Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Plural God

So many of the Hebrew words we used to talk about God are all in the plural -- Elohim, Adonai (rather than adoni), Tzva'ot.

For a religion that's so staunchly monotheistic, this seems really peculiar to me. I really don't know what to make of this - except maybe to think that it's a relic from the polytheistic religions upon which Judaism was built. The thing about it that most puzzles me is that it sounds so Christian - a single God who we talk about in the plural?

How does Orthodox Judaism talk about this, if at all? Anyone know?

Friday, October 24, 2008

My First Christian Wedding

In the last ten years, I’ve been to a lot of weddings. I’m not sure of the exact number, but a fair estimate would be sixty. All but two of these were (some degree of) Orthodox Jewish, at least in terms of the ceremony (i.e., sometimes the bride and groom were not Orthodox and there was minimal Jewish dancing during the party).

The first of these was my cousin’s – which I blogged about here.

The second was a few weeks ago. One of my best friends from graduate school – a devout Protestant (Baptist) – got married in a church.

As you might imagine, this was quite different from the other weddings I’ve been to. To a certain degree that difference was just sort of a novelty. It was pretty cool being at a wedding where a lot of the things that they did looked a lot like what you see in the movies.

But more importantly, the wedding provided me with a point of comparison for a clearer view of Orthodox Jewish weddings.

Let me first make a disclaimer: I am not a fan of the OJ wedding ceremony/view of marriage. Things I really don’t like:

#1 – The power structure built into OJ marriages. Namely, the whole issue of get/agunah. Even as many couples don’t get divorced, the fact that that’s built in to the marriage is just plain awful. Yes, I know there are pre-nups, etc., that can all but eliminate the problem, but sometimes they don’t work.

#2 – The actual ceremony itself, wherein the woman never opens her mouth the entire time. And remains passive. Moreover (and this is really just an extension of what I find problematic about OJ, more generally), the fact that no woman ever actively participates in the ceremony in a meaningful way. Those who read the sheva brachot, the mesader k’dushin, the witnesses, etc., are all men.

#3 – This is obviously cultural and not because of any halacha – but I cannot stand the size and the gaudiness of OJ weddings. This can definitely be changed. Come on, people - let’s do it!

This disclaimer out of the way, here’s my analysis of my first Christian wedding / being in a church:

The Rituals are Tailored by the Bride and Groom
Before we even went in, I was talking to another Christian friend of mine who made it quite clear that there is no one way to have a Protestant ceremony (probably not quite as true for a Catholic ceremony). The bride and groom design the ceremony themselves.

This was a pretty cool aspect of the wedding, because you really got the feeling that the ceremony was reflective of the people getting married. For instance, this particular couple is very musical – and the whole ceremony was filled with people singing. The groom sang the bride down the aisle, the bride sang to the groom later on, the parents sang to the couple, etc.

Women and Men Sitting Together!
And I didn’t notice any members of the opposite sex checking each other out. Or doing anything else inappropriate. In fact, the attendees were much more attentive to the ceremony than any of those I’ve seen at OJ weddings/shuls/etc. (i.e., they were actually quiet).

The Bride Participates in the Same Way as the Groom
For me, this was huge. She sang to him just as he sang to her. She said her vow as did he. She was clearly an equal, active partner in the ceremony. And not in some sort of trite or representational sort of way (i.e., the only way I could ever even conceive of an OJ rabbi allowing bridal participation in the ceremony). If she didn’t say her vow, they wouldn’t have been considered married.

Other Women Participate
His parents sang together, her sister lit the “unity candle” (something I’ll come back to), a woman read the scripture. And there was absolutely nothing shocking about it. This is a very traditional church. But they have no concept that such female participation as I’ve described could even be questionable. This put into strict relief the attitudes of OJ.

Women Sing!
Okay, again, this was just so unusual for me – to be in a place where people are really, really religious – and then to have women just get up and sing. It shows how much OJ has influenced the way I think. There is no conception of this as anything even remotely sexual or immodest.

There’s Still Misogyny
One step back: this Christian ceremony wasn't perfect.

When the woman stood up to read scripture, she read two pieces – one from the Old Testament and one from the New. The first was the verse from Bereishit where God tells Adam to leave his mother and father and cling to his wife. Not really problematic from my perspective, except that (a problem I have with most of Tanach) it’s phrased in terms of the man.

The New Testament passage, however, I found offensive even though it’s directed both men and women.

The verse went something like, “Wives, submit to your husbands. (…) Husbands, love your wives.”

Later, a Catholic friend told me that this was removed from its context in which it comes across as considerably less sexist. This may or may not be true – I’m not sure. However, the fact that is that it was read in a way that seemed to uphold contemporary sexism bothered me. And it apparently bothered my friend (the groom) too – he told me later that he didn’t know they were going to read that passage and that he felt it wasn’t reflective of his own views on marriage.

Everyone (or, at least most people) Present Can Understand What’s Going On
Even as there was a part that I found offensive, the point was, I could understand it. It was in English.

This is totally different from an OJ ceremony.

When I was younger – before I understood what it meant – I used to sit with bated breath when they would read the ketubah out loud. It would give me chills to hear the bride and groom’s Hebrew names and the name of whatever town it was being held in. Of course, since it is in Aramaic, I didn’t understand the rest of the ketubah at all.

Whether or not you have problems with the OJ ceremony (and I don’t have problems with the ketubah itself – it’s put in place to protect the woman – only with the laws of marriage that necessitate it and are therefore present in its language), the ketubah is not really a romantic document. It’s legalistic and talks about things like the husband’s responsibility to provide the wife with necessities – including sex. If they read it in a literal English translation, I might even find it to be an awkward moment.

Because the Christian ceremony is conducted in English, people present – whether they find the goings on romantic, offensive, strange, etc., – understand everything that’s going on.

Cool Ritual
The one thing they did that was pretty awesome, was the lighting of the Unity Candle. After the respective parents lit one candle each, the bride and groom took one (apparently representative of their souls) and together lit a new candle in the middle.

I just really, really liked this.

Oh yeah, it was Small. And Not Even a Little Bit Gaudy
There were maybe just over a hundred people there (one of my friends commented that this was big!), people were dressed formally but not uber-fancy (though this may have something to do with the location; I have a feeling if it was a Christian wedding in New York, it might be more showy), and the party was low-key but still lots of fun (I would venture to say maybe even more fun!).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Yom Kippur: Setting Precedents for Myself

For the first time, I made the conscious decision not to fast (in the Orthodox definition of the word) on Yom Kippur. I've broken the fast in previous years when I got so sick (i.e., hypoglycemia) that I had little choice. But this year, in the vein of my recent Tisha B'Av experience, I decided to stick with my definition of fasting. It was harder because I was at my parents' house, and I didn't want them to know -- I ended up just sneaking a granola bar, water, and one roll while no one was looking. It was a lot less torturous.

That said, it was also a lot less meaningful than Tisha B'Av -- really because, as an agnostic, I just don't see as much meaning in Yom Kippur (as a holiday between man & a god I'm not sure exists) as I do in Tisha B'Av (as a commemoration of all the Jewish suffering that's occurred during the ages). Still, I'd feel strange not marking Yom Kippur at all...

I do have to say that, as of now, I plan on keeping both major fast days in this way for the foreseeable future. It's the only way it's really manageable for me, and the only way it could possibly have any meaning beyond a 25-hour obsession with my stomach.

Also, since the last blog entry, I attended a Christian wedding (in a church) for the first time ever. I will blog about this within the next week or so.