Comparisons and Contrasts of the Contemporary Marriage Relationship among American Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims

Originally published on the Florida Student Philosophy Blog

Whosoever spends his days without a wife, has no joy nor blessing, or good in his life. Talmud – Yevamot 62B

The Orthodox Jewish view of Marriage

Any discussion of Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims must logically begin with the House of Israel. According to the Jewish history, God created the world, and its first parents, Adam and Eve, five thousand, seven hundred, and sixty seven years ago.  Approximately two thousand years later, Abraham, Patriarch of the Jews was born and nearly five hundred years after that, his ancestor Moses led captive Israel out of Egypt. (Aklah)  After the exodus from Egypt, the Orthodox Jews tell us that Moses received on Mount Sinai, personally from the God of Universe, the Ten Commandments, and subsequently the rest of the laws written down in the first five books of Moses. This compilation of books called the Pentateuch and others written by the rest of the prophets that called the Torah. It is from the Torah, from the accompanying explanations and commentary about it called the Talmud, and also from the three thousand years of tradition that bring us to the present, that the understanding and customs of Jewish marriage are derived. A study in 1970 determined that there were approximately six hundred thousand orthodox Jews living in the United States. (Elazar)

Specifically in the Talmud, there is a section called the Nashim.  The word itself means “woman” and this part of the Talmud speaks specifically about marriage.  God’s relationship with His people colors every aspect of Jewish life; religion is in fact life and can never be separated.  Each individual is a “mini sanctuary” and the family, not the synagogue is the focus of life.  Consequently life, and the Jew, is incomplete with out marriage and children. (Stolper, 10)  Marriage is accomplished in one of three ways “with money, contract or cohabitation.” (Lam, 145)  In modern times, a ring is usually given in lieu of money.  The second way, that of giving the bride a contract, essentially a letter stating the grooms intentions, is no longer used.  Intercourse is condemned as a vehicle of marriage in the strongest terms being a method used before the coming of the law and no longer morally appropriate.  However the marriage is still recognized as binding if it is accomplished in this manner.

The matchmaker is the first step in any truly Jewish marriage, a tradition since Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, who was sent out to find a wife for his son Issac.[1]  The matchmaker ensures that partners are chosen for reasons other than just sexual attractiveness, although that factors into the process. In his book, “Jewish alternatives in love, dating & marriage”, Stolper says:

In Judaism, sex is holy because it implies much more than the uniting of two bodies for a few moments of pleasure, but for always. Marriage means much more than two people who share a bedroom. It means two people who share a home and enjoy a relationship so successfully that in thinking and acting as one they are prepared to share their life and unite for the bringing of children into the world. The sex act is so significant and powerful that it is not only the point of origin of all of mankind, it enables a couple to bring a soul from its heavenly abode down to earth, where it can assume the shape and form of a new human being.

Matchmakers in past times traveled great distances and helped to ensure the gene pools of Judaism would remain diverse and its political and economic connections would be widespread and powerful.  The bride must give her consent[2], she cannot under any conditions be married against her will and also always retains her independence as an individual after marriage. (Lam 155)

On the day of the Sabbath directly before the day the wedding is to occur, the groom is called upon to read the blessing over the Torah in synagogue.  In this manner, the solemnity of the upcoming ceremony is recognized and the focus placed upon the God of Israel.  On the Saturday morning before the wedding the couple may be showered with wheat, grain, nuts and raisins in stead of rice.  (Lam, 190)

There are two separate parts to Jewish marriage, the betrothal ceremony and the marriage ceremony before consummation.   The betrothal is the actual taking in marriage and giving of the ring. The consummation is the act of intercourse between husband and wife.  In earlier times these two components might be separated by a substantial period of time, but now occur on the same day.  On the day of the wedding ceremony the festivities initially center on the “bride’s throne”, attended by the ladies, and the “groom’s table”, attended by the men.  It is at the groom’s table that the “ketubah” a document delineating the responsibilities of the groom and the rights of the bride, is written in Aramaic and signed. In her article “Tradition and Innovation in the Marriage Ceremony”,  Einat Ramonl describes the ketubba:

