I sometimes wonder if people really know what “tradition” means. They tell me they want a “traditional” Jewish wedding, or they say in their family’s Jewish life they “keep the traditions” – but they almost never mean they follow kosher dietary laws or avoid turning on lights or using money on Shabbat (after all, Jews that do that are unlikely to come to ME for their celebrations!). The couples getting married are not planning to segregate genders in their celebration – they have no problem that a mixed audience “could lead to dancing.” By “tradition” they usually mean the episodic family traditions of Hanukkah and Passover, or they are looking for the visible symbols of a Jewish wedding like a huppah [canopy], sharing wine, and breaking a glass.
I respond by clarifying that in some cases there IS no one tradition; for example, Ashkenazi/East European Jews often name babies after deceased relatives while Mizrahi/Middle Eastern Jews name after living ones. And in the 21st Century, traditions are not carved in stone. If BOTH the groom and the bride want to break a glass at the end of the wedding, they can!
Of course, I understand what they really mean when they are asking for a “traditional” ceremony. They don’t want women separated from men or long passages in Hebrew they don’t understand or believe. They want to sign their ketubah [wedding agreement] with a text expressing their love and not simply have witnesses for a legal formality. What they want is the endorsement of Judaism. They want their ceremony to feel authentic, to be accepted by their Jewish family and friends. Whether or not it fits their lifestyle or agrees with their personal beliefs is not the question; whether it “feels Jewish” is the point.
The genius, and the challenge, of Humanistic Judaism is to strive for both – to feel authentically Jewish and to live with the courage of our convictions. There are times it is easy to do both, like experiencing a klezmer music concert or learning something new about Jewish history. And there are times it is more challenging, particularly when more religious family members have very definite opinions or when our Humanistic beliefs push for changes in our Jewish inheritance.
It can feel easier to fall back on “this is what Jews do and say,” and accept what is conventional. But I’ve found in my life, and part of my job is encouraging others to discover, that living out Jewish integrity can make experiences meaningful in new ways. Sharing a Leah Goldberg poem about memory at a funeral is not the same as reciting the traditional kaddish; it is moving, differently.
And that’s the real goal of these ceremonies and celebrations – to be moving, to open ourselves to emotional experience and connection. Sometimes tradition does it, and sometimes creativity is more effective. Our privilege is to be able to use both.
The thing I consider most “traditional” in Judaism is the moral injunction of Hillel based upon the essence of the Torah: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto the another.” All the rest are subject to judgment, wisdom, and interpretation. What your petitioners are asking for is the comfortably familiar, which varies from individual and family to individual and family. Customs have varied over the Millennia, depending upon time and place.