Ketubah Language

My introduction to Judaism as a burgeoning adult began in ninth grade. We were assigned to read Romeo and Juliet and to research a different culture’s wedding traditions. I, of course, used this project as an excuse to watch Fiddler on the Roof. And I loved the customs I read about: the simple band, the chuppah-as-home, and, of course, the ketubah.

Now, years later, as an adult, as an adult who finally converted, as an adult who finally converted and is engaged to a Jewish man, I was so, so excited to finally be able to participate in these rituals myself. And I set out with gusto. I found my ring with ease, I know exactly what my chuppah is going to look like (thanks Mom!) and I know what pretty pictures will decorate my ketubah.

One of the hardest decisions to date has been the ketubah language.

I started with the Conservative movement’s language. It is the language the Orthodox also use, as has been done for thousands of years by our tribe, with the addition of the Lieberman Clause added to address the issue of agunot.

I really wanted to embrace this ketubah language as a dedicated, proud Conservative Jew. But I hated it.

In the Conservative text, it refers to me as a title that is no longer applicable to me – or to him, for that matter. Accepting this document from him, where “all is valid and binding” would render me a liar and a hypocrite. He is not put into that position, of course, because society has never attempted to control male sexuality to the extent it has controlled female. But I don’t want to start my married life off with a lie.

I hated that I had absolutely no obligations to him. I understand that he acquires me and I appreciate that the woman’s agency, through her willing acceptance, has always been clearly indicated. It’s a one way transaction. That bothers me fundamentally. I don’t need our responsibilities and obligations to be EXACTLY identical given Judaism’s traditional beliefs on gender roles, but I am somewhat disappointed that the Conservative movement hasn’t dealt with this in light of other modern topics the Rabbinical Assembly has addressed – like can you read a Kindle on Shabbat? (The answer is no.) Or “gay marriage,” where Conservative movement stops short of calling it kiddushin, because it does not view it as kiddushin.

But I could probably have dealt with those previous two things like many of us do as adults: okay, some things just aren’t fair, just don’t work out the way you want, and just don’t get to change to suit your way, so suck it up, put on your big girl panties, and move on.

What bothered me the most is that I, as a convert not previously married, was “worth” 200 zuzim, while a born-Jew, not previously married, was worth 400 zuzim.

My rabbi tried to “appease me” by saying that the groom has traditionally been able to add an additional amount of his choosing, bringing me up to the 400 zuzim of a born-Jew. I know he was trying to mollify my desire to work within halakah and still be feminist and egalitarian. But this was one method that just didn’t sit right with me. It’s a slap in the face from Jewish tradition.

A never-been-married born-Jewish bride is paid 400 zuzim. A previously-married born-Jewish bride is paid 200 zuzim. A never-been married converted-Jewish bride is paid 200 zuzim.

Why the discrepancy? The purpose of this money is to help protect her in case of divorce – make sure she’s not out on the streets, that she has time to get her life back together. I can appreciate the intent given the economic reality back then, and in many families, even today.

But, the difference in values cannot help but raise two questions for me. A previously-married woman, in the eyes of Judaism, needs less money because she is more established in her trade, in the community, and in her wealth; she might even have children upon whom to rely. I can get her receiving less money than a first-time bride.

But between the convert getting married for the first time, and the born-Jew getting married for the first time… I can’t see any possible reason for the differing amounts. What reason that does not shame, humiliate, or treat her differently, could there possibly be to justify this difference?
Is it because converts don’t need as much support in the case of divorce? The community is more willing to help her? Her birth family is more willing to help her than the parents of born-Jewish brides? Doubtful, especially to the second point given the wide range of historic times this text has been used and the ramifications of converting to any faith.

Is it because we can’t be sure she’s really never been married before? Is it because we can’t be sure she’s really a virgin? We can’t trust her to be honest about her history and past (the same reason we prohibit her from marrying a Cohen?)?

This is the reason I could not use the Conservative text.

The Boy and I also disliked the use of the Lieberman Clause. This document basically states he promises to take on all of these responsibilities – and then says, but in case he’s a jerkface who runs away and isn’t an honorable fellow who will do the right thing as required by Jewish law – and then we’re going to take out an insurance policy in case he’s a bad person.

He didn’t like what it said about his character, and I could understand where he was coming from.

So…what was left at this point? Reform.

This is the reason I spent weeks pouring through “Reform” ketubot. I liked a lot of the stated sentiments, but still felt supremely DISSATISFIED. There are no “vows” in our ceremony, so we don’t break them in case of divorce. We have a contract, which we can break. And as great as these “Reform” ketubot were in espousing ideals that we’d like to uphold in our home and marriage, they fundamentally removed the structure and purpose of a ketubah for me. It *IS* a legal document. It’s about the bank accounts and the grocery bills and in the inherited home from Aunt Miriam and how to split the car you’re buying when you end up divorced. That’s the purpose of a ketubah.

So Reform didn’t work for us either.

We were stuck.

Enter said magnificent rabbi that sponsored my conversion and is our m’sader kiddushin and who originally said “just increase the amount because our tradition’s always allowed that” said two magical words: Aryeh Cohen. Aryeh Cohen teaches at AJU and as soon as I read his ketubah wording, I knew we had found the solution to our problems.

I cannot WAIT to get our ketubah. I cannot wait to hang it on our walls.

But most of all, I feel really, really blessed that one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make so far in the five months of wedding planning is how to live an authentic (to us), meaningful Jewish life. I don’t want our hardest decision to be what dress to get or what napkin fold to use.

I recognize that my Orthodox brethren would probably just good-naturedly shake their heads, tsking “Mikvah Bound, Mikvah Bound, Mikvah Bound…just what are we going to do with you, you crazy gal?” because we’d both know this isn’t a ketubah in their eyes.

And I realize that my Reform brethren would probably just good-naturedly shake their heads, tsking “Mikvah Bound, Mikvah Bound, Mikvah Bound…just what are we going to do with you, you crazy gal?” because we’d both know this wording would lack the “soul” or “spirit” that is so important to their ketubot.

But when I look at the language that has been used for ever, and then look at this modern translation that acknowledges the reality of our time, I know this is the perfect balance for us. This is conserving our tradition, struggling to find that narrow path that is right for you. It’s perfect.

Oh. P.S. I start a Biblical Hebrew ulpan on Monday and I’m so beyond excited!