In the traditional ketubba, the groom pledges to provide his bride food, clothing, and sexual relations. He also designates a certain amount of income for the bride in case he dies or divorces her. Last, the ketubba assures that the woman can leave the marriage with her dowry and its increment (Shulh.an Arukh Even Ha’ezer 1:126). Over time, theRabbis expanded the range of a husband’s duties (Babylonian Talmud Ketubbot 51a–52b) so that he became obliged to provide his wife with medical care, to ransom her from captivity, and to bear the costs of her funeral.

It is the husband’s responsibility to maintain the wife at the same level or greater than that which he originally promised her in the ketubba. (Stolper, 17) He may under no conditions diminish her support or defraud her of her conjugal rights.

During the ceremony the bride is veiled, a tradition again stemming from the story of Isaac and Rebecca.[3]  It  symbolizes not only the fact that she is separated unto her husband but also sanctified for God’s holy purposes.(Lam 208) The male members of the wedding party wear yarmulkes to demonstrate their submission to God and their awareness of His constant presence.  Both the bride and groom take their place under a canopy reminiscent of the tabernacle where the Jews worshiped God in the wilderness and also signifying the creation of the new home that the married couple will occupy.  It is also another indication that the bride and groom have been set apart from the rest of society and enjoy a new special relationship as a couple.  Both bride and groom are escorted by friends and family as if they were a royal couple.  The bride walks in a circle around the groom seven times demonstrating that her life, in the words of the old cliché now “revolves around him.”  It also signifies her desire to protect and care for her husband in the seclusion of her home. (Lamm 211)  The wedding ceremony ends with seven blessings of the bride and groom.  They share a glass of wine together and then the glass is broken under the heel of the groom to symbolize that they will drink this cup of marriage with no one else.

After the formal consummation of the marriage in private, the couple remains together and continues to celebrate for a week and become accustomed to each other.  Traditionally the scripture required that the man be free of all duties for a year[4] so that the new couple could fully become one and begin to effectively function as man and wife.  All of these traditions and rituals are put in place to remind Jewish couples that God has created them to be fruitful and multiply, has given marriage as a gift to men and women so they might be able to enjoy sexual relations completely and without shame, and produce children in an environment where they will be able to reach their fullest potential for the benefit of all mankind.

The Greek Orthodox Christian view of Marriage

It is a familiar story for many people in America.  In approximately 33A.D., a young carpenter in the Middle Eastern town of Nazareth got up to read in the synagogue:

17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” [5]

It was with these words that Jesus proclaimed himself to be the messiah of the Jews foretold in prophesies over eight hundred years previously.

The Greek Orthodox Church considers itself to be the authentic manifestation of the original Christian Church whose primary language, other than Aramaic was Greek.  The church has Eastern influences in contrast with the Roman Catholic Church that has European influences.

At present, it is estimated that there are three quarters of a million Greek Orthodox Christians in the United States.  Its marriage rituals have remained basically unchanged for many hundreds of years.  As in the Jewish ritual, there are two parts to the marriage ceremony, the betrothal and the sacrament of marriage. The ceremony may only take place inside a Greek Orthodox Church. (St. Demetrios)  While individuals of other faiths may be invited to the wedding reception, only members of the church in good standing are expected at the service itself. (Maidenheaven)

At the beginning of the ceremony, the bride and groom take up candles that represent their having received the Holy Spirit of God within themselves.  After this, the betrothal service begins during which the bride and groom exchange rings.  While it is common at all types of weddings to have witnesses to the event, there is an additional witness here who is only seen at Greek Orthodox weddings.  This is the koumbaroi , a witness who represents the entire Greek Orthodox Church.  He or she must be member of the church in good standing. (St. Demetrios) The rings are exchanged three times by the koumbaroi to signify that the bride and groom with help each other though the marriage, each making up for the other’s shortcomings.

