Celebrations | Couple solves ketubah dilemma with a covenant of lovers

Our wedding had much the feel of a traditional Jewish wedding, with many of the same rituals — including the chanting of the Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings) and the breaking of the glass.

Saralie Pennington and Tom Herz

But the major way it differed was the document we used to consecrate our marriage contract, and in parts of the ceremony.

Saralie, my bride-to-be, felt comfortable with having a ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract.

I, on the other hand, did not.

A ketubah can be a sheaf of paper with designated wording — generally including Aramaic or Hebrew as well as English. It can be a large document, elaborately illuminated, painted and calligraphed. After it is signed by the couple, the ketubah is often framed and mounted on a bedroom wall.

Whether a ketubah is traditional, contemporary (such as those including the Lieberman clause, which protects an abandoned wife from becoming an agunah, or chained woman, unable to remarry), or whether it is an egalitarian one, I had a problem with it.

My reason? Any ceremony involving a ketubah, by virtue of the realm with which it deals, means that it falls under the laws of property acquisition. Contemporary language and rabbinic discursiveness notwithstanding, all ketubot are property acquisition documents and probably do not reflect the ethics and values of most 21st-century American Jews, in my opinion.

Instead of a ketubah, we used a brit ahuvim — a covenant of lovers. A brit or covenant in Jewish tradition is an agreement entered into by individuals on an equal basis, which forms a partnership of one kind or another. It is appropriate for same-sex unions as well as traditional ones.

The document and its accompanying ritual in the ceremony was formulated by a Reform theologian, Rabbi Rachel Adler, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Adler introduced the document in her 1999 book, “Engendering Judaism.” She discussed the document in several chapters as she grappled with lifecycle rituals and issues of personal status that either objectify women or render them invisible.

This personalized brit ahuvim was used, rather than a ketubah.

The sentiments and language in the brit it are not unlike what one would find in many ketubot. However, there are a few main differences — the first being that at several points, the language clearly specifies that the document is a covenant — for example, a “covenant of devotion,” “a covenant of mutual lovingkindess.” Following each of these characteristics is a quotation of scripture that exemplifies the quality described. 

The words and sentiments of the brit were highly significant to Saralie and me; we even substituted our own choice of scripture or personal commitment for the prototype Adler developed. We enlisted the help of friends to give us the correct Hebrew wording for our personal statement.

The ritual that signified our entering into this brit is the kinyan. In Jewish tradition, the two partners each put something of special value and significance to the partnership into a sack or pouch, hold it over their heads together and recite a special blessing. Our sack held our rings, a gold Magen David necklace I had given to Saralie, and a silver mezuzah necklace Saralie had given to me —  items we wear regularly and which lie close to our hearts. 

Before the kinyan we spoke to each other and to our assembled guests, giving personal, intimate statements of our love, caring and commitment to each other.

After reciting the blessing and opening the pouch, we exchanged rings. Counter to tradition, my bride put the ring on my finger first, and recited, “Harei atah mekudeshet li …” (Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel). Usually the man does this first, and by saying those words he concretely acquires the woman as his property. 

I, then, put the ring on Saralie’s finger, but my words were from Song of Songs, “Ani dodi v’dodi li …(I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine). 

The Sheva Brochot was chanted and the ceremony concluded with the breaking of the glass.


Tom Herz and Saralie Pennington were married in 2001 in San Francisco, where they live. Rabbi Yoel Kahn officated.