Women-trafficking in everyday life: Modern Jewish weddings deconstructed

Many Jewish women fantasise about their wedding day, even though the ceremony is a public celebration of their inferiority. Allegedly, modern Jewish weddings amongst seculars or liberals are characterised by more individualistic and egalitarian traits. We have erroneously come to believe that the oppressive and subordinating nature of the marriage ritual and its accompanying language have been nullified. Yet, despite all the (welcome) changes, the core of weddings remains the same: it symbolises of the purchase of a woman.

Women-ownership in the Hebrew language 

Religious Jewish weddings, and most heterosexual weddings conducted in Hebrew establish the monogamous relationship between Ba’al and Isha (בעל ואישה), terms mistakenly regarded as equivalent to ‘man and wife’ (respectively). However, something profoundly central is lost in this translation, because Ba’al doesn’t mean ‘man’, rather it means ‘owner.’

Since Hebrew has been reinstated into colloquial mundane use (under Zionism), some contemporary feminine Israeli thought was given to dismantling the inbuilt Hebrew androcentric idioms (male-oriented phrases). Ba’al is one of them. In an attempt to decrease (or resist, or deny) any trace of ancient ownership relations, some Jewish-Israeli women do not use Ba’ali (בעלי), the common term used for ‘my husband,’ and prefer using Ishi (אישי), ‘my man,’ a word deriving from the same form of ‘my wife,’ ishti (אשתי, my woman). The new term replaces the ownership with mutual-belonging, and thus copes with the patriarchal baggage carried in its etymology better than the English ‘husband’ (householder, landlord). Somehow, the reflexive alternative of using ba’alati (בעלתי, my female-owner) alongside ba’ali, as expressing mutual ownership, remains an absurd option.

And for good reason. The root ba’al has another unspoken sense of ‘taking a woman,’ which comes from liv’ol (לבעול), literally, to be/become a ba’al. According to the commonly-used Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary of A. Shushan, liv’ol denotes:

  1. to have intercourse (lishgol, לשגול);
  2. to take a wife (laset, לשאת);
  3. to be a master, to govern, to tyrannize, to rule.

In other words, bo’el (בועל) is a present-tense male verb form describing becoming a husband, and ruling, and the male action of having intercourse. Thus, by performing one act, one takes a woman, and takes a woman’s virginity, and takes ownership over her, i.e. becomes her owner, her husband. The word is also a noun (בינוני), representing the subject acting man who makes himself the woman’s owner/master/husband (Ba’al), by making a claim of possession, a mark of ownership in the woman’s body. In the wedding, the woman is marked by her virginity, which is then ‘taken’ by her husband-to-be (be’ila, בעילה). Be’ila serves to bear witness to her virginity to the community, proving her to be ‘brand new,’ unused, in the ‘original packaging.’

Leaving a permanent mark in/on bodies is common way for indicating ownership of living bodies. In Judaism, God is the ultimate owner, marking Jewish boys on their bodies, as part of his circumcision covenant (brit mila). (Of course we do it for him). In other cultures, gods tattoo, pierce, injure, mutilate female genitalia, and so on. Other forms of marking ownership on living bodies include branding beasts and livestock (using hot iron, piercing, coloring etc.), marking slaves (during biblical times their ears were pierced), and marking women and children (injuring organs, piercing, tattoo’s, circumcision etc.). Pimps and human-traffic agents also mark their ‘property’ with tattoo’s and piercings, as a form of making status and ownership public through external signification. There are also gangs’ tattoos, and some dark examples of prisoners, like Jews in Nazi prison camps.

Wedding symbolism is not outside this list. The body mark testifies for the stability and transparency of the everyday reification of women. It confiscates their bodies by marking it with ownership signs. It is not without reason that the ownership of women is then anchored through the use of sex. This is the most central taboo about marriage. Marriage is all about regulating sex to begin with. And in Judaism, sex is the ‘right’ of the husband over his wife (ishto), as she is becoming ‘allowed for him’ (מותרת לו).

Importantly, just like the verb bo’el (takes ownership/woman/virginity) alludes, the action is always unilateral and sexually asymmetric. Linguistically, a woman simply cannot be a bo’elet, but only a niv’elet (the passive form of the verb: becoming owned/married/loosing virginity). Consequently, there cannot be a ba’alati (my female-owner), as the dictionary examplifies: ‘בועל, נִבְעלה; נישאה לאיש,’ that is ‘bo’el [=active, male], niv’ala [=passive, female]; nis’a l’ish [=was married off to a man].’

Hence, from the very use of Hebrew in the ceremony and thereafter, or from the very choice of Zionism to ‘revive’ (or more accurately – rely heavily on) ancient (religious) Hebrew, language was invited to facilitate the bounding/bondage of women as the objects of men. And objects have no agency; they need men (subjects) to act upon them.

