A Theology of Weddings

by Randall S. Frederick

Last year, I got engaged to my partner. She is a wedding planner and, true to form, has taken a strong hand regarding the orchestration and ordering of our upcoming wedding ceremonies. As a former minister, I have several thoughts of my own about the significance and symbology of the service but those ideas are more broad and conceptual than specific and practical. My mind moves towards why a decision is important rather than the execution of that decision, the importance of the ritual or phrase more than the order and sequence.

My partner, Lizzie, is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She is also the sister and sister-in-law of another two Presbyterian ministers. The minister officiating the wedding? Another Presbyterian, each and all able to offer suggestions for readings directly out of the Book of Common Worship, the liturgical book of order for the Presbyterian Church. Although Lizzie grew up knowing the order of a marriage ceremony and I brought several readings from the Evangelical tradition I inherited, when we sat down to read the passages together, we were considerably underwhelmed. Pretty significantly, actually. I was more than a little surprised at how disappointed I was at the small number of passages directly discussing marriage and the abundance of out-of-context readings offered to help fill the void. 

I know the Bible pretty well. I grew up hearing it, reading it, quoting it, preaching from it. It seemed an obvious thing that the Bible had a lot to say about marriage, given how much the Christian tradition celebrates marriage and how strongly Evangelicals emphasize marriage as the starting point for making a relationship sacred and sanctified before God. If the Bible is one of the cornerstones of Western tradition and the institution of marriage is another, shouldn’t there be more than stories of difficulty or sexual passion? What are we supposed to do with teachings of Jesus, who said marriage is a temporary thing – in the afterlife, none of us will “marry or be given in marriage” to one another, but instead “like the angels”? Or Paul thoroughly suggesting to his readers that marriage is a bore, even a burden? The two primary players of the New Testament seem to not only have very little to say about marriage, but when they speak or write about it at all, they seem to shrug their shoulders and dismiss it. Looking back to the Hebrew Scriptures, again, all we are able to put together are a few verses about how important it is to find someone you don’t immediately want to strangle, some poetic verses about breasts “leaping like deer” or “strong as mountains,” and a handful of stories (mainly from Genesis) about difficult people working through their own issues. The longest narrative of marriage is the one between Abraham and Sarah, where Abe tries to sell his wife to someone else on two occasions. He has a child with someone else and abandons both the kid and the babymama, then – having had enough of it when Abraham tries to kill their son – Sarah leaves him and lives alone until her dying day. That’s the biblical “representation” of marriage for you, despite the lofty claims of Evangelicals.

Trying to piece the other sidenarratives of marriage together, we know the first miracle Jesus performed was at the wedding of Cana and we have a few suggestions from Paul that husbands should love their wives in the same way that Jesus loves the universal church, but that’s it for the New Testament. After the world is destroyed, those who survive apocalypse and terror may have a “wedding feast”, but that says more about the catering than it does an actual marriage ceremony. I’ve never been fully convinced the people of God will be celebrating as they watch former friends and some enemies sent to eternal damnation and destruction, but then again I always like to leave room for optimism so… maybe?

Going back to the Apocrypha, the book of Tobit records a black widow bride (her first seven husbands died the night before they were supposed to marry her) and her latest husband prays that he’s able to survive. He does. That’s about it for the Apocrypha.

So it’s a struggle to really make this topic happen when there’s not a whole lot to say.

It’s also freeing, the absence of any kind of theology about marriage.

The absence tells me that marriage is hard. That humans do dumb things. That marriage is a commitment, that it includes passionate feelings, that it is an opportunity for growth and personal transformation, but just as frequently it is about taking someone as they are – in sickness and in health. Marriage, in scripture, is mundane, even disappointingly human. The method of finding a spouse, the form of a wedding ceremony, the order of service, and the nature of the marital relationship simply aren’t there. 

I find this warmly comforting because, well… no one knows what they’re doing. When ministers present the stories of the Bible, they often try to shoehorn some kind of message into it. And that’s not really faithful to the stories, which are often presented as evidence of messy humanity. No one ever gets it right, you know? In the middle of the Hebrew Scriptures, a farmboy named David becomes really important. Chapter after chapter follows David as a young man who grow up, joins the royal court, is exiled, joins an enemy nation, and eventually becomes king of the nation he was exiled from. But it gets better! David has been “rewarded” with kingship, right? Except the story keeps going. As a king, he may have done some great things but then he orders a soldier to the front line of battle so he can sleep with the soldier’s wife. David isn’t content with taking another man’s wife, though. He marries other women, which begins to complicate things because now the story begins to spin out into different family issues. One son rapes a sister. Another son tries to “follow in pop’s footsteps” and leads a rebellion. Another claims to be especially wise because, well, he writes poetry and has a lot of sex.

