Sunday, September 7, 2008

My Noachide Wedding

Many Rabbis love doing “unusual” things, the activities that don’t fit people’s normal expectations of the rabbinic lifestyle. Rabbis up on telephone poles (securing Eruv attachments), rabbis touring far corners of Asia or standing inside large pipes (investigating kosher certifications), Rabbis certifying kosher caskets, that sort of thing.

I’ve definitely had my share of unusual circumstances, but last Wednesday offered pretty strong competition for the Unusual title: A Noachide wedding.

It started a few months ago, when I received an email from a local man and woman who explained that they are not Jewish, but they are not affiliated with any other religion either, and they believe in the Bible and the Noachide laws (not to kill, not to steal, etc). They wanted to get married, and wanted a wedding which would be more spiritual than one performed by a secular officiant – so, could I perform a ceremony for them?

My first thought was, "Wow, that would be cool."

My second thought was that I couldn’t do this for legal reasons; the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania recognizes my ability to conduct a Jewish marriage, but could I really just officiate at any wedding, even a secular one?

My third thought was that I wouldn’t know what ritual to use. I wouldn’t want to use Jewish ritual – they are not Jewish, and are under no illusions on that matter. So what would I do?

On the other hand: Come on, how cool is that, getting to do a Noachide wedding?

So I emailed colleagues, who clarified that a rabbi is empowered to perform any wedding which conforms with municipal law, but who had no idea what ritual to use. I Googled “Noachide Weddings” and "Noahide Weddings" and came up with this page, but the contents made me uncomfortable; I really didn’t like their adaptation of key Jewish wedding elements – the berachah on wine, the ketubah, the Chuppah canopy.

But some colleagues of mine urged me on, pointing out that it’s pretty rare for an Orthodox rabbi to have a chance to get really creative!

Then, as I talked to the couple more and met with them, they were so visibly sincere that I fell in love with the idea beyond the "adventure" level. It was a chance to help good people do a good thing, in a meaningful way. Isn't that why I'm a rabbi in the first place?

So I developed a ceremony which drew on biblical themes common for Jews and non-Jews, and meaningful for a wedding.

Here’s what we did:

1) They had found a non-denominational chapel in a park, and we used that space. As they stood together, I sang the traditional Jewish chuppah songs of Mi Adir and Mi Ban Siach.

2) I then presented a dvar torah on the Torah’s history of marriage, going back to Adam and Chavah. I explained the Adam I and Adam II narratives, using Ramban’s idea that one narrative is creation of the soul (unified) and the other is creation of the body (separate). I talked about why Adam and Chavah benefit from being of two separate bodies – the idea, expressed in various commentaries, that the man and woman complement each other with their strengths, and so accomplish things they could never accomplish as one unit.

3) They had wanted to give each other rings, and written their own declaration of love and faithfulness for the occasion, so they did that at this point. I had them say “Behold you are sanctified to me,” taking the first half of the Jewish formula and dropping the “according to the laws of Moses and Israel” segment.

4) They had wanted to have a toast with wine at this point, but I was uncomfortable because of halachic issues which are beyond the scope of this blog, and because of the adoption of a very Jewish wedding practice. So I decided to use water instead.

I explained the biblical significance of water, tracing it from the water present at Creation, through the punitive water of the flood rolling back Creation, through the water in which Jews drowned in Egypt, through the punitive water of Yam Suf, through water from a stone in the desert, etc. My point was the power embedded by Gd in this natural element.

We recited the berachah on water together (the berachah itself – “that all comes into existence at Gd’s command” – being very appropriate for the occasion), and drank.

5) To close the wedding I adapted a tefillah authored by Rabbi Yochanan, presented in Yerushalmi Berachot 4:1, to read as follows:

יהי רצון מלפניך רבונו של עולם שתשכן בבתינו אהבה ואחוה ושלום ורעות ותצליח סופינו אחרית ותקוה ותרבה גבולנו בחברים ותקנינו לב טוב וחברים טובים ונשיש בחלקנו ונשכים ונמצא ייחול לבבנו

May it by Your will, Master of the Universe, that You bring love and brotherhood and peace and friendship into our home, that You give us success and hope, that You broaden our boundaries with friends, that You establish for us a good heart and good friends, that You make us happy with our lot, and that we rise each day to find our hearts’ desire.

On the whole, it was a remarkable experience. I was moved by their sincerity, and by their respect for Torah and Jewish belief.

I’m glad I did it - not because it was unusual, but because it really was cool in a much deeper way.

[Note: Haveil Havalim is here!]

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  1. But some colleagues of mine urged me on, pointing out that it’s pretty rare for an Orthodox rabbi to have a chance to get really creative!

    Very cool opportunity, and very cool that you developed such a unique ritual experience for them. It made me a little sad, though, your above comment... Does it really have to be like that? I mean, look what you managed to do! Several modern dilemmas of halacha have been waiting eons for creativity to help us save our own society (I am thinking especially of msuravot get). The same level of creativity called upon to unite the Noachides, could be harvested to disband a suffering union.

  2. As a Noachide myself, thank you! There aren't very many of us, and often there's no clear direction (even from the Rabbis!) on what we can/can't do, and how we should/shouldn't do it. Every time someone figures out a way for Noachides to do things halakhically (even if it's not a psak), it gives us that much more that we can do without having to feel like second class citizens.

  3. ALN-
    I agree that there are good opportunities for creativity - and we generally do use them, particularly in the msuravot get cases. I could tell you some incredible stories, but I can't do it because I write under my real name.
    My colleague was talking about liturgy, specifically, though.

    Thanks for commenting. I'm grateful that I had the chance to do it, and perhaps the description in my post will help someone else in the future.

  4. Sounds like you had an opportunity to blaze a trail that others my choose to follow.

  5. definately very cool . . . in a much deeper way.

    "remind me to tell you some time about the local branch of an Israeli company who approached me about certifying ornamental casket-inserts made of Israeli earth."

    i'm reminding you.

  6. Jack-
    Who knows?

    You'll have to remind me again... but I'll put it on my list of future topics...

  7. Fanatastic post. Please send to HH.

  8. muse-
    Thanks; I just did it. I didn't know which category to choose, though, so I left that blank.

  9. I really hope your experience becomes more frequent. Aa a convert to Judaism,the welfare of my gentile family and the society in which they dwell is of constant concern to me. Es iz mamish shver zu zein a nochri. I would like to see a healthy and vibrant social milieu develop with the Noahide church at its centre
    Your concern for Brei Noach is touching. I hope your contact continues and expands

  10. Joe-
    Thanks for visiting and commenting. It would certainly be great to see a stronger force for Noachidism... although the word 'church,' beyond its IRS connotations, seems odd...

  11. This is great news and very encouraging that more Rabbis are becoming creative and helping Noachides.

    Noachides lobbied the IRS because they had us labeled as "X20-Christian" and we are now "X30-Jewish" as far as organization tax purposes go. I agree "church" would be a bad definition, but there are talks amongst the stronger Noachide communities of constructing Houses of Prayer and Yeshivas under the supervision of rabbinical authority.

    I disagree that there "aren't many of us," we simply don't know. There are Noachides popping up all over the world every day, freaking out Orthodox rabbis approaching them and asking them how to live properly. We simply have no way of counting everyone at this time.

  12. Brian-
    Those are some fascinating possibilities - yeshivas, houses of prayer, and general networking. Please keep me posted!

  13. Hi -- visiting via search engine. ("How did you come to Noahism?" "Um, Google..?")

    I'm a total neophyte in all this, i.e. I have to do more homework before I can even call myself a student, but my hunches tell me this is a great ritual. I especially like the use of water instead of wine -- it's a powerful symbol on it's own, and appropriately Noah-esque, and respectful of Judiasm as well.

    OK, back to the books...

  14. Hi Kell,

    Thanks - and good luck with your studies!

  15. My soon to be husband and I live in the state of Pennsylvania and applied for a self-uniting marriage license and will have two witnesses sign the certificate; we also printed out the Noah hide marriage contract which will be signed by two witnesses also. This way the marriage can be performed by a Rabbi or by a husband and wife and can be performed at any location, outside or in a Synagogue. It can be officiated by a Rabbi or just officiated in the presence of witnesses. Hope this helps fellow Bnei Noach.