Sermon: Bechukottai: Reform Jewish Marriage, the Ketubah and Voting

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 18 May 2014

Over the coming months Alyth is blessed with many weddings, starting with the next two Sunday afternoons.  Most are couples where one of the partners grew up in this community though some are couples who found us by recommendation.  Each wedding takes quite a bit of work on behalf of the Rabbi or Cantor who is officiating, meeting up, working out just how the couple will gain most meaning from the Jewish ritual, talking about married life and the potential of a Jewish couple to build a Jewish home, working out the music and now taking more and more work than it used to, creating the Ketubah – the Jewish marriage contract.


It used to be that most couples simply used the Ketubah that the Movement for Reform Judaism provided.  We shared its content with the couples, they felt fine that what was within it applied to them and the Ketubah was duly prepared for the big day.  Not any more – or at least not often.

The men and women who want to get married through our Synagogue are becoming ever more assertive about what they would like to see written in their Ketubah and most weddings now require the actually quite delightful task of negotiating the text of this document.  Three factors are to blame for this phenomenon –the first two: the Anita Diamant Book “The New Jewish Wedding” which most empowered Jewish couples bring to their Rabbi, full of ideas as to how to make their ceremony and the Ketubah which records it special, and the many Jewish artists, our own Ardyn Halter included, who market Ketubot, especially created, and will offer a variety of wordings to include on them.    The third factor though is that today’s couples marrying through a Reform Synagogue have normally been living in very close contact for some years, they are of course not couples who were introduced to each other a short time before their wedding by their respective families and told that they had better marry each other.


Reform Jewish couples have often been living together for months if not years before they decide to marry and so they know each other very well.  The impersonal words of a standard Ketubah do not feel appropriate to govern their marriage.  The standard Reform Ketubah is based around a promise to cherish and support each other according to the law of Moses and Israel and then to build a Jewish home among the people of Israel – the promise it witnessed by those around them at the wedding ceremony.  The standard Orthodox Ketubah is based around a similar promise backed up by a guarantee to keep the amount of the bride’s dowry (actual or imaginary) safe for return to her in the case of divorce.  And that’s what the problem is – it doesn’t sound terribly romantic or relevant to the years of love and companionship which the couple is hoping to form.


So I have been working with Alyth couples on trying to ensure that there is also the appropriate Jewish content in Ketubot which speak about hearts being united and full of tenderness, hope and wonder, doing everything within our power to permit each of us to become the persons we are yet to be, challenging each other to achieve intellectual and physical fulfilment as we search for spiritual and emotional peace and being ever open while cherishing each other’s uniqueness.    The thoughts are lovely – though I suspect rather difficult to enforce in a Beit Din, Jewish law court, which is the ultimate sanction for failing to uphold the terms of a Ketubah.  They occasionally create some chuckles when, as they must be, they are read out at a wedding – I remember in particular one clause in a Ketubah which promised that neither bride nor groom would ever enter their home with impatience or anger which had many longer married couples among the congregation looking at each other with knowing glances which I reckon said – “I’ll give that idea six months top”.


The Ketubah is there because Judaism is a religion based on a contract which it models.  The final terms of this contact are read this week in our Torah portion.    The Torah so far has been full of hope for the future – a society where workers will be paid on time, where no one will sell on false measures, where God not us will own the land, where we won’t steal or swear falsely, where we will love our neighbours as ourselves.   Now though in this last portion of the Book of Leviticus we hear what will happen if we do observe it all – a society of fairness and prosperity, comfort and co-operation – and what will happen if we do not observe it – a disaster of a society where everything goes wrong in a house of cards like sequence leading to exile and even starvation as everyone grabs what they think is theirs until in turn they have it grabbed away from them.


Daniel Taub, Israeli Ambassodor, gave a terrific D’var Torah on this portion earlier this week, quoting American Progressive Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan.  He said that this portion’s opening words show that Judaism is neither a religion of optimism nor pessimism.  The portion opens with the words “im bechukkotai telech” – if you follow my laws – Judaism is a religion of “if-ism” – our actions have consequences and we have to take responsibility for them – just really as it says in our ketubot.


If our society is narrow, uncaring, self interested and unequal then we will have to live with being constricted ourselves behind barriers, with having to fend for ourselves when we are in hard times, with the causes of troubles not being addressed and with the potential to be at the bottom of a hierarchical heap.  If our society is open, concerned, involved with the lives of all and with a structure giving equality of opportunity then we will have our own freedom, be helped when we need it, address the problems that will inevitably be there and have the chance for all to thrive.    “If-ism” is the natural consequence of living in covenant with God.


We live in contract with each other as much as a married couple lives in contact formed by their Ketubah – and our Torah says we also live in contract with God.  So whenever we are empowered to spell out the terms of that contact we need to take that power and ensure that it is done appropriately to our Jewish values.   This happens every time we are given the chance to vote.  To me not voting is like coming to a marriage contract and saying that you are willing to let your partner set all of the terms.  You will sign at the bottom accepting a long term relationship but couldn’t care less what the terms of that relationship will be.  A covenant people, which lives by “if” – should not do that.  Perhaps it is why Israeli democracy is so vital even if impossible.


We must have a stake in the terms under which our society is built.  So a Jew should vote in every election in which we are entitled – including the Euro and Council elections on Thursday.  Our Synagogue is not party political – just as we work with couples to include the terms they need in their Ketubah, so we are willing here to debate the terms on which our society is built but do not see our Shul as a place where those terms should be monolithically established on party lines.  In a general Election we will host a hustings but all parties will be there.


Earlier this week though, in our debate at Alyth on the potential threat of the Far Right in Europe, it became clear where a line must not be crossed.  That is where racism is part of the apparent appeal of a party.  The people of whom it was said by the Manchester City News in 1888 “These immigrants have flooded the labour market with cheap labour to such an extent as to reduce thousands of native workers to the verge of destitution.”  And of whom the Sunday Express wrote in 1938 “Just now there is a big influx of foreigners into Britain.  They are overrunning the country.  They are trying to enter the medical profession in great numbers.  Worst of all, many of them are holding themselves out to the public as psychoanalysts”  Cannot be involved in a politics which says, as the UKIP leader did,  “ I would not want to live next to Romanians” or that another European people “is raised in a culture of criminality.”  There is a line which the Jewish covenant says a society must never cross.  There are terms in our contract with each other which can never appropriately be in our Ketubah.