My wedding day was beautiful, moving, stunning, and nothing like I had thought it would be. Yes, it was in a synagogue, the one I had grown up in, and the one where I had celebrated my bat mitzvah and my confirmation. Yes, a rabbi conducted it, someone I know well and adore. And yes, my family and friends were there, laughing, smiling, and supporting us. So in that way it was exactly what I had expected. But I certainly didn’t think this would be my husband’s first time at a Jewish Wedding ceremony. So perhaps it wasn’t that this day was unexpected for me, but unexpected for him.
Standing beneath the chuppah as I looked into my beloved’s eyes, we both grew tearful as our rabbi described that we were now “set apart” from the rest of the world, made holy to each other. Well, I grew tearful. My husband nodded his head, interested, learning something new. And while part of me might have wished that he was as affected as I was, another bigger part of me was happy. The most important thing for me about getting married in a Jewish ceremony was sharing that experience with my husband, sharing my religion and my traditions with him and his family who had come from India to see us get married.
My husband’s family watched us as we were joined by the rabbi, their expressions happy but vaguely confused. I wondered what about this experience they truly understood. Their expressions mimicked what will I’m sure be those of my own parents when we have our Hindu ceremony in December. I’m sure I looked the same way when I entered a Hindu temple for the first time with my husband and mother-in-law. All I could think when I watched them crack open a coconut and stop at the many shrines of the many deities richly clothed in silk and jewels was, “What is happening here? Am I supposed to be doing something? How do I politely decline worshiping an idol in a way that doesn’t seem disrespectful? What should I respect most, their traditions or my beliefs?”
As I watched my husband under the chuppah, his kippah perched precariously on his head, I wondered, as I have before, are there any religions further apart than Hinduism and Judaism? Is there anything that links our worlds?
But then I reflected on our meetings with the rabbi before our wedding, and his description of the seven circles I would complete after walking down the center aisle upon my grand bridal entrance. These circles, a tradition practiced by Ashkenazi Jews, symbolize the virtues of marriage and the number seven is one that denotes perfectness and completeness in Judaism. My husband had looked up at that, delighted. It seems there is a similar tradition in Hindu wedding ceremonies, where the bride and groom complete seven circles together around a fire. This ritual, the Saptapadi, is essential to a Hindu Vedic marriage ceremony, and it symbolizes the joining of the bride and groom and the promises they make to each other for their future life. Suddenly these ideas didn’t seem that different. And I had to wonder, was there more out there like this? Could there be points of commonality that would make us feel more joined, not less?
Looking into the matter more deeply, I found more and more similar aspects. As with many wedding traditions, in the Hindu tradition the bride’s father gives the bride away in a ritual called Kanyadan. In the Jewish tradition, both parents give their children to each other. The concept of exchange, though, entrusting one’s children to each other, remains the same. The father outlines the duties of the groom to the bride during the Kanyadan, and as archaic as that might sound to us now, is it any different than the Jewish tradition of the ketubah, the contract outlining the financial ramifications of marriage and the obligations of the groom to his bride? Of course, our ketubah was a liberal reform affair with none of those stipulations, but traditionally the ketubah was a legally binding contract describing the business agreement aspect of marriage, not its romance.
It was the rabbis who originally insisted on the ketubah, as a way to protect women. The ketubah replaced the mohar, or bridal price, as a kind of layaway system, allowing men to put off the expenses of paying for a bride until such a time as they could afford them, sort of like an ancient marital credit card. What could be more Jewish than a business contract? The Kanyadan, in contrast, doesn’t mention the financial aspects of marriage, but it does end with the bride’s father insisting that the groom promise he will not fail at his duty to pursue his dharma (moral life), kama (love) and artha (wealth). Fathers of all traditions want to make sure their daughters are well taken care of, it seems. While the feminist in me recoils at this, part of me is comforted that these overlaps exist.
The more I looked, the more similarities I could see. In the past, Jewish marital traditions have included the application of henna to the bride’s hands and feet, and while this is no longer common in Jewish ceremonies, it remains a part of the Hindu tradition to this day. The Hindu wedding ceremony, and many other religious traditions, must involve a fire, a flame, as a symbol of life. The eternal flame in our temple is present for all of our ceremonies, and reminds us of God’s presence.
Of course, you could say that I was looking for the similarities, and ignoring the differences, but isn’t that all one can do when trying to understand someone else, and include them in your religious traditions? When I perform this ceremony in India, as unfamiliar as it will be, I will know at least that I will have these anchors of my own tradition and religion to guide me while I try and understand the rituals of my husband and his family. After all, he never imagined being up on a bimah, and I never thought I would encircle a fire covered in red and gold. But it’s not as strange as I thought, knowing now just how many things join us together, not just in our lives, but in our faiths. I hope to discover more, as time goes on, and if I don’t, at least I have the wedding photos!