A chuppah in Jerusalem. (photo by Nikki Fenton)
Mazal tov. Mabrouk. Congratulations. No matter one’s religion or language, a wedding is generally a joyous occasion.
While there is no apparent consensus, varying reports say that between 60% and 80% of all marriages in the United States are performed in a religious ceremony. Where do the religious wedding traditions come from? What are the similarities and differences between the marriage traditions of the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam?
The most obvious similarity between Jewish, Christian and Islamic marriages is that, in each case, the tradition requires that the union be between a bride and a groom of the same religion. In other words, according to the letter of the religious law, intermarriage is forbidden.
The Torah, New Testament and Quran indulge in many stories designed to warn men against marrying women who worship foreign gods or are nonbelievers.
Deuteronomy 7:3-4 states, “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.” For Christians, 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 explains that one should not be “yoked together with unbelievers,” and should “touch not the unclean thing” if one wants to be received by the Lord. In Sura 60:10, Muslims learn, “Do not maintain your marriages with unbelieving women.”
In Israel, where couples can wed only through religious ceremonies administered by the Chief Rabbinate, the intermarriage rate is relatively low. The 2015 Israeli Democracy Index survey found more than one-third of both Jewish (36%) and Arab (38.8%) Israelis support organizations that work to prevent Jewish women from marrying Arab men, even if their activities are radical and/or violent.
In the United States, however, intermarriage is almost the norm. The 2013 Pew Research Centre survey of American Jews found an intermarriage rate of 58%, up from 43% in 1990 and 17% in 1970. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is 71%.
How do these intermarried couples plan their weddings? Are the traditions similar enough to make it work?
The modern idea of a secular marriage based on love is rooted in Christianity. But, according to Karen Armstrong’s The Gospel According to Woman, the first detailed account of a Christian wedding in the West dates back to the ninth century and was identical to the old nuptial service of ancient Rome. This is likely because, at its core, Christianity looks down upon marriage.
In the New Testament (Matthew 22:23-30), Christians are taught that in heaven there are no marriages. St. Paul describes marriage as a last resort for those who cannot restrain themselves, saying that being chaste is the ideal.
In contrast, there are deep Jewish and Islamic marriage traditions that begin even before engagement. Arranged marriages – or the use of a shadchan (matchmaker), in Jewish terms – is something that’s not only condoned, but encouraged by both faiths.
Rabbi Etan Mintz, leader of B’nai Israel Synagogue in Baltimore, said matchmaking is experiencing a resurgence. There are now any number of religious- and secular-rooted websites helping couples meet and match. Likewise, there’s a growing phenomenon of executive matchmakers.
In the time of the Talmud, Jewish engagement (erusin) looked very different than it does today, Mintz explained, as engagement and marriage nuptials (nissu’in) were different ceremonies that took place about one year apart. When a man wanted to marry a woman, he would ask her father for permission, and documents of commitment would be signed. During that time, the couple was able to plan their lives, but no direct or immodest contact was allowed.
Today, the erusin and the nissu’in ceremonies generally happen at the same time – under the chuppah (wedding canopy). The ceremonies are divided by the reading of the ketubah (marriage contract).
This is not too different from how Muslim engagement practices look today, in some circles. Ibtisam Mahameed, a Muslim woman from the village of Faradis in Israel, told JNS.org that, in order for a couple in her town to get engaged, the man and his family must meet with the woman’s family.
“The boy has to come and sit in the parents’ house and say he wants to marry the daughter. The parents have to agree. If they don’t agree, the couple cannot be married,” she explained.
If the parents agree, then the village sheikh will come to the house of the woman’s parents and go over Muslim marriage law – what is owed to the bride and groom, the obligations of the man to the woman, and the ramifications of divorce.
“The rights are fully explained before the wedding,” Mahameed said.
Both Muslims and Jews enjoy rich pre-wedding rituals.
The Jewish bedeken (veiling ceremony) is “so powerful,” said Mintz. Often marking the first time a bride and groom are seeing each other after a week of separation before the wedding, the bedeken is wrought with emotion.
While one understanding of the bedeken is that it relates to the fact that the biblical patriarch Jacob was forced to marry Leah instead of Rachel when the brides were switched by their father Laban – and, by extension, today, the groom symbolically makes sure he is marrying the right bride by checking and then veiling her – Mintz said there are other more spiritual interpretations of ritual.
“Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach asks, ‘If the purpose is to make sure she is the right one, why does he veil the bride at the bedeken? Shouldn’t he be taking the veil off?’ Carlebach says the radiance of the bride is so powerful under the chuppah, so beautiful, that the chatan (groom) veils her. That intensity, that beauty, is just for the two of them in their own personal space,” Mintz said.
Mahameed described Islam’s “henna” ceremony as powerful and intimate, too. She said the groom’s best friends and relatives gather in his home to mix and paint the henna dye. Then, they mix more of the dye to deliver to the bride. Carrying a uniquely woven basket with a golden plate of henna, the groom and his mother walk hand-in-hand to make the henna delivery to the bride.
Read more at jns.org.