pair of wedding rings

Rethinking rituals: It’s no longer as simple as saying ‘I do’

It wasn’t just any hike.

As I walked through the Maryland forest, my mind sped through a wide range of emotions — joy, happiness, anxiety and excitement. I was hyper-aware of the sounds of birds, the occasional small animal running through the forest and the heat of the summer on my back.

After a mile and a half, I met Kate, who had been hiking the loop in the opposite direction. We found a stump to sit on and exchanged some words we had written over the previous few days.

I gave her a necklace, she gave me a mezuzah and a Bible.

I asked her if she wanted to marry me. She asked me the same question.

We were now engaged.

altshuler and bass sitting porch with dog
George Altshuler and fiancée, Kate Bass, with their dog, Noah

Kate and I had come up with this engagement ritual earlier that week. We had decided to get engaged on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday night — we were sitting on our couch in our basement apartment in Washington, D.C.

After the excitement of one of the most important conversations in my life wore off, I found myself asking, OK, now what? Do we unceremoniously pronounce ourselves engaged? Do we just call our family and friends?

Thankfully, Kate found the inspiration for our engagement ritual on the lesbian-oriented blog After Ellen. A couple had done something similar in a national park a few years earlier.

We decided to imitate this couple because the classic model of the man proposing to the woman in a heterosexual relationship just didn’t seem right for us. It seemed to give the man all the power and all of the opportunity to be creative. In its classic form, both the romanticism and the decision-making belong to the man, while the woman is left to simply reply “yes” or “no.”

In practice, most couples I know have conversations about how they want to get married and then, in heterosexual couples, the man surprises the woman with a proposal. This didn’t seem right for us. We wanted something that would feel mutual and would allow us both to be expressive. And so we opted for our hike in the woods.

As we plan our wedding, which will happen in July, we are faced with more choices. It is very important to us that our wedding be Jewish, but the question of how to make Jewish choices comes up again and again.

In a traditional Jewish wedding, the bride circles the groom seven times. Do we want to do it this way? At the wedding of one of my closest friends, the bride and the groom circled each other.

My fiancée and I certainly want to smash a glass at the end of our wedding, but who should do so? Is this something only the groom should do?

When it comes to weddings, the breakdown of tradition has in so many ways presented opportunities.

These are just two of the seemingly endless number of choices couples face nowadays when planning a wedding — and these questions certainly extend beyond questions of gender equality. In a Jewish context, what should our ketubah-signing ceremony look like? Do we want to have a tish — where a word of Torah is spoken — before the wedding?

When it comes to weddings, the breakdown of tradition has in so many ways presented opportunities. These days, since there are so few prescribed wedding rituals, couples can draw from many traditions: We have Judaism as a resource, as well as traditional American weddings, ideas from the LGBT community and ideas we can invent.

It seems like this smorgasbord of choices hasn’t been anything but an opportunity for the weddings I’ve been to and heard about. These weddings have all been so intentional — couples deeply consider what they want to do, and this manifests itself in things like writing their own ketubah and choosing meaningful readings for the ceremony.

It’s easy to be reflective and deliberate during wedding planning; most people spend more than a year preparing for their wedding.

My guess, as an unmarried person, is that the breakdown of tradition presents more of a challenge once marriage begins. With very few prescribed rituals and customs, people are left defining both the content of marriage and the practices that go along with it.

To explain my point, let’s look at how Jews keep Shabbat. For observant Jews, keeping Shabbat is challenging, but it is in many ways straightforward. There are rules about what you can and cannot do. But for more liberal Jews, keeping Shabbat holy can be more of a challenge. If it’s OK to drive on Shabbat, is it OK to use a cellphone? If you can do everything you’d normally do, what makes this day special? With the freedom of fewer rules comes the challenge of deciding at every step how to keep the day holy.

In many ways, I believe it’s the same with marriage. The fact that weddings and marriages are so open comes as both an opportunity and a challenge. How do you keep a modern marriage holy with so few ground rules and wide-open expectations?

My hope as I embark on this next phase of life is that I remember that this openness will present opportunities to create new meaning, though in many ways this also makes things harder.

The piece was originally published by the Washington Jewish Week.

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.