Ridiculous Jewish Weddings
by Jeremy Rosen
It has been a pleasurable part of my life as a rabbi to attend weddings. I have attended hundreds of weddings of various sizes, styles, and traditions. Some of course I have enjoyed more than others, and not a few have been the occasion of as much conflict, anger, and dispute, as happiness, love, and delight. But I am finding it increasingly hard to feel comfortable about some weddings I attend, for a whole range of reasons.
Firstly, they are getting more and more protracted. I thought it was only Persians who called you for 5:00, arrived at 8:00, and started at 9:30. But the last Ashkenazi wedding I attended was called for 6:00, ran a smorgasbord till 9:00, and started at 10:00. You can now assume it takes half an hour for the procession in to the Chupah. Some Chupahs are so overcrowded with jostling relatives that it feels like a scrum.
Often one band plays for the reception, another for the Chupah, a third for Hassidic or Israeli dances, a fourth for ballroom dancing, and then there’s a disco. One singer is for Ashkenazi cantorial style, one for Chasidic pop, one for Sephardi tunes, and another for Carlebach. As for food, a loaded reception is offered as people arrive, another after the Chupah but before dinner, then there will be a full main meal, midnight refreshers, and if there’s a Chasidic Mitzvah Tantz at the end you’ll get a complete breakfast as well.
It is fashionable to fly in from Israel, distinguished rebbes, rabbis, and factota traveling first class or on private jets. A guest list of thousands is not unusual. Consider the millions, now billions being spent each year on religious weddings. Then consider how much charitable and educational work could be accomplished instead of a one-night bash that disappears into photo albums a few hours after it is over, to be glanced at perhaps once a year thereafter. The cost, the waste, it’s mind-blowing.
But I realize that weddings are not just for brides and grooms. Nowadays we have massive extended families. Once upon a time war, disease, and anti-Semitism decimated our ranks. Nowadays first cousins can run into the fifties and second cousins into the hundreds. Successful businessmen have to invite business contacts, flaunt their success to attract new capital, and invite gaggles of rabbis to prove their religious status and legitimacy. It’s not just spoilt daughters who clamor for excess, it’s insecure magnates too.
Over the past fifty years of rising Jewish affluence (as well as continuing Jewish poverty) many religious leaders of all denominations have tried hard to introduce sumptuary laws to try to limit excessive expenditure on weddings, to absolutely no avail. Desperate parents have offered apartments and cars instead of huge weddings to their children, but a fancy white wedding always seems to win. Occasionally you hear of a couple who elope to Israel for a quickie or just take a rabbi and two witnesses into Central Park. But the pressures are so great that in most Jewish circles it’s simply not an option.
One could arrange a nice, modest wedding ceremony and celebratory meal, regardless of whether it was in New York, London, Jerusalem, or Pondicherry (even if the price of kosher catering is ballooning like the Hindenburg). Recently I entertained a relatively humble rosh yeshiva from Israel who has ten children and has personal debts of $500,000 as a result of marrying off his five daughters. It was not just the cost of a wedding itself, or the seven mini-celebrations, the Sheva Brachot during the following seven days. It was the need to buy an apartment for each that left him staggering under such a heavy load of debt. At the same time he has to support his five sons who are also married but are studying full-time. This is not atypical.
A rented apartment is unacceptable nowadays in certain circles. And the chances of someone with no serious secular education getting a good job are massively reduced in Israeli society, indeed in any society nowadays. Some families can support indolent, sponging, trust fund parasites. But the number of wealthy families who can do this is shrinking, because the open hands increase exponentially in each generation without any new infusion of money-earners. