Todays couples are blending tradition and innovation …in egalitarian weddings tailor-made via rit

Lenore Meyers' plans for her wedding to Mark Sugarman in 1993 involved a lot more than picking out a dress and a cake. There was also the matter of the ceremony itself.

Meyers did not want to begin married life with a ceremony in which she was a passive participant. In her opinion, every aspect of the traditional Jewish ceremony treats the bride like a second-class citizen.

So during the ceremony Meyers, a 39-year-old health educator from Baltimore, recited the same Hebrew vows to her groom as he said to her. In a departure from the traditional ceremony, the couple circled each other and both exchanged rings. And at the end of the ceremony, both bride and groom stomped on a glass.

"An egalitarian and a Jewish ceremony are not mutually exclusive," writes Anita Diamant in her book, "The New Jewish Wedding."

"Judaism needs to be held up against today's light…because while Jewish weddings are by definition grounded in the past, their context includes the irrepressible present."

More and more rabbis are acknowledging this "irrepressible present," urging congregants to adapt the traditional wedding ceremony.

Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis point out that their denominations and their weddings have been egalitarian from the beginning.

"From day one, the Reform movement took strides to eliminate the parts of the service that gave women a passive role," said Rabbi Daniel Weiner, associate rabbi at the Reform Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Baltimore County. "Our ceremony creates equal partners with equal standings in the community."

Rabbi David Sulomm Stein, a Reconstructionist rabbi at Beit Tikvah Congregation in Baltimore, says the Reconstructionist movement has been egalitarian since the 1940s.

"The basic presumption of the Reconstructionist movement is that you don't have to throw out tradition to be egalitarian."

In a traditional Jewish ceremony, the groom actually acquires the bride. The ketubah he gives her is a financial contract testifying that he has taken possession of her and has agreed to care for and support her.

The ring is a physical symbol of this acquisition. Once the groom recites the wedding formula, haray aht, the wedding is legally binding. The bride is not required to answer her husband.

The groom then breaks a glass — an act said to be a reminder of the destruction of the Temple.

Modern ketubot incorporate wording that reflects partnership, not possession.

Meyers and Sugarman struggled to design a ketubah that was both egalitarian and halachic (supporting Jewish law). Finally the couple wrote their own contract, pledging:

"We will strive…to bring out qualities of humor, patience, forgiveness, compassion and integrity…to comfort and challenge each other…to create a home committed to Judaism, linked to the history of our ancestors and to the future of the Jewish people."

Stein of Beit Tikvah encourages couples to write ketubot that are "expressions of mutual obligation."

Stein, who serves on a committee within the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association to create a model Reconstructionist ketubah, says he and his fiancée wrote their own ketubah "primarily as establishing an alliance between female and male."

The couple made parallel, but not identical, statements to each other. Stein vowed: "I will always be aware of the degradation that women still endure, and work with all my strength to achieve what is best for you and every woman."

His bride Shulamit vowed: "I will continue to wrestle with the ideal of making a distinction between men's behavior as a product of a patriarchal system and men's souls."

Both adopted the middle name Sulomm, "recalling the stairway to heaven in our ancestor Jacob's dream," said Stein.

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of the Orthodox Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore County says he has seen couples change the English text of their ketubah, while retaining the traditional Aramaic text.

"They choose something equally inoffensive to the bride and groom," he said.

The betrothal formula spoken during the central act of the ceremony, when rings are exchanged, can also be adapted.

Many traditions associated with a Jewish wedding — like the bride circling the groom and the breaking of the glass — are not Jewish law, but rather customs passed down through time. Thus, nothing prohibits changes in those customs.

Traditionally, the bride circles the groom three or seven times before they enter the chuppah.

"The interpretations range from magic to protect the groom from the evil eye, to the bride as a satellite to her husband," writes Diamant.

Today, some couples are incorporating this rite into their weddings and making it their own. Meyers and Sugarman circled each other three times, and then together circled their friends and family.

Easily the best-known custom is that of the groom breaking the glass at the end of the ceremony.

Rabbi Gila Ruskin of the Conservative Chevrei Tzedek in Northwest Baltimore urges couples to use two glasses.

"Why should it be only the man?" she asked.

Wohlberg notes that while none of his congregants has ever asked to do this, he would have to allow it.

"It's a custom, not a law, so there's no reason" not to change it, he said. "It might look a bit absurd, but [the bride] can step on the glass, too."

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, formerly of the independent Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore, notes that couples are opting to alter their ceremonies in order to instill their weddings with as much meaning as possible.

"Most of us hold sacred the notion that all people are created by God and should be treated equally," she said. "If the ceremony delivers a different message — that one is subordinate to the other — that doesn't validate the relationship.

"That contradicts the very values the ceremony is supposed to support."