Already Married? Engagement in Contemporary Jewish Life

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 4:59pm -- Clergy

Next time you are in the Sanctuary at KI, take a look at the Hosea Window.   It is on your left, second from the front.   The verse quoted in the window (Hosea 2:19) comes from this week’s Haftarah (Parshat BaMidbar/Numbers).  “I will betroth you to me forever, “the prophet says to his bride, “I will betroth you in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness and mercy.”  It is a beautiful verse.  Sometimes, it is even used as a substitute for the “I Do” vow in a wedding service.

The word “betroth” is old fashioned and is best translated as “engage.”  “I engage you,” the prophet promises, “I vow to be a good, loyal, steadfast spouse.”  My sense is that most people simply assume it means “marry.”  “I hereby marry you,” the verse seems to be saying, “with best intentions, with love and with hope.”

However, its original sense of “pre-marriage engagement” is what is particularly interesting to me.   In my pastoral work, I work with about a dozen couples a year preparing for marriage.   In other words, I meet with them during their engagement period from sometime after they agree to marry and their wedding service.  It is often a joyous, celebratory process.  It is renewing to work with (mostly young) people filled with hope in the future and ready to make what is hopefully a life long commitment.

My “wedding routine” is well hewn.  Over the years, I have developed a number of steps, processes and documents to help the couple prepare for their big day and, hopefully, the rest of their lives.   My documents include the wedding liturgy, a relationship inventory (about 80 questions), a guide to some of the legal aspects of marriage, how to get a wedding license, a form for genetic testing and a bibliography on Jewish Wedding customs.  There are also informational documents the couple needs to fill out.  

Generally, I meet with couples 2-3 times, usually in person but sometimes by Zoom.  As I have gotten older and amassed a body of experience, I tend to share stories about other couples I have worked with, their challenges, triumphs, and, on occasion wedding bloopers.   Often I know one person in the couple better than the other (eg, a former Confirmand) and need to make quick work of bonding with the non-KI person.  Sometimes, I know neither person.  In each instance, I ask them to take the relationship inventory and to write a statement about what they love the most about their partner.  

One of the key discussions I have with couples is about where they are on the marriage timeline.   Let me explain.  We discuss how they met, how their relationship became special, usually how they moved in together, when they got engaged and how they picked their wedding date.   Then I ask my big question, “when did you get married?”   Now, I know that they have not exchanged rings yet but the reality is that must most couples I meet with are already existentially “married” long before they talk with me.   In other words, they are betrothed in the Biblical sense of the term.  

I think my “weddings” have a good track record and the vast majority stay married.   A few don’t.  On occasion, I witness (painfully) a break up right in my office.  Most couples take the whole planning process very seriously.  A few are going through the motions but they are, thankfully, the exception.

After 40 years of officiating at weddings and having worked with hundreds of couples, I can still honestly say I love this aspect of my rabbinate.  It is so hopeful.  It is joyful and it is fulfilling.   The prophet Hosea understood the depths of the marriage covenant.  “I betroth you,” he first said thousands of years ago, “forever with love, truth and kindness.”  May such vows continue to be exchanged with sincerity and give humanity its greatest source of renewal:  selfless, committed, long term love between mutually respectful partners.”    It’s enough to make you want to shout “Mazal Tov” and make a heartfelt “L’chaim!”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.