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Religion and Gay Marriage: Unpacking the Ketubah

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My family and I just moved to Montreal. In contrast with the United States, where it took my Canadian partner eight years to get a green card, for this move, she could simply sponsor me as her spouse. In "the true north strong and free," we are getting used to calling each other "wife." As our attorney, who resembled the mysterious lawyer Kobayashi from the movie "The Usual Suspects" stated emphatically: "Madame, you are simply too old to be called 'Miss,' and you are married in our country, therefore you are both 'Mrs.' It is important to get used to this as soon as possible." I wanted to answer: "That's Rabbi Mrs. to you," but the other Rabbi Mrs. kicked me under the table to keep the proceedings going.

Beyond the amusement factor, the benefits of having our marriage federally recognized are clear. But when unpacking our boxes, the first item we looked for was not our civil marriage license. It was our ketubah -- our Jewish wedding contract.

For one thing, our ketubah is beautiful, thanks to the talents of the artist, Melissa Dinwiddie. It is a large illuminated document, in Hebrew and English calligraphy, based on a text we wrote ourselves. Surrounding the words are different animals, each evocative of places we have lived or experiences we have had. In art, as in marriage, sometimes you are the eagle, and sometimes you are the rabbit. This is no more true than when undertaking an international move with two small children and not enough lollipops to keep them quiet when crossing the border. But eventually, we made it, and unpacking the ketubah made our new place feel like home -- because in truth, our home is with each other.

In reflecting on the religious significance of marriage equality, I want to unpack our ketubah not just physically, but also metaphorically. The central motif of our ketubah, inspired by author Rachel Adler, is a verse from the book of Hosea: "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me with righteousness and judgment, with kindness and mercy; I will betroth you to me in faithfulness..." The biblical verse ends: "and you will know the Eternal," which we transformed to: "together we will know the Eternal."

Each of those key words connected to a commitment in our marriage. Tzedek, righteousness, was how we saw our obligation to do right by one another, to take on the rights and responsibilities to love, care and provide for one another as a family, together with any children with whom we would be blessed (and yes, 11 years later, we have two fabulous and feisty daughters). Mishpat, judgment, we understood to mean our obligation to a legal covenant in support of these responsibilities. In keeping with this, before we got married, we went to a lawyer to sign wills, powers of attorney, and health care proxies, so we could fulfill those obligations (it always felt unfair to us, though, that access to those legal protections was limited by one's ability to pay). Chesed, kindness, we took as a charge to use our relationship as a starting point from which we could look outwards and better the world. Rachamim, mercy, we described as our commitment to be there for one another to the end, to protect the other through sickness or unto death.

Before any of these, we described our covenant as one that we hoped would be l'olam, forever, a holy covenant of protection and hope like the one God made Noah after the flood. In this way, the ketubah is our rainbow; it is our symbol of an eternal promise. Notably, the word for love does not appear in our ketubah, or any traditional ketubah text. Like many Jewish concepts, marriage is not about what you feel but what you do about that feeling. That is why our ketubah ends b'emunah, in faithfulness, with the assertion that the document is not an empty formula; it is more than just words.

Liberal people sometimes have a problem claiming religious traditions as their own. But anyone who has taken part in a wedding has taken part in a ritual which has changed dramatically over time. There are no marriage ceremonies in the Bible. Adam and Steve did not get married, but neither did Adam and Eve. We acknowledged both the timelessness and constant transformation of marriage when we said to one another at our wedding: "Behold you are consecrated to me with this ring, according to the laws of Moses and Israel, and the innovations of our rabbis."

We wrote and said all those words at the beginning of our marriage. Now, looking back, what stands out the most is the phrase, "and together we will know God." Over the years, our spirituality has deepened because of our marriage. Some of this has to do with the great gift of being stretched by each other's vantage points, and some has to do with realizing the power of a covenant which lasts through thick and through thin. Like every couple, we have experienced profound sadness, illness and loss, and like every other couple, we have fought. The trust we have for one another, even when we are sad or angry, is a very real metaphor for the relationship that is possible between human beings and God.

Marriage is not for everyone; for many people, being single is a better path. Marriage equality should not be used to coerce anyone into marriage. I also believe firmly in the separation of church and state, and the crucial need for secular, civil marriage. In fact, after marriage equality was passed in Albany last summer, the first person I met up with after leaving the New York Senate Chamber was a friend from high school, Jill Rafferty, who now is a humanist celebrant. We met for the first time in years on the streets of the Capital and celebrated with hundreds of other jubilant supporters. Whatever our theological differences, we share a belief in the power of ritual, and the importance of the legal recognition of same-sex marriage as an essential aspect of human dignity and civil rights.

When a child is welcomed into the Jewish covenant, we ask that they may merit three things: Torah -- a life of learning; chuppah -- marriage; and ma'asim tovim -- good deeds. We have come far with marriage equality, but our religious teachings compel us to go further: to make sure that every child who is born can find their own expression of a meaningful and holy life, and can grow up in safety and in love. Even beyond the right to get married, my hope is that this change will help pave the way to a better and fairer world.