There’s no neat and tidy, simple three-part sermon here that we’re supposed to learn from. It’s profoundly human because it’s so messed up, so complicated, so relatable. As Lizzie said today in the car, “What is marriage if not a continuation of everything wrong with two people who make a choice, every day, simply not to kill one another?” It seems for all the talk in scripture about the people of God finally “marrying” God, that God wanted to kill us a few times.

It’s a grim aspect of a romantic ideal and yet, that’s passion for you. We’re continually tempted to love deeply, even to step outside ourselves and go a little crazy. To fill the void, or more accurately to keep us from doing harm to those we love the most, Christians have tried to fill the gap and explain the facets of marriage, to sanitize it and wash it. To baptize it. To make it something it naturally is not – holy. One of the early stories of Jesus, before he begins traveling outside of Jerusalem preaching and teaching, is that he goes to a wedding and turns water into wine. For the Christian, this is evidence (at least superficially) that marriage is a celebration. But Jesus “performs” this miracle quite reluctantly at the insistence of his mother, also in attendance. Jesus resists at first, insisting that it is none of his business – or hers. It’s one of the few times we see Jesus get angry. He even seems to be personally insulted, demanding why she has “done this thing to me.” Instead of the story being used to insist marriage is a magical experience where the mundane becomes special, it is similarly possible to see the moral here is that weddings are tense so you need to have amazing wine on hand.

For the Jew, interpretative methods go left instead of right. Unlike the Christian, Jews allow for many lenses and approaches. There are no “timeless truths” in scripture, and there is certainly a great deal of debate, even contentious debate, about what the stories of the Bible mean. And yes, this also means there are hundreds of ways to understand a marriage. Where a Christian would say that the akedah (the “binding of Isaac” in Genesis, chapter 22) would offer that Abraham attempting to kill his son in the name of God is evidence that we will have to give up the things we love the most for God, the Jew would point out the great moral atrocity of trying to kill someone – especially one’s own child! – in the name of God. The Jew makes connections in the text, like the observation that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, disappears from the text after Abraham tries to kill their son. The next time she is mentioned, she has died and is living apart from Abraham. Perhaps, the Jewish reader offers, the focus is not on giving things up for God but recognition of how much we give up unknowingly in pursuit of a vision, the erosion of relationships, the consequences of mania.

These different interpretive methods are collected in the Talmud, a sacred text for the Jewish community, that expands upon scripture with commentary and anecdotal parallels. Talmudic literature collects not just commentary on the stories of Abraham and David and other prophets, but together with the Mishnah, stories of rabbis engaging with faithful communities across time and location. The rabbis discuss marriages, yes, as well as simpletons who express truths that the learned are unable to through jargon, of rulings and laws made by religious adherents who do not fully understand what they are deciding, and discuss how to reinforce communities spread out across time and place. The Jews, according to these texts, are doing the best they can and often feel confused and dislocated in an insistent world. To the distantly modern reader, it becomes clear that here also, there is no “canonical” or “authoritative” way to do marriage.

According to a Spanish rabbi of the 13th century, Ramban Nachmanides, the marriage ceremony is not concluded until a year after the exchange of vows. How does he conclude this? By reasoning that even after vows are spoken, marriage partners do not truly know each other until they have seen one another, lived with one another, experienced one another through different seasons. Ramban rules that it is the conclusion of the first year that allows for nisuin, or a state of being full married. The logic follows the teachings of the polymath Maimonides, a 12th Century physician, rabbi, and political advisor, who determined that the process of marriage occured in two distinct stages: kiddushin (commonly translated as betrothal) and nisuin (full-fledged marriage). Maimonides expressed that kiddushin occurs when the woman accepts the proposal offered by the prospective husband. The word kiddushin comes from the root Qof-Dalet-Shin, meaning “sanctified” and reflects the sanctity of the marital relation. However, the root word also connotes something that is set aside for a specific (sacred) purpose. The ritual of kiddushin sets aside the woman to be the wife of a particular man and no other, and sets the man aside for the specific purpose of marrying and caring for their partner. Maimonides speaks of this year as a time to fall in love, or at least to determine whether love can proceed. Kiddushin is more binding than engagement it in modern America; in fact, Maimonides speaks of a period of engagement even before the kiddushin where God is playing matchmaker as much as the community. Like a Jane Austen novel centuries before she put pen to paper, marriage is a social contact that involves the entire community (even God!). It is never chance. 

