My wife and I just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. The ketubah we co-wrote in New York still hangs in our dining room, beautifully embroidered with color and calligraphy, and we see it every morning when we eat breakfast with our kids. So far, so good.
There is only one problem: The signatures of our witnesses have faded. Which means that our ketubah may no longer be “valid,” and things could get murky if, theoretically speaking, we decided to end our marriage and obtain a get.
My wife’s approach to this ambiguous situation has been to figure out a way to revalidate the document by somehow bringing the original signatures back to visible, or by having them reinscribed. My approach, more metaphysical than practical, is to understand the symbolic issues troubling the situation. Without putting either of us in a box, her approach tends toward the letter, and mine toward the spirit (a mixed marriage, of sorts).
This odd, absurd question of whether our ketubah — and, by extension, whether our marriage — is valid is almost a parody of talmudic hair-splitting. Of course we are married; and of course the document needs a signature spruce-up to be useful as a stand-alone contract. And it hardly needs saying that many truly sacred relationships are not graced with a piece of paper, and many ketubahs do nothing to arrest a marriage from disintegrating.
I’m not talking about my own marriage. The marriage I’m concerned about is that of the written and the oral in Judaism, of letter and spirit, of permanence and change. The deeper question is what does it mean for a sacred or legal vow (in Judaism the two often merge) to be “authorized”?
Perhaps I am taking this approach because I’ve started to think about Yom Kippur, still several weeks away, but whose shadow looms large because of the war in Israel, and the questions of life and death that follow in its wake. And for me the two dominant ritual buckets that bracket the holidays — Kol Nidre and U’netaneh Tokef — reveal that what we pledge, and the permanence of what even God decrees in writing, is strangely open-ended.
Take Kol Nidre, the famously counterintuitive legal formula we recite thrice on the evening of Yom Kippur, in which we publicly state that “all vows and prohibitions, oaths and consecrations” that we made over the last year are “null and void.” This formula, which troubled rabbis for centuries, evokes both the historical and the spiritual conundrums of Jewish life. Historically, Jews were often forced to forsake Judaism on pain of death, and the Kol Nidre allowed them to publicly recant those false promises, and therefore rejoin the community on its holiest day. Spiritually, those who had made certain moral commitments, and found them to be impossible, were given a pass to rejoin the community.
Then there is U’netaneh Tokef, a complicated and powerful poem in which we tremble in awareness of our smallness compared to God. And yet, starting on Rosh Hashanah (when God writes down our fate) and extending through Yom Kippur (at which end the decree is sealed), this prayer tells us that we can literally change what God has already written through repentance, prayer and tzedakah.
Embedded in the core of the High Holy Days liturgy, then, are two extraordinary contradictions. The first is that our vows — interpreted as those concerned primarily with interpersonal relationships and community — “are not vows.” The second is that God’s own (albeit metaphorical) inscription of our fate in the Book of Life is essentially written in disappearing ink, the easier to strike it down and offer something more generous if we sincerely agree to mend our ways.
It’s no coincidence, either, that the Haftorah reading on Yom Kippur comes from Isaiah. The prophet asks us to put aside the literal injunction to starve ourselves and advises us to look to the spirit: “This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke; To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke.”
Just as in a wedding, when the participants must voice the sacred vows in community, those who assemble on Yom Kippur must say out loud, using the pronoun “we,” the words that have been written. Those who gather to celebrate a wedding, and the High Holy Days, must mean it.
In my fulsome Jewish imagination, the sudden awareness of the missing ketubah signature first evoked an existential fear of the loss of some God-Presence in the document, and therefore in my life. Had we done something wrong? What had we not protected or taken care of that had led to this disappearance? But then I looked at the missing words from the other end of the telescope — a disappearance that was not a disappearance, a void that could be turned into meaning. I saw that the spirit of the ketubah — and of the communities that nourished my wife and me, bringing us not just to that day, but to this one — was what ultimately mattered.
As a Jewish home goes, so goes the people Israel. A kebutah for two, and a covenant for millions. So in the end, I simply wonder: Does the vitality of our Jewish lives suffer because the Torah is, as they say, unsigned?
Dan Schifrin is a Berkeley-based writer and a frequent contributor to J.