The betrothal completed the marriage ceremony begins. After prayers, the priest joins the couple’s two hands.  They will continue to hold hand throughout the rest of the ceremony to symbolize that they are in fact to become one flesh.  Next, they both receive stefana, the wedding crowns of glory and martyrdom.  These crowns denotes God’s special blessing upon the couple by providing for them the sacrament of marriage and also represents the self sacrifice that they must make for the good of the other through life. (YASOU) The crowns are tied together by a ribbon and are also exchanged three times between the couple by the koumbaroi.  After this, the couple shares a common cup of wine, again in the same manner as a Jewish couple might do under the canopy.  Interestingly the couple does not take vows, but instead rely on the power of God brought to bear in the service to join them together forever.

The priest now leads the married couple in a procession around the altar directing them to make the worship of God the center of their lives and marriage.  Finally, the crowns are removed and the priest presents the newly married couple to the congregation.

The Orthodox Islamic view of Marriage

In or about the year 570 A.D. a child named Muhammad was born to humble parents.  He grew up to work as a shepherd, then a camel driver, finally as a merchant. (Religious Tolerance) At the age of forty, he proclaimed himself a prophet, saying that the Angel Gabriel had visited him.  In Mecca, he founded the religion known as Islam. Today Muslims number about one billion worldwide.  Muslims regard the Qur’an, the revelation of Muhammad and the Hadith, a collection of sayings by Muhammad, as the ultimate source of truth and authority for how life should be lived.  This of course includes marriage.

It is estimated that at the turn of the century that there were about a million and a half Muslims living in the United States. (Smith, Tom) Of those, approximately seventy percent say that their religion is a very important part of their life. (Pew)  Beside the Qur’an, and the Hadith there is only one other ancient text generally regarded as authoritative on the subject of sex and marriage in Islam.  Written in the ninth century is called the Book on the Etiquette of Marriage, and is part of a larger text called the Revival of the Religious Sciences. (Ghazzālī, page 3)

Orthodox Islam maintains that the Qur’an completely and perfectly describes the state whereby a woman may achieve happiness, and that is as a wife and mother.(Smith, Jane, 63-64) Nevertheless, Muslim marriage in America is still subject to the restrictions placed upon it by law.  Muhammad specifically recommends marriage and since every true Muslim is obligated to follow the suggestions of Muhammad every Muslim is expected to marry. It is also commanded in the Qur’an.[6]   Marriage takes the form of a contract in Islam, an agreement between husband and wife normally assumed to be ongoing, but one that may be terminated at will, or may even be contracted for a limited period of time. (Haeri) Because every act in Islam is technically an act of worship, and there is no recognized separation between religion and civil law, this contract is considered a holy act but is not elevated to the height of a religious ceremony or ritual. While technically marriage in the United States is assumed to be perpetual, terminated only by the death of a spouse, in reality divorces are easy to obtain.  In the Middle East a Muslim man is permitted to have up to four wives, assuming he can afford them and treat them all equally. (Ruthven, 62)  With the resurgent public interest in polygamy as practiced among the fundamentalist Mormons in the mid-west and the increasing acceptance and practice of Islam in this country, along with an increasing call for alternative views of marriage, it may be that the current prohibition against polygamy in the United States will not survive.  It is however, currently still against the law.

There are a few simple requirements for marriage in Islam.  In order for a marriage to occur there has to be a clear offer of marriage by the man and an acceptance of the same by the woman in the presence of witnesses.  Even though men rule absolutely in most Muslim homes, a daughter cannot be forced to marry someone she finds unacceptable. There must always be a chaperone present until the couple is married. A dowry must be paid by the groom to the bride and while a modest amount is acceptable it still must be more than a token sum and frequently takes the form of property or an ongoing business.  Incest and marriage of close relatives is prohibited, as is marriage to non-believers.  Muslim women can only marry Muslim men.

