Humanistic weddings take God off the guest list

Rabbi Miriam Jerris looks on as newlyweds break the glass. One local Humanistic couple decided not to follow this popular tradition. Photo courtesy of Miriam Jerris.

There was no breaking the glass at Philip and Rebecca Resnik’s 2002 wedding. They’d made that much clear to the officiating rabbi and Philip’s family, which had raised him in a “Conservadox” household. The couple found the glass breaking anachronistic.

Instead, at the final moment of high emotion, they released balloons.
“We looked at the symbolism that was important for us,” Resnik says. “What was meaningful to us was about doing something that could not be undone.”

In retrospect, they concede, it wasn’t the most environmentally conscious alternative. But it was one of many ways in which the couple eschewed tradition and theology in their Humanist Jewish wedding.

The Resniks are members of Beth Chai, a Humanist Jewish congregation in Bethesda. Humanists remove God and piety from their Judaism, emphasizing instead Jewish culture and ethics. “Human beings have to rely on their own power, their own efforts, their own courage,” wrote the movement’s founder, Rabbi Sherwin Wine.

“Once you take God off the table as a thing that has to be invoked, you kind of free up the ceremony,” says Rabbi Jeremy Kridel of Machar: the Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

At Humanist weddings, couples often take the traditional marriage format and spin it into something more personal or which non-Jews can easily relate. The seven blessings recited during the ceremony — which calls on God 10 times — are ripe for reinterpretation, Kridel says.

One couple in a wedding Kridel co-officiated picked out seven brief poetic texts that they assigned to friends and family to read. It eliminated the God language of the seven blessings and made the tradition more personal, something Kridel says is increasingly important in weddings of all faiths.

“They wanted to retain the seven blessings that had that traditional form but as a way of including everybody else,” Kridel says. “When you look at the seven blessings, we’re invoking God and we’re invoking traditional biblical imagery, but we’re not really talking about the couple in front of us. And the modern notion of the wedding is about the couple.”

There’s no prescribed structure for a Humanistic wedding, says Rabbi Miriam Jerris of the Society for Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, Mich. The ceremony is meant to reflect the wishes of the couple, not adhere to ritual.
And often, that couple doesn’t fit into a neat box, either. Jerris has officiated at weddings of two Humanistic Jews, a Jew and a Christian, a Jew and an agnostic, and other combinations. So flexibility is crucial.

“Judaism for us is about culture,” Jerris says. “We can do any ritual, tradition or symbol that exists, we just do it from a human perspective. But I’m not the rabbi who says, ‘If you come to me you can only have a secular Jewish ceremony. I ask the couple, ‘Who are you and what do you need?’”

In the case of the Kridels, the couple wanted the God language removed. Instead of reading from scripture, the rabbi read from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s book “Kosher Sex” about love and relationships. They also didn’t want to employ some of the contractual elements of a traditional wedding. So the two wrote their own vows, which became the basis for their ketubah, or marriage contract.

But they planned to raise a Humanistic Jewish family, so it was important that the ceremony take on a decidedly Jewish bent. Though they don’t necessarily believe in God, Philip Resnick said placing his family in the context of their cultural heritage was important.

That’s one of the reasons Kridel is eager to help Humanistic Jews or interfaith couples with their nuptials. If a couple has a Jewish wedding, they’re far more likely to raise a Jewish family, he says. But if they’re excluded because they want a nontraditional wedding, they may stop identifying as Jews altogether.

“You want to say love is love is love,” Kridel says. A lot of people who end up being married by Humanist Jewish rabbis are doing it because they just can’t find another rabbi. We [as Jews] have this long, long history of fighting interfaith and humanist marriage. On a practical level, it’s been really unsuccessful. And in that process, we’ve managed to drive people away who might’ve stayed and raised their kids Jewish.”

As with everything, though, some couples just want to please their families. Even if they have moved on from their religious upbringing, they might go with a humanist Jewish wedding to split the difference between their beliefs and their families.

Or as Jerris puts it, “Grandma might still be alive.”

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