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You don’t need a rabbi to get married, but here’s why it’s a good idea

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This story was first published on My Jewish Learning.

With the arrival of Shavuot next week, Jewish wedding season swings into high gear, and rabbis like myself will find ourselves quite busy. Truth be told, while a rabbi’s efforts are highly visible during the wedding ceremony, the real work of ushering a new couple into healthy matrimony has typically taken place over months of conversation and learning. It’s powerful work, and I know I find it a great privilege.  A rabbi can make a significant difference in the religious and spiritual lives of a couple, whether they are both Jewish or not.

That said, the power a rabbi draws upon to transform two individuals into a married couple by American legal standards does not come from Judaism. Toward the end of the ceremony, just before a glass is stomped on, I declare as officially as I can, “By the power invested in me by the Commonwealth of Virginia, I hereby declare you married.” I’ll further certify what I have declared by signing (in duplicate! in black pen!) the wedding license and returning it (within five days!) to the courthouse. This is what makes the couple legally married in the eyes of the state.

There is no part of a Jewish wedding ceremony when a rabbi (or cantor) marries a couple. While we have been certified by our states to perform weddings that have legal standing, we have no special Jewish powers to turn single people into a couple married in the eyes of God. To guests, it may appear otherwise. After all, the rabbi chants Hebrew prayers and blessings, pours wine into cups, and instructs the couple on what to say. But in reality, it is the bride and groom who marry themselves with two transformative practices.

The first occurs just before the ceremony when the ketubah, the wedding contract, is read. The traditional ketubah is a legal document that a groom presents to a bride in which he stipulates precisely how he will care for her during the marriage. In liberal and interfaith settings, the ketubah is more egalitarian, affirming the terms that both partners will adhere to in their relationship. Typically, it speaks of love, mutual support and being on a shared journey through life together.

A wedding ring appears during the second transformative practice. In liberal settings, rings are typically exchanged and the couple makes a mutual declaration to the effect that the rings symbolize the joining of their lives. In traditional settings, the groom typically gives the bride a ring and declares that she is now consecrated to him in accordance with Jewish law. By accepting the ring (or some other token of value), she indicates her agreement to the terms he has set forth.

The performance of these two practices constitutes a Jewish marriage. While a rabbi typically directs the couple through these and other parts of a wedding ceremony, any layperson with Hebrew facility could do this. Interestingly, it was not until the Middle Ages that rabbis got into the wedding act as officiants. Before that, Jewish weddings were largely economic proceedings arranged by families.

So why engage a rabbi for a wedding at all? There are many reasons why I encourage couples to turn to a rabbi at this important milestone in their lives.

As a spiritual guide, a rabbi can help the couple see their wedding as part of their Jewish journey. As a gentle teacher, a rabbi can help them discover the Jewish wisdom and values that can lift up their lives together. Together, they can study the history and multiple interpretations of Jewish wedding practices and learn how to connect to them in a way that feels meaningful. When the ceremony takes place, the couple will not feel like passive observers. If they have learned to adapt ancient practices to their modern sensibilities, that is a skill they can turn to for future life-cycle events and holiday celebrations.

Rabbis with special training can also provide premarital counseling from a Jewish perspective. For interfaith couples hoping to one day have children, the rabbi can share wise paths others have taken. And for sure: The rabbi will prepare the Jewish member of the couple to step up and find a supportive Jewish community if he or she wishes to one day have a Jewish home.

It can be challenging to find the right rabbi to play this role. But for the reasons I have suggested, I encourage couples to search for a rabbi — and not at the last minute, as often happens, but at the same time they look for a venue or consider a date. And here’s one more reason: When a rabbi officiates at a wedding, a couple is making a powerful statement about their identity. They are saying: “Judaism matters to us.”

The post You don’t need a rabbi to get married, but here’s why it’s a good idea appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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