The parents or other relatives of female children may arrange marriage contracts for them, sometimes when they are very young.  This did not mean that a child was immediately a bride, because it was still required that the she must be old enough to consummate the marriage.   This however could happen as early as age nine which was considered the onset of puberty. (Ruthven, 399)  If her parent compelled her to marry as a minor she had the prerogative to have the marriage annulled when she reached her majority. (Walther, 55)While reforms were instituted in Iran during the reign of the Shah raising the age of consent to eighteen, these reforms were essentially reversed after the Islamic Revolution reverting to the ancient standards.  (Ruthven, 399)  In the United States, the youngest age at which a female may be married with parental consent and without a court order is fourteen.  Many feel that this is too young an age at which to marry, although the argument is made that such marriages are preferable to promiscuity or in the case of pregnancy, to adoption or abortion.  Even so, it is unusual in the United States for women to marry even before the age of twenty, that number amounting to less than two percent of the population.  The groom may not see the prospective bride, except if she is a cousin and a member of the immediate family.  Female relatives may go to see the woman and in these later times the man may have a look when all else has been settled.

Because Islam has become so widespread, individual marriage ceremonies and customs vary from traditional ones practiced in the Middle East, but there is a large contingent of Muslims in America who traditions are similar.  The celebrations last at least a few days and sometimes longer.     On the eve of the wedding, the groom prays for Allah to bless the marriage. The men and women have separate wedding feasts and are as elaborate as their wealth and position allow. The bride is ritually bathed in a ceremony attended by the other women of the wedding party.  The groom has a similar ceremony with his male friends.  The bride is anointed with henna applied to her arms and legs in beautiful designs.   Some of the women may come to the man to put a small spot of henna on his hand as well.  A type of eye shadow is applied to her eyelids.

On the next day, she is brought to the home of her new husband.  Separate celebrations for the men and women continue.  The groom’s mother-in law conducts the new bride to the bridal chamber.  The groom meets her there and after they consummate the marriage, the blood soiled bed sheet, proof of her virginity, is displayed to loud cheers both at the women’s and the men’s celebrations.  A few days after the wedding the bride returns to the home of her parents for a visit and there is also a party held for the relatives of both the bride and groom.

 Comparisons and Contrasts

In all three traditions, both bride and groom must be members in good standing in their respective religious communities believing in God and seeking his favor and blessing upon their marriage to each other.  While both man and woman are accorded rights and responsibilities in all three systems, they closer to being equally balanced in the Greek Orthodox system, as opposed to Judaism where the woman appears to have more rights and assurances, or in Islam where the man seems to have the greater advantage.  Both the Christian and Muslim traditions must naturally reference the tradition that came before it.  Nevertheless the Greek Orthodox ceremony seems to more closely mirror the Judaic tradition in both its practice and symbolism, while the Muslim ceremony is more clearly Qur’an oriented while at the same time viewing marriage as less of a religious rite, and more of a mundane activity that is to be performed as all activities are, with God in mind.  The Judaic and Muslin traditions view marriage as an essential part of life, in fact and obligation, while the Greek Orthodoxy views marriage as just one possible choice in a life of self sacrifice to God. Of all the three, the Greek Orthodox is the most spiritually oriented in that the entire ceremony takes place in the sanctuary as a worship service. All three systems, Judaic, Greek Orthodox, and Muslim have their roots firmly place in the Middle East.  Among very orthodox practitioners, only the Jewish tradition appears to have made some adjustments for both time and place although it must be admitted that these are minor ones.  While all three systems purport to give equal honor and rights to women, Judaism and Christianity elevate the status of women to equal participants in a sacred act of worship.  In Judaism it may be said that the woman has even greater rights than the man.  Given their antiquity, it seems likely that these ultra conservative theologies and approaches to marriage will remain essentially unchanged and actively practiced in the United States for the foreseeable future.