Once kiddushin, or year of betrothal, is complete, the partners are fully joined. They have given their consent to the arrangement. Inherent in this is the understanding that, despite the best intentions of the community, the individuals, even God, that either member of the betrothed couple have a choice. Nothing is final until the year closes, but because of how much intention and time and effort and (now) commitment has been invested, the relationship created by kiddushin can only be dissolved by death or divorce. However, the spouses do not live together at that time. Even though they are intended and, in the eyes of the law, married, the mutual obligations created by the marital relationship do not take effect until the nisuin is complete. It is a gradual process, Maimonides and Ramban teach, and we are never alone even if we apart.

It’s a strange thing to see two Spanish rabbis speaking to a lived reality, worlds apart from the last year of a pandemic and social distancing. A year ago, Lizzie was in Israel, oblivious to what we now know were the first steps in international lockdowns. Nations were closing their borders and, desperate to return to the States, Lizzie found herself stranded first in Jordan and later in Dubai as one airline after another grounded flights. She called in tears first me, then her parents, then the American embassy, then co-workers at CNN, trying to send up flares to whoever would listen that she wasn’t one of the infected and she wanted to get home. 

The world slowly slipped into a chaos we were unprepared for and, whether it was stress or the power of suggestion, Lizzie finally returned to America with symptoms similar to Covid-19. These were unprecedented times and, as governmental bodies were still assembling information and the medical community disseminated research and various findings, two different doctors concluded that despite her symptoms, she did not have Covid. 

In the end, it hardly mattered to me either way. I am something of a cynical romantic. While I rushed into love when I was younger, I have learned to be slow with love now. I have been hurt too many times to be naive anymore. By the time Lizzie left for Israel, she was dear and precious to me but by the time she returned, something had shifted between us. We needed one another from across the world. We were together now – whatever that meant – and if she had Covid-19, I was resolved that I would get it also. Some form of weight existed now between us, the conspiracy of romance of two individuals who had made a decision about one another. 

In the year that followed, we socially distanced together. One night, she cried for her mother, so we got in the car at 9pm and drove twenty-three hours to the Poconos. We stayed two months because everything was basically closed to us – stores, work, restaurants. No demands were placed upon us; still, we suffered with paranoia and depression along with everyone else.  We went to Philadelphia and stayed there for a while. We argued. We made love. We cried. Work changed for both of us and in turn, changed us. We put up a reading chart and I promised to buy her a pizza for every five books she finished. We kissed in basements and hiked through dead forests. We saw a bear. We got engaged, navigated the French Quarter, flew to Cabo, and made plans to visit Paris and Sydney “when all this is over.” We watched the numbers of pandemic-related deaths climb and climb and climb, punctuated by protests for justice and an unjust insurrection. We’ve been furious with one another and, joined together, turned that fury in the same direction at circumstances and people and television, at the world and at individuals. We have laid awake at night, quietly whispering our fears and unable to comfort one another but secure in the knowledge that we’ve made it this far and we’re not giving up. 

By the time we exchange vows, we will have lived apart for a year and together for twice the length that Maimonides and Ramban say it takes to get to know someone. And we did this in the middle of a globally traumatic series of unfortunate events. The ceremony isn’t so much a first step, but a party to welcome others into what we have already decided exists between us, to sanctify/sacralize the choice we made about one another, to bookend all of this and begin something new together. It feels inevitable, in one sense.

According to the Talmud, Rav Yehuda taught that 40 days before a male child is conceived, a voice from heaven announces whose daughter he is going to marry – a “match made in heaven” now proclaimed to the world. In Yiddish, this perfect match is called bashert, a word meaning “fate” or “destiny.” Commonly, the word bashert is used to refer to any kind of fortuitous good match, such as finding the perfect job or the perfect house, though it is still usually used to refer to one’s soul mate. There are a number of statements in the Talmud that would seem to contradict the idea of bashert, or the soul mate, most notably the many bits of advice on choosing a wife (indicating human choice, not divine intention/command). Nevertheless, the idea has a strong hold within the Jewish community: look at any listing of Jewish personal ads and you’re bound to find someone who says they are “looking for my bashert.”

