Shalom, folks. Each Tuesday we examine a Biblical commandment and add it to the interactive visual over at EtzMitzvot.com. Following last weeks’ hotly debated post (some 16,000 views in a single day!) on homosexuality and gay marriage, I’m following up on the positive commandment for men and women to get hitched! Wouldn’t you know it, there’s more to this commandment than you might think…
In last week’s post on the “Do not engage in homosexuality” commandment, I mapped the parent commandment as mitzvah #122, “Marry a wife through betrothal and wedding contract.”
In our race to weigh in on gay marriage, we didn’t comment on this parent commandment to marry a wife. In fact, not a single soul noticed a little oddity: the commandment might not really say to marry a wife! (We were too busy arguing about gay marriage.)
Let’s dig in and learn more.
Maimonides summarizes this commandment as,
“To marry a wife by means of ketubah and kiddushin.”
Ketubah and kiddushin? Yes, the same Torah that forbids homosexuality also commands things that, I think, many believers are unfamiliar with. (It’s bothersome to see how believers can be so laser-focused on one commandment, like the one forbidding homosexuality, but be completely ignorant of other commandments, like commandments for marriage with ketubah and kiddushin.)
What does it mean, “ketubah and kiddushin”, exactly? Well, they’re both terms born out of the Talmud and Jewish traditions on marriage, in particular, the Mishna’s Kiddushin which looks at this Biblical commandment on marriage and rules on how to carry it out.
Let’s examine that traditional Jewish interpretation, then we’ll examine the text itself.
A ketubah is basically a marriage contract, where the groom puts into writing rights and responsibilities in relation to his bride.
A ketubah with the heading, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”
Quite beautiful, don’t you think?
Ok, so ketubah is a marriage contract, often stipulating the groom’s obligations to the bride.
According to Jewish tradition in the Mishna, Kiddushin is the first stage of marriage. When a couple has entered kiddushin, they are considered husband and wife; divorce is required if they choose to split before the wedding.
A couple who are betrothed in this way are husband and wife, but they are not permitted to live together until the final stage, in which both are united publicly under a bridal canopy – the chuppah – and are considered fully wed.
There were 3 means for a man to betroth a woman and enter the kiddushin stage:
- Giving money or a valuable item to the potential bride.
- A marriage document stating the groom’s intention to marry the bride.
- Sex, with the intention of consummating the marriage.
This transaction was to be seen by 2 credible witnesses, after which the couple is considered betrothed; entered into the kiddushin stage of marriage.
Similar to modern engagements, the most common way to enter kiddushin was through giving a ring as a public sign of the covenant between the bride and groom.
Sex to enter into this stage is interesting. I find it amusing to think that this may have been, at one time, an accepted form of marriage betrothal: two unmarried people have sex with the intention to marry. The marriage is consummated; they’re now betrothed.
According to Chabad’s article on Kiddushin, this was later forbidden by the rabbis, making it a punishable offense. While I haven’t verified this claim, I assume Chabad knows their stuff!
That’s the tradition, now what about Scripture?
Ok, so we understand that Judaism has an oral tradition that this Scripture means that two people are to get married via written contract (ketubah) and by betrothal (kiddushin).
What does the actual text say? Well, you might be surprised:
If a man takes a wife…
Yes, that’s the only part of this text that deals with marriage. Nothing about contracts, betrothal, wedding rings. Ha! The full text is actually dealing with what to do if a man marries a woman who claimed to be a virgin but was not:
If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, despises her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,” then the young woman’s father and mother shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that she was a virgin. Her father will say to the elders, “I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he despises her. Now he has slandered her and said, ‘I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.’ But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.” Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, and the elders shall take the man and punish him. They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.
What we see here is less about a commandment to marry, and more about what to do when a man marries a woman and slanders her saying she was not a virgin, when in fact she was.
This happened occasionally in the ancient world; today it’s practically unthinkable, in part because there is no shame in marrying non-virgins, and likewise, virgins are rare because our culture is so infatuated with sex. As this did happen in the ancient world, God gives a commandment regarding how to handle this situation.
The following verses also give commandments on the situation in which a bride deceives her groom, saying she’s a virgin when she is not:
If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.
Modern sensibilities aside, I find the last two sentences rather powerful: God considers it an outrageous thing for a person to be promiscuous before marriage; so much so that it warranted capital punishment. We are so far removed from this in our culture today; promiscuity – like homosexuality – is no longer considered wrong; it’s normalized.
As a side note, how few sexual lifestyles in the West remain taboo! I imagine polygamy, bestiality, and pederasty will eventually break the barrier and become normalized, given enough time and social liberalization.
But here, in the Scriptures, from the moral absolutes shown to us by God at Mt. Sinai, even promiscuity is considered an egregious breaking of God’s law, at or above the same level as homosexuality.
Gender specifics, real or imagined
One other thing strikes me about this commandment. “If a man takes a wife…” Nothing about a woman taking a husband. Is the commandment exclusive to men? It seems so, since the commandment isn’t actually a command to take a spouse, but rather, a command about what to do when a dispute about a bride’s virginity arises.
In the comments to last week’s post, commenter Claire noted that the commandment against homosexuality is specifically a commandment against men lying with men; the Torah is silent about female homosexuality. Is that also deliberate? – is it only male homosexuality that’s forbidden? – or is this the language of the Torah, in which the heads of the households are addressed primarily and principles of the commandments apply to both sexes?
I feel the latter (feelings-based morality, yikes!) is true; the commandment forbidding male homosexuality is, I intuit, applied to women lying with women. But if I’m staying purely true to the text, I cannot insert my extrapolations as divine judgment.
It’s one of those cases where halacha – a means of interpreting and applying the Torah – dictates how we live the Scriptures.
(Sidenote: the Mishna has a lot to say about this! Several rabbis suggest this commandment is indeed gender-specific: men search for women, because for a man it is as if half of his being is lost; only when he finds a wife is he whole. A man who lost a precious possession goes searching for it, and thus does a man search for his wife.)
Tradition or the text?
Maimonides and indeed Jewish oral tradition interprets this as a commandment to get married via wedding contract and betrothal.
And yet, the text is clearly about how to handle a dispute about a bride’s virginity after marriage.
I struggled with how to map this into our big EtzMitzvot visual.
On the one hand, I always attempt to remain true to the text, interpreting it in the most broad fashion. On the other hand, I don’t like to outright dismiss the opinions of the studied men through whom God preserved the Torah for thousands of years.
I’ve decided to change my initial interpretation from “Marry a wife through betrothal and wedding contract” to the more broad, “Marry a spouse.”
I believe this broad interpretation is supported by the Torah text and jives fairly well with Maimonides’ interpretation to marry via wedding contract and betrothal.
I’ve written, then deleted, this paragraph about 3 times. I don’t know whether I should be asking this, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that the Torah is rather silent about marriage. Sure, the text implies “marry a spouse” from Deuteronomy 22:13, but I was really expecting/hoping to see a clear, divine mandate about marriage. I don’t really get that from Deuteronomy 22:13, and I don’t know anywhere else in the Torah that does. I expect it there, because religious people have made marriage such a central, core issue today. Are we blowing it out of proportion?
Help me out, fine Kineti readers, where does the Torah command marriage and define ceremonies to marriage?