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Jewish Weddings: An Interview with Rabbi Hyim Shafner

Interview with Rabbi Hyim Shafner author of The Everything Jewish Wedding Book When I got married I was decidedly un-interested in Judaism or religion. But, my husband and I are both Jewish and so we went with the flow and had a Jewish wedding. After reading Rabbi Shafner’s Everything Jewish Wedding Book, and having a chance to talk to the very forward-thinking man. I sort of wish I could have a do-over. His relationship-based, spiritual approach to weddings and Jewish life in general has me rethinking some of my long-held beliefs. Whether you’re Jewish or not, I think you’ll find what he has to say interesting. Marta: How did you become interested in writing a Jewish wedding book? Rabbi Shafner: As a rabbi, I was finding that there wasn’t a book to give to couples getting married. I wanted a book that was accessible both to people who had a lot of knowledge of Judaism and Jewish weddings and those that didn’t. I found two or three books that were very detailed about Jewish law and tradition, but weren’t accessible. I find one or two books that were accessible, but did not have a lot of information about traditions. What was lacking was a book that had both. M: Did you have a couple in mind that you were writing to? RS: It’s interesting, I did, but that couple changed in different parts of the book. Sometimes I was writing for someone who knew very little, sometimes I was writing for someone who grew up very observant. I was afraid that it might end up not being very accessible to either. I wanted the book to have a wide audience. M: You do mention a lot of traditions that aren’t very common in non-orthodox weddings. RS: I wanted to take all the traditions possible and explain them so that the knowledge of these traditions could inform the wedding planning process. You don’t have to do things exactly the way they’re explained in the book, but you can get an overview and see what you do and don’t want to include. M: I’d always heard that rabbis weren’t actually necessary for a Jewish wedding.. What do you think the role of the rabbi is? RS: Most couples having a Jewish wedding call a rabbi. For some, it’s the first time they talk to a rabbi. Unless you know a lot about Jewish weddings, you need someone to help you navigate the different traditions and rules. When you’re getting married, you can get very involved in the details. You need someone to help instill the sense of holiness, education, and depth into the wedding. I meet with couples about ten times before a wedding, most of what we talk about is the relationship, not the wedding. M: You spend a lot of time in the book talking about relationships as well. I think that it’s Chapter 5 before you talk about wedding planning. My favorite part is when you say that if you’re having cold feet, you should ask yourself how you would feel if the person was no longer there. RS: Well, that actually comes from my life. When I was dating my wife, I was having trouble committing. It was the 1980s and I was living in New York, so of course, I was in therapy. My therapist asked me that question, and I instantly started to cry. That’s how I knew I was ready to propose. I couldn’t include that in the book, because I didn’t want to embarrass my wife. (note from Marta: OK, maybe I shouldn’t have included this confidence in a published interview, but does any woman reading this doubt that the Rabbi’s wife will be thrilled to hear this?) M: Obviously, there are technical differences in Jewish and non-Jewish wedding ceremonies. Do you think there are philosophical differences as well? RS: Absolutely. In Judaism, weddings are a fascinating balance between a moment of love and holiness, and making a business deal. There’s the mystical sheva brechot (seven blessings) and signing a document (the ketubah) that is really a business document. If both parties see their obligations and are clear on them, that’s what makes a great relationship. Now, that’s not the view we see in movies, but focusing on obligation to your partner, not on your own wants and needs makes a great relationship, and that’s reflected in the ketubah (wedding contract). The Jewish wedding has a spiritual side that connects the couple and Jewish history and tradition. We speak under the chuppah (wedding canopy) about Jewish history. Every couple is part of Abraham and Sara, every couple is part of the history of the Jewish people. M: Have you seen a lot of changes in the ten years you’ve been doing weddings? RS: Not really, but grooms and brides do seem to be involving the whole community more. In Jewish weddings, there are a lot of different moments where you can honor people. For example, the wedding I did on Sunday the couple had people not only read the sheva brechot in Hebrew, but then had 7 more people do the English translations, so they honored 14 people. M: As an Orthodox rabbi, you don’t do interfaith weddings. How do you feel about them? RS: I sort of wish I could do interfaith weddings. Half the Jews today marry someone who isn’t Jewish. Fifty years ago, people married non-Jews as a way of leaving Judaism and becoming more American. Today, it’s almost the opposite. For some people, the first time they start to think about Judaism is their wedding. For some Jews, intermarriage is a gateway into Judaism. The goal of Judaism shouldn’t be to have Jews marry other Jews. The goal of Judaism should be to get something out of Judaism. To have a connection with God and to live a spiritual life. An interfaith wedding can be useful, it can help people re-engage with their religion. M: Have you heard from people who have read and used the book? RS: I did talk to a woman in New York who told me there was a lot she learned from the book and wanted to experiment with. It was very fulfilling to me. I hope that through the book Jews will experiment more with different parts of Judaism and think about how to integrate Judaism into their wedding and their life. M: Do you have any advice for couples, Jewish or not, getting married? RS: The challenge for most couples is to take a step back. The process of planning a wedding is very challenging, and it is easy to see the wedding day as the end of a process. Really though, it should be the beginning. The wedding is just one day. The rest of your life is what’s important. Make sure your wedding is fulfilling for you. Take the time to pray the morning of the wedding. Prepare yourselves as individuals, emotionally and spiritually.
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