Works Cited

Akhlah: The Jewish Children’s Learning Network. “Torah & Israel Timeline.” Internet website. http://www.akhlah.com/history_tradition/torah_timeline.php

Elazar, Daniel J. “How Strong is Orthodox Judaism — Really?: The Demographics of Jewish Religious Identification.” The JerusalemCenter for Public Affairs. Internet website. http://www.jcpa.org/dje/articles2/demographics.htm

Ghazzālī, 1058-1111.   Marriage and sexuality in Islam :  a translation of al-Ghazâlî’s book on the etiquette of marriage from the Ihyâ /  by Madelain Farah.   Salt Lake City, Utah :  University of Utah Press,  1984.

Haeri, Shahla.    Law of desire :  temporary marriage in Shi’i Iran /  Shahla Haeri.   Syracuse, N.Y. :  SyracuseUniversity Press,  1989.

Islamic law regarding marriage. Internet Website. http://www.witness-pioneer.org/vil/Books/SH_SL/islamic_law_regarding_marriage.htm

Lamm, Maurice.The Jewish Way In Love and Marriage. Harper & Row, San Francisco 1980

Maidenheaven. Information about Greek Orthodox Weddings. Internet Website. http://www.maidenheaven.co.uk/greekorthodox.html

PewResearchCenter. Muslim Americans:Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream. Internet Website accessed May 22, 2007 pewresearch.org/assets/pdf/muslim-americans.pdf

Ramonl, Einat. “Tradition and Innovation in the Marriage Ceremony.” The life of Judaism  [electronic resource] /  edited by Harvey E. Goldberg. Berkeley :  University of California Press,  c2001.   BM42 .L54 2001 elec.ver.

Religious Tolerance. Introduction to Islam. Internet Website. http://www.religioustolerance.org/isl_intr.htm

Ruthven, Malise.    Islam in the world.  New York, N.Y. :  Oxford University Press,  c2006

Smith, Jane [Ed].Women in contemporary Muslim societies /  edited with an introd. by Jane I. Smith.   Lewisburg [Pa.] :  Bucknell University Press,  c1980.

Smith, Tom W. “Estimating the Muslim Population in the United States” The American Jewish Committee. The JacobBlausteinBuilding, 165 East 56th Street, New York, NY10022. Internet website. www.ajc.org http://cloud9.norc.uchicago.edu/dlib/muslm.htm accessed 07/13/07

St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church. Marriage. Internet website. http://www.saintdemetrios.com/OurFaith/Marriage.dsp

Stolper, Pinchas.    Jewish alternatives in love, dating & marriage. New York, NY :  National Conference of Synagogue Youth/Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America ;  Lanham, MD :  University Press of America,  c1984.

Walther, Wiebke.    Women in Islam /  Wiebke Walther ; with an introduction by Guity Nashat.   Princeton, NJ :  M. Wiener Pub.,  c1993.

YASOU. Young Aggressive Sincere Organized and United. The Orthodox Wedding Ceremony.  Internet website. http://www.yasou.org/church/wedding.htm

ZAWAJ. Three Days of a Traditional Indian Muslim Wedding. Internet website. http://www.zawaj.com/weddingways/three_days.html

[1] Genesis 24:12-18

[2] The Jewish age of consent was set at sixteen in 1950 (Lam,  165)

[3] Genesis 24:65

[4] Deut 24:5

[5] Luke 4:17-21

[6] Qur’an 24:23

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About Louis William Rose

“I stand for Liberty. What I do for Liberty I do not do for profit or fame. I seek no office other than the office of parliamentarian, and no reward other than for myself and my fellow men and women to live in a free country.” Louis William Rose is a member of the National Association of Parliamentarians, he lectures on the subject of parliamentary procedure and political process. He serves as parliamentarian for various organizations. A political philosopher, poet, singer, and writer, his articles have been published on-line and in pro-liberty papers in Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and Montana. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of North Florida, graduating summa cum laude in 2004. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. He is married to the lovely Jamy Sue Rose, an award winning nature photographer and a Florida Master Naturalist and guide. He has two sons, Edward, a local businessman, and Alexander, a successful real estate professional here in Jacksonville.
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