Now, while ba’ali (בעלי) is a clear expression of  ownership, what about ishti (אשתי, my woman; the common word for my wife)? This form is indeed less problematic with regards to signifying ownership, but given the existing state of affairs, it also doesn’t explicitly oppose this option, especially in the way that “ba’alati” (my female-owner) could have.

Others tried to escape this deadlock altogether by preferring ahuvati or bat zugi or zugati, which translate as my [female] love, or coupleship-partner (the latter egalitarian form is the same as Arabic); yet these are closer to ‘my other half’ in their less-obligating and non-institutional nature (i.e. they leave marriage aside). Yet another solution is ra’ayati, my female-friend; in use today as a more formal high-register synonym for wife, (romantically borrowed from the Song of Songs), yet  it mystiriously loses the coupleship meaning when used in masculine form.

Another illustration of the linguistic asymmetry is the connoting of ownership-relations in the Jewish name of the marriage-institution “nisu’in” (נישואין). The verb is laset (לשאת) means both to marry and to carry. It expresses, again, male activeness (subject) and female passiveness (object), because in Hebrew you can only marry/carry a wife (laset l’isha, or laset isha), but not marry/carry a husband. He is the carrying subject, she is the carried object. Here too, the dictionary demonstrates the verb hesi’ (השיא, married off) with the example: ‘took a wife for his son, or gave his daughter to a man (see Nedarim 5:6 and Brachot 34)’. Enough said.

Wedding related costumes as trade in women

Not only is the language saturated with ownership significations, wedding costumes are also rich with charged symbols of women as objects and property. One example is family names. Although most couples still take the man’s surname (at least in Israel), many ‘feminist’ couples opt for a hyphenated surname upon marriage (and often only the women do), by adding her maiden-surname to the partrilineal surname. This leads to comical speculations about the length of surnames in future generations, having to carry their entire genealogy in a growing mathematical series. If our descendants will follow the new-tradition (oxymoron?) , they will need to have 4 names, then 8, then 16, and so on, in an ever-growing series of exponents….

More serious is the fact that it is extremely rare to find a married [heterosexual Israeli] couples taking the woman’s maiden surname (thus dropping the man’s name).  (Similarly, in English, there is no male form for ‘maiden/nee’). Perhaps such possibility didn’t even cross their minds (which is telling!); but it is also because , given the norm, such act is likely to be construed as a direct insult to the man’s family and heritage. After all, most people who want equity still are not prepared to pay the personal price when it comes to affecting their taken-for-granted prevailed position.

Taking the patrilineal name has historical roots as well, taking us back to the times when marriage was foremost a financial transaction of selling and buying daughters-women-wives. Changing one’s family-name simply expresses one’s joining into a different family and the giving up of one’s previous identity. (By the way, in most English speaking and many other Christian societies, it is still the case that women are being signified in name titles according to a woman’s marital status, while men remain with an intact Mr.). Since the woman was the ‘thing’ being sold, replacing the man’s family-name would make no sense. In fact, the new purchase has no bearing over the existing family-units and family members: both families remain the same, and it is only the bride, the property, which was being married-off (hus’a הושאה literally: carried, moved) that changes her external signs of ownership to suit her new owner (ba’al, בעל): she loses virginity, changes names, and receives a ring.

Ah, yes. The custom of the ring is yet another early part of the wedding ritual; so perhaps before we treat it, it would be useful to locate it within the order of rituals.

Despite the appearance of more contemporary versions, it is surprising to discover the degree to which the elementary stages of weddings have remained similar to the ‘orthodox’-religious version.

  1. First there is a period of shiduch (שידוך), which was previously the engagement. Among ‘secular’ and modern Jews this was now modified to an unofficial period of committed-relationship prior to the wedding ceremony (e.g. living together).
  2. This is followed by the erusin/kidushin (engagement, usually by putting on a ring).*
  3. Then the ketubah (contract).
  4. And finally nisu’in/ḥuppah (the wedding ceremony).

When examining these religious stages, with reference to the religious terms, we see that the assumption remains that the woman is the property of her man. Already at the ring stage, the concept of woman as possession draws on the past. The engagement ring (=kidushin) is the transaction itself. From the moment the man mekadesh (dedicates/sanctifies) the woman (for himself…) with either money or an equivalent (such as a ring), in the presence of witnesses (you guessed it, men too), she becomes asura (forbidden; note the passivism) to other men (i.e. subjects).

