanced in terms of the roles played by the bride and groom?

Commenting on the verse in Parshat Chukat, “And Miriam died there,” the Midrash teaches: The only woman who died in the wilderness was Miriam.  All the other women survived and entered the Promised Land.  Similarly, Rashi [26:64] explains that, unlike the men who believed the slander of the ten spies, the women loved the Land of Israel, and wouldn’t hear a word of it.  In fact, the Kli Yakar expounds the words, “Send for yourself men,” as follows: Hashem suggested that Moshe send women spies, but he decided (for himself) to send men – a tragic mistake.

Women, according to our tradition, have an incredible natural spirituality.  The Sifsei Cohen teaches that the miracle of Miriam’s Well in the wilderness – that travelled alongside the Israelites providing hundreds of thousands of thirsty sojourners with water – was in the merit of Miriam’s dedication to taking the women in Egypt to the mikvah each month, in order to guarantee Jewish continuity.  The men had lost hope, but the women’s faith in Heaven never wavered.

That’s why the bride plays a more active role in a traditional Jewish wedding, while the groom is more passive.  Jewish women have never given up on the future of our people.  They are spiritually invested in the ceremony they are about to perform.  While the groom’s role is more about the physical nature of the marriage, the bride’s role is all about the spiritual covenant they are about to enter into.  Consequently, she features more prominently throughout the kiddushin (wedding) – a holy, predominantly spiritual, ceremony.

In a Jewish marriage, men have certain physical, material duties towards their wives as indicated in the Ketubah.  But the mainstay of the Jewish home – the guarantor of the spiritual future of the Jewish people – is the wife.  And so as soon as she enters the chuppah, he stands there passively, as she gives him seven ‘spiritual’ rings, representing the seven days of the week – six work days plus Shabbat, the day of spirituality.  Moreover, just like the Children of Israel, as they entered Jericho, the bride surrounds the groom with her spiritual aura, figuratively transferring his ‘title’ from unspiritual Canaanite to spiritual Israelite – his sanctification and elevation into new married territory.

Once she has given him her seven ‘spiritual’ rings, the marriage is consecrated over the cup of wine.  Only then does he present her with a single ‘physical’ ring.  Before he does so, she lifts up her finger and points at him, as if to say, ‘You, dear husband, are hereby dedicating yourself to the spiritual covenant, upon which I conditioned our marriage.’  Without uttering a word, she conveys her message loud and clear.  He then responds, ‘Yes, indeed, you are holy to me, according to the law of Moshe and Israel,’ and hands over the proverbial keys to the marriage.  His physical act is in fact a symbolic ‘tangible’ gesture demonstrating his commitment to follow her spiritual lead in their new life together.

Miriam was the sole woman who died in the wilderness.  But her wellspring lives on in every Jewish woman in every generation – from those who carried her legacy and message into the Promised Land to this very day.  May you forever protect your family with rings of holiness!

About the Author
Rabbanit Batya Friedman is the senior rebbetzin of Hamsptead Suburb Garden Synagogue in London, UK. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Brooklyn College and her MBA from the University of Alberta. She previously served the community in Edmonton, AB Canada.
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