Tolerance and compromise keep the peace at home

My wife and I were married in a civil ceremony at City Hall and we have children together. She has been pressing me for a Jewish wedding for a number of years, and I keep telling her we’re already married so there’s no need. The Jewish marriage contract seems to be for the truly devout and contains these weird arcane ideas, such as the husband providing food, clothing and conjugal relations. I don’t get why my wife insists on this. The ketubah is a transactional document. She’s a very modern woman but she maintains some old-fashioned notions. She wants this because she wants our children to know how important her own Jewishness is to her in hopes that it will always be important to them. She says she really likes all that the marriage ceremony represents, including the seven blessings, the reasons for a chuppah, encircling of the groom and the breaking of the glass. It somehow makes her feel connected to her roots. On some level I get it, but this is not an imperative for me. She’s been bugging me for years. What should I do? — Ben

Dear Ben: If you are a regular reader of the Mensch, then you know he tends to encourage walking a path through Jewish life (so long as that path feels right) and that he has cited on more than one occasion the talmudic concept of shalom bayit, which translates literally to “peace of the home” but refers more broadly to the imperative of marital harmony. The most obvious and tempting answer to your dilemma is a recommendation that, in the interests of both ideas presented above, you grant your wife her wish and get thee to the chuppah. After all, what is the downside?

You’ve told your wife there is no “need” for a specifically Jewish wedding when she clearly has for years harbored that very need, arising from a desire to demonstrate to your children a devotion to Jewish tradition. And while Mensch agrees certain provisions of the Jewish marriage contract and some of the symbolic acts undertaken in the wedding are arcane, isn’t that a quality shared by many traditions and observances? To some, the practice of marriage itself is arcane, to others circumcision is. Meaning is not an inherent quality but one ascribed by a participant or beholder and is often divergent from utility. Which is not to say your objections to participating in a Jewish wedding, especially your own, are invalid. Shalom bayit is a two-way street, and your wishes are as important as your wife’s. Neither one of you is right.

However, you’ve asked for an opinion, so here it is. None of your stated objections seem especially doctrinaire or visceral. You don’t share your wife’s imperative to have a traditional Jewish wedding, but can you suck it up and tolerate it? If not, maybe there is a path to a less traditional but still fundamentally Jewish ceremony. Is your wife willing to sign a ketubah with more contemporary wording? Will she agree to skip the circular walk around the groom? Since you’re already married with children, you both are accustomed to compromise. Mazel tov on making it this far.
I have a cousin from Israel who is staying with my wife and me while he studies in San Francisco for a few months. I am Jewish and my wife is not. While my cousin is not especially religious, he keeps making cracks about our mixed marriage. I think he is simply engaged in good-natured ribbing, but the frequency of these remarks is making my wife uncomfortable. Should I tell her to ignore him or ask him to lay off and risk offending him? — Mike

Dear Mike: It sounds like someone is already offended. If your cousin were putting you and your wife up for a few months, you might have an argument for persuading her to ignore his snark. However, he’s a guest in your house — yours and your wife’s — so get with shalom bayit (see above) and tell your cousin to cut the crap. He’s Israeli. He’ll appreciate the direct communication.

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Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. Send your questions to advicemensch@gmail.com.