By: Abby Berns
My wife and I are in the process of planning our gay, Jewish wedding(My Gay Jewish Wedding: Part 1.) We sat down recently and started looking on the internet for a ketubah, the Jewish legal marriage contract. The major ketubah websites allow you to mix and match art and texts in Hebrew and English, so we figured we would find something we liked. Eliminating neon doves and oddly sexualized intertwining trees, we narrowed down the art choices from 500 to about 10 before moving on to the texts. There were many options for texts, from traditional Aramaic in which the groom acquires the bride to secular humanist ketubot in which the partners make promises to one another but G-d is not mentioned.
As gay Jews, we wanted a document that was legally binding. For so long LGBT folks have only been able to marry symbolically, so the legal nature of the document felt important in light of our civil marriage. It was also important to us that the English text was a translation rather than an interpretation of the Hebrew, as Sarah reads Hebrew fluently but I do not. And obviously, the language of the text had to allow for two kallot (brides) rather than one kallah and one chatan. With this wish list, we approached the website’s text choices. Unfortunately, we came up empty-handed. There were beautiful English texts that liberally interpreted the conservative Hebrew or Aramaic. There were even texts “Same Sex 1-3,” which sounded lovely but contained no legal language. We thought seriously about choosing very traditional text because we felt that the act of choosing a traditional text as lesbians was sufficiently subversive for our needs. But try as we might, we just could not fit our lesbian relationship into a model where a man acquires a woman. Who would be the man, we wondered? What would it mean to use this very traditional male-centered language as modern feminists? And could we live with the idea of one human acquiring another? We wanted to use the language of our ancestors, and make it fit, but we wished the text reflected more of what our relationship was now rather than what it was for our ancestors.
Enter Rachel Adler’s book, Engendering Judaism. Adler provides a legal document that is a departure from the traditional ketubah and uses partnership law as a basis for a contract called a b’rit ahuvim, or lover’s covenant. She bases the text of the b’rit on the Sheva Berakhot, the 7 blessings that make up the 2nd half of a Jewish wedding ceremony. Adler writes, “the Sheva Berakhot celebrate a sanctification through the holy coming-together that is covenant.” Under this covenant, the lovers form a partnership deed (the b’rit) and acquire the partnership itself. This way, the partners avoid the gender dynamics inherent in the traditional ketubah as well as the potential uncomfortable implications of treating humans as property. Both partners have equal footing in the legal framework of b’rit ahuvim, and each may leave at will.
The text of the b’rit ahuvim is beautiful and solemn, and not only speaks to the values Sarah and I hold, but also fulfills our wish of making our marriage Jewishly legal and sacred. The text itself begins by laying a foundation of ancient covenants such as that between G-d and Noah, G-d and Israel, and David and Jonathan. These covenants provide a backdrop for the holy covenant that is marriage. The second part of the b’rit ahuvim consists of 5 provisions: choosing one another as companions, monogamy, providing for one another and any subsequent children, living a life of kindness and performing tikkun olam; and maintaining dignity and presence for one’s beloved at the time of his or her death. The text ends with a verse from Song of Songs, “set me as a seal upon your arms, for love is stronger than death.”
These lines felt like they were written for us. Each provision echoes the values of our relationship and what we strive for as we move towards Jewish marriage. We love that the b’rit builds on a series of biblical covenants and situates our marriage within the framework of the Jewish people. Our only initial hesitation to use this text was a reluctance to break from tradition, that maybe somehow we weren’t doing it for “real” if we used this newer, more feminist text. That maybe our marriage wouldn’t be legitimate by Jewish standards without a classic ketubah. Then we remembered that as two women, and one with a Reconstructionist conversion at that, we were already not that sort of legitimate regardless of the text of our marriage contract. And with that thought we said, why not? For us, the decision to use this text, to enter into a b’rit ahuvim, was much more than choosing a document to eventually hang on our wall. It represents a moment when we knew, without a doubt, that our vision of our future was the same, a future involving a Jewish marriage within the Jewish people.