Finding your bashert doesn’t mean that your marriage will be trouble-free. Marriage, like everything worthwhile in life, requires dedication, effort and energy. Even when two people are meant for each other, it is possible for them to ruin their marriage, for life to get in the way, or to find that while their souls are compatible, their living arrangements are not. Lizzie and I have invited a few groups of people whose lives have intersected and intertwined over decades. My parents, long divorced, remain in one another’s lives. One of my best friends divorced her husband a few years ago and “gave him away” at his second wedding. Their lives are also intertwined, whether married or not. Humanity often gets in the way of our ideals, and this is why Judaism allows for divorce despite all of the teachings on bashert and choice and angelic proclamations, why the widowed still speak of destiny and fate and frailty even after a loss. In the midst of all of this sacred exploration, a first marriage is bashert, but that does not exclude the possibility of a second bashert marriage. It is still possible to have a good and happy marriage with a second spouse, the Talmud teaches, because God also arranges second marriages. According to the Talmud, man’s second wife is chosen according to his merits and not his nature. 

Perhaps this indicates we do not truly know who we are, and perhaps God does not know who we are, until we make mistakes. We may rightly ask, How do you know if you have found your bashert? Should you hold off on marrying someone for fear that the person you want to marry might not be your bashert, and there might be a better match out there waiting for you? The traditional view is that you cannot know who your bashert is, not even after you are married. Once you get married though, the person you married is by definition your bashert. After all, you chose to enter into marriage with them! We are told we should not let concerns about finding our bashert discourage us from marrying someone, but there’s the dilemma. What’s the point of marriage if we’re not with “the one”? That’s the goal, right? To become “complete” with our “intended.”

This idea was explored on an episode of the adult cartoon Rick & Morty. In season 4, one of the characters downloads a dating app, Lovefinderzz, to her phone and immediately matches with her soulmate. Except the app doesn’t stop once she’s found her soulmate, it continues to pair her with other soulmates and they match with her. Even after she matches with someone and enters into a whirlwind romance, she and her partner continue to match with other people and, each time, they leave one another for their next soulmate as the world begins to crash around them. After all, when everyone drops what they are doing to meet their soulmate, everything crashes from planes to stock markets. Lather, rinse, repeat, the rest of the episode continues the joke well past the point where it stops being funny. The punchline keeps punching, making satire into tragedy and driving the point home: there is no such thing as a soulmate, we just convince ourselves that the person we are with is the person who is meant to be there. If we don’t stop at some point, we’re just going to cause emotional damage wherever we go and the world – metaphorical, animated, or otherwise – will crash around us. We change. We become different people. And it’s unrealistic to expect someone to keep up with our unique form of crazy.  

Again, I’m a cynical romantic. Lizzie is far more romantic on this than I am. Despite seeing the matches on reality dating shows like The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Bachelor in Paradise, and Bachelor: Listen to Your Heart pair up, break up, make up, and divorce every. single. year. for the last. decade. she still believes that this will be the season someone finds their soulmate. 

I think (or at least I hope) that Rick & Morty’s long discussion of marriage has more to say than an individual episode. By the end of the season, two other characters, Jerry and Beth end their estrangement and get back together. They’re not soulmates, not by any stretch, but they have enough love to sustain them. As they are getting back together, this is juxtaposed with the memories of Rick’s failed marriage, where we discover Rick’s surly demeanor is a hardened shell intended to keep him from feeling the full pain of losing his wife. Love exists and, whether we are soulmates or not, it can still become an integral part of who we are and how we understand the world. Without love, we close ourselves off and become hardened to the world. It is a daily choice to love someone as much as it is to feel anything at all.

Choice isn’t the end of the matter, though. In the case of Lizzie and I, we recognize our mothers have played an instrumental role in advising us over our lifetimes. Benita and Pattie, our mothers, have (quite literally) bathed us in prayer and good vibes, well wishes, and every caricature of a protective mother where it concerned a future spouse. I am entirely confident that my mother has prayed for my partner since before I was born and every time she has prayed for me, she has also been praying for my future partner. One gauzy, foggy morning over coffee, Lizzie’s mom confessed she had done the same thing with Lizzie. While both of our mothers have always spoken of choosing a partner, there has also been an expectation that the act of choosing was, itself, a sacred act. The Midrash includes a comedic teaching about this duality.

A Roman woman asked a rabbi, “If your G-d created the universe in six days, then what has he been doing with his time since then?” The rabbi said that God had been arranging marriagesand was continuing to arrange marriages at that very moment. The Roman woman scoffed at this, saying that arranging marriages was a simple task, but the rabbi assured her that arranging marriages properly is as difficult as parting the Red Sea. To prove the rabbi wrong, the Roman woman went home and took a thousand male slaves and a thousand female slaves and matched them up in marriages. The next day, the slaves appeared before her, one with a cracked skull, another with a broken leg, another with his eye gouged out, all asking to be released from their marriages. The woman went back to the rabbi and said, “There is no god like your G-d, and your Torah is true.”

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