Accordingly, in Judaism, only the man is supposed to give a ring to the woman when she is being engaged (/bought). According to halacha, if a woman reciprocates with her own ring, she is providing the man with an alternative return, thus, cancels (or seeds a fear of cancelling) the exchange, as it (may) indicate that the participants did not understand the nature of the ritual, possibly making it invalid. (Although, as always, there’s a sophisticated opposition to this concept).

Once again, the woman is passive, marked on her body, sold to another man, and should prove her subordination, agreement and adjustment. The ‘consent’ of the woman often serves as ‘evidence’ for some rabbis that ‘there is no forced marriage in Judaism;’ yet, in actuality, the woman must agree. She may be able to refuse a specific marriage (and not all women can), but she must agree to her general condition, and to the subordination system. Eventually, she will be marked with a ring, or stay ‘single.’

As in many places in the holy scriptures (e.g. ‘You shall not covet’), marriage is an example of adding women to the list of a man’s assets, together with slaves, cattle and ‘everything that is his.’ Remember that men were also allowed to marry several women, and never vice versa, precisely for the same reason that women are the property, and never the other way around.

(Interestingly , since the liminal stages in “rites of passage” (in the anthropological sense) are considered dangerous, the stage of irusin/kidushin was shortened to the minimum possible, and it usually takes place together with the signing of the ketubah, in proximity to the actual wedding (huppah). It is also interesting to note that the ring-exchange customs probably originated in ancient Greece and perhaps even ancient Egypt).

Ketuba: the terms of use, written and executed by men.

Prior to the wedding, the future owner must take part in two public agreements of purchase, terms and conditions of use and conveyance. (In Israel, by the way, these carry full-legal meaning: kidushin and ketubah). The ketubah is also often presented by some as a ‘declaration of women’s rights,’ only that her rights need such documentation precisely because they are restricted and subjected to men, whereas men’s rights are so obvious that they don’t need to be documented.

The orthodox ketubah is similar to guaranteeing workers’ rights in a contract for life, initiated, drafted, witnessed, and signed by employers. Written in Aramaic, it mentions that the groom is buying the wife ‘first-hand’ (virgin, בתולתא) or ‘used’ (woman, איתתא), for a certain amount, and is committed to behave properly to her, and return her belonging (with a penalty) in case of a divorce. The contract is drafted by men, witnessed by men, and signed by men. Only men acn witness the money changing hands before the ḥuppah can take place, where it would be led by, you guessed it, a man-rabbi. It will also take only men to break the agreement off.

Finally, as the Talmud explains, once the wedding is completed, the woman enters the state of rahsut ha-ba’al (the husband’s service/authority/right/allowance).

Modernised? Reformed? Not like it used to be?

Some may say that today’s ceremony are different, and are more egalitarian. And they’ll be right. But so far they were unable to dismantle the oppression of women inherited in the ceremony and its related rituals, which rather contribute to its preserving. It is also true that the power of the institution itself has reduced, as evident by the growing number of divorced and re-married couples, the increase in the average age of marriage, the loss of virginal value (living together, having sex, contraceptives and abortions). But weddings remain the choice of most, and are considered a celebrated pivotal and exciting rite of passage, if not necessary.

In fact, today’s excitement, preparation and related customs are far greater than those of the more distant past, where marriage was first of all an arrangement. It was not set up as a ‘romantic’ establishment (i.e. where love comes first, and then comes marriage). Community-organised relationships between the individuals of ‘opposite’ sexes were based on a need to protect women from forced or occasional sex, which would leave them pregnant and impure, and men free of any concern. Women’s rights were not about sexual freedom sex-and-the-city style, but, on the contrary, there was a need to protect women from casual sex and rape.

Marriage: uniting kingdoms by marrying off princes and princesses

Moreover, marriage was used, and still is in many communities, as a means for various social and political needs: to bridge conflicts, to unite kingdoms (by marrying off princes), for financial gain (e.g. exchange-marriage, as part of gifts economy and other deals), for bigamy (marrying several women, sometimes to ease the weight of house work, and producing more children, which are more means of production). Marriage was, and is a practical solution to concrete problems.

So, essentially, marriage was not at all a romantic institution, and despite the modern romanticism that is associated with it today, the language and customs remain draw upon the symbolism of ancient arrangements. For these reasons, marriage is never an intimate issue of the couple alone, it is obliging and monitored by the entire community. Everybody is celebrating the success of the exchange, and the ritual is run by a representative of the community. Marriage is one of the most, if not the most, political and central institution organising society.

In the spirit of the rape culture argument, treating women as property in human trafficking is not the exception, but the norm in a practiced form. Therefore, it is in marriage – and not in divorce – that women’s abandonment and oppression commence; and it is in everyday life – not in the outcast acts – that we should look for the root of the objectification of women.

The original post was posted on January 9th, 2010. First translation by Hava Oz.