weddings, marriage, & divorce

Sanctifying our union: Setting the scene through an opening blessing

From even before getting engaged, I knew that my partner and I would have a blast working out our wedding ceremony. We found a fabulous friend to officiate, one who honors our feminist and humanist values while helping us understand and connect to the laws and symbols of our heritage. The three of us have each made strong contributions to this process. The one challenge we are still addressing is the opening blessing.

Ebn Leader wrote a modern version of the opening blessing to a Jewish wedding ceremony, written in the spirit of the traditional blessing: “Blessed are You, who sanctifies us with Your commandments and separates us from unethical sexual behavior, permitting each of these partners to the other by means of the wedding canopy and the betrothal.”

Before I critique the blessing, let me explain two needs addressed by opening with this blessing: it states the function of the betrothal process that is about to occur, and it states that sexual behavior is a defining element of the relationship currently under discussion. While I like that the blessing incorporates these two aspects, I find the actual messages that end up getting sent to be quite problematic.

I very much like the idea of opening the wedding ceremony by setting the scene, or, in spiritual words, setting an intention for what is about to occur. Before going right ahead with what everyone already expects to happen, let’s take a moment to reflect on the act and to invite those present to join us in sanctifying the process, in making it joyous, positive, healthy, spiritual, meaningful. Why are we having a religious ceremony? What is the purpose of all these symbols and rituals? For me, the answer is not that we are doing these things so that God can sanction our life together. A re-worded opening blessing could appropriately set an intention, or introduce a mindset, that can prepare us as loving partners and our friends and family with us to take in the rest of the ceremony.

And on to my second point: I value discussion of sex and sexuality. A colleague of mine actually pointed out that there is no other place in the wedding ceremony in which sexuality is mentioned, so for those of us who think that frank discussion of sex and sexuality can be healthy and positive, there is an inclination to embrace it here, in this opening blessing. However:

In no way do I want to imply that getting married sanctions sexual behavior between two people or that a healthy life partnership must be sexual.

Let me repeat: I am not getting married in order to make myself an honest woman, and I do not want to erase the fact that people who do not want to have sex together may still choose to get married.

I do not want a blessing that implies that getting married renders acceptable, on the one hand, or requires, on the other hand, that my partner and I have sex.

That said, I do value making distinctions between ethical sexual behavior and unethical sexual behavior, and I do think that ethical sexual behavior is a healthy and beautiful thing worth celebrating, a thing I might even consider holy. Furthermore, my partner and I do value each other sexually and value the sexual aspects of our union. And I think it would be pretty cool if we could express our valuing intimacy and pleasure and passion through an opening blessing. We still need to work on getting the wording just right, and recognize the problematic history that has resulted in this modern blessing with these words and implications.

Published by Mimi Arbeit

applied developmental scientist, antifascist community organizer, sexuality educator

4 thoughts on “Sanctifying our union: Setting the scene through an opening blessing”

  1. Joanna says:

    I'm really looking forward to hearing your wording for the blessing, and the thought processes in this post really resonate for me. That blessing has always made me feel uncomfortable, too. Way to go!

  2. Matthew Ari Lowe says:

    For anyone interested, here is one translation of the traditional Erusin blessing, as a basis for comparison with Ebn's variation:

    Praised are you Adonai, Ruler of the universe, who has made us holy through Your commandments and has commanded us concerning sexual propriety, forbidding to us (women) who are merely betrothed, but permitting to us
    (women) who are married to us through chuppah and kiddushin. Blessed are You, Adonai, who makes your people Israel holy through chuppah and kiddushin.

  3. JoJo says:

    I think you guys should just get up there and sing the Enrique Iglesias song "Tonight (I'm F—ing you)" to each other.

    Okay, maybe that wouldn't exactly fly with the bubbes, but seriously, there is an element of that sentiment in the blessing, and I love that sentiment in both blessing and song.

    Sanctifying commitment is a beautiful thing, and I don't think it needs to be read as socially conservative if you don't mean it that way. There's something wonderful in saying, "you're the one I'm with, and I'm excited I get to have sex with you"–out loud, in public, at a special moment in life. How great!

    There is nothing keeping polyamorous folks who choose to have commitment ceremonies from publically celebrating that excitement with each other as well. It might be more difficult for them to expect praise and recognition from their families during that moment in their lives, but the way I see to support them in that moment is to loudly cheer them on (rather than stifling the sexual blessings of more traditional appearing unions).

    There is also nothing keeping people who do not feel comfortable committing to partners at all from celebrating their sexual intentions with each other during many different moments in life–and in fact, I think that's more the norm in our society than anything else. Think about it: that's exactly what Enrique Iglesias is doing during his song, and more people know and relate to that song than to any of the blessings that will be said during your ceremony. People who are averse to commitment get the chance to sing about their happy sexual intentions PLENTY in life, so I don't think you need to feel any guilt or angst on that account!

  4. ebn says:

    Dear Mimi,
    You actually got an incomplete translation of the hebrew text I put together with some nput from students. If you are still interested in thinking about this contact me at Hebrew College.

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