B'rit Ahuvim: A Marriage Between Subjects
The book of Hosea presents a dilemma: a husband who has appropriated a wife and assumed legal ownership of her sexuality finds that he wants not merely her fidelity, but fidelity freely given out of love. Possessing her is inadequate and, as it turns out, impossible; his ownership does not preclude her infidelity. The chapters seesaw between the husband's rage at the woman as a defective possession and the painful tenderness he feels for another whose will, desire, and feelings are distinct from his own. He does not see that his two desires -- the urge to possess and control absolutely and the yearning for a loving, willing partner -- are irreconcilable.
These unresolved tensions between woman as possession and woman as partner are embedded in the classical liturgy upon which all modern Jewish wedding ceremonies draw. Two elements comprise this ceremony: a legal transaction in which the bride is acquired by a declaration of exclusive possession and a ring, followed by a liturgical celebration (Sheva Berakhot) that associates the new marriage with the covenantal reconciliation of God and Israel and depicts it as a new Eden for "loving companions" to inhabit. If we unpack the definitions of marital relationships underlying these two components, however, we find that they are mutually exclusive. The legal definition, derived from talmudic property law, anachronistically categorizes women as a special kind of chattel over which the husband has acquired rights. In contrast, the metaphors that inform the Sheva Berakhot characterize marriage as a covenant between partners who choose each other, fail each other, even despair of each other, and yet return and renew their commitments. The traditional wedding ceremony, first treating the bride as a piece of property and then paradoxically depicting her as a covenanter, mirrors in its very structure the irreconcilable expectations implicit in patriarchal marriage.
To treat both parties consistently as persons rather than as property, we would have to reframe the legal portion of the ceremony in terms of