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From the Wedding Kiss to Conjugal Bliss: A Review of Two Classics on Love and Marriage in the Jewish Tradition

Review of The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant (Simon & Schuster, 268 pp., $10.00) and Heavenly Sex: Sexuality In The Jewish Tradition by Ruth K. Westheimer and Jonathan Mark (NYU Press, 1995, 195 pp.).

Those in search of a manual on wedding etiquette won’t find it in Diamant’s classic, The New Jewish Wedding. But anyone interested in creating a unique wedding experience by blending the richness of the old with the relevance of the new will have found a treasure trove in Diamant’s book.

Diamant addresses the realities of modern life that have altered fundamental notions about marriage. For example, brides and grooms often live together before the wedding; divorce and remarriage are commonplace; women’s self-perceptions have undergone nothing less than a revolution; and more and more Jews are marrying non-Jews than ever before. But instead of bemoaning these truths as threats to either community or convention, Diamant demonstrates how ancient traditions may be updated to create customs which reflect a changing world.

Diamant cites the ketuba (the written marriage contract) as a perfect example of an ancient practice that can be transformed and revitalized when infused with current sensibilities. The classical ketubah has everything to do with law and finance and nothing whatsoever to do with romance or transcendence. To its credit, the ketubah was considered very progressive in its day–the end of the first century CE–as it granted legal status to women and protected older wives in polygamous relationships from being neglected. But because such ketubot do not reflect an evolved concept of marriage, many modern couples choose to create egalitarian documents that signify a spiritual covenant between a man and a woman. Diamant provides examples of ketobot, traditional and otherwise, that may serve as models for prospective brides and grooms.

Diamant also includes a discussion of “kosher style” weddings. By this she means ceremonies that are typically used when one partner is Jewish and the other has no particular religious affiliation but is willing to establish some ties to Jewish tradition. Although Diamant acknowledges that these weddings have no standing in Jewish law (even with their inclusion of Jewish texts such as Song of Songs, Proverbs, etc.), she contends that “for some couples, (such weddings) can be a way of affirming their connection to Judaism.” In the appendix, she includes the text of a ceremony written by Rabbi Rebecca Alpert called The Children Of Noah. This service echoes the Jewish wedding ritual but is “intended for use in a Jewish context to affirm and make holy the marriage of two people who are ‘children of Noah’–one of whom is a Jew.”

Besides noting the historical origins of many wedding customs, Diamant offers solid advice to prospective brides and grooms. Addressing the fact that many Jews are not affiliated with particular synagogues, she includes a section on “choosing the (right) rabbi” to officiate at the wedding. She suggests using the same method one would use to get the best possible caterer–personal recommendations from people whose opinions are trusted. Other pragmatic topics include designing invitations, organizing parties (which, she notes, should be referred to as “simchas”–celebrations of joy–and not receptions) and arranging processionals.

Diamant is both spiritually sensitive and refreshingly practical. The New Jewish Wedding is essential for anyone planning a Jewish wedding–in any of its myriad varieties.

Whereas Diamant, who plainly states that “the Orthodox have no lock on Judaism,” shows how liberal Jews have been inspired by old practices to create new forms of non-Orthodox piety and celebration, Ruth Westheimer and Jonathan Mark, authors of Heavenly Sex, examine sexuality exclusively within the context of traditional Judaism. They contrast the intensely sexual nature of Judaism with what they contend is Christian culture’s association of religion with Puritans, the celibacy of Jesus, and, amongst Roman Catholics, the celibacy of its clergy.

In Judaism, say the authors, “ . . . when sexual intercourse is done for the sake of Heaven, there is nothing so holy and pure . . . ” The authors substantiate their claim with a quote from the Zohar, the most important of Jewish mystical texts: ”The Divine Presence rests on the marital bed when both male and female are united in love . . . Where there is no union of male and female, people are not worthy of beholding the Divine Presence . . . ”

Westheimer and Mark also analyze the sexual and spiritual implications of several biblical relationships. In a discussion about the relationship between Abraham and Sarah, the authors focus upon the time Abraham asks Sarah to claim she is his sister and not his wife prior to their journey to Egypt. ( A little background is needed to fully understand the authors’ discussion: In biblical times, a king had the authority to “take” any unmarried girl or woman. Although he couldn’t be as unrestrained with a married woman, a king could take a widow at will. Thus, if a king fancied a married woman, he could kill the husband and take his widow.) Sarah complies with her husband’s request and is taken into Pharaoh’s harem. According to Westheimer and Mark, this story exemplifies how the relationship between Sarah and Abraham is one of “no choice”–one which is most likely to endure a lifetime, through good times and bad, such as a relationship between a a parent and child and a brother and sister. Viewing Egypt as symbolic of the secular and sensual “outside world,” the authors (supporting traditional rabbinical interpretation), say that, in asking Sarah to pretend to be his sister, Abraham is actually saying, “When we go into the world and are confronted by temptation . . . let’s you and I pledge to each other and God that our relationship is more precious than that.”

Many biblical commentators, especially feminists, tend to be more critical of Abraham’s actions, especially as he made a handsome profit by granting Pharaoh the use of his “sister.”

Heavenly Sex . . . is a worthy read. Written in an open, down-to-earth way, it celebrates sexual pleasure between married couples and provides a wealth of information on the biblical and rabbinical resources that form the basis for sexual mores within the Jewish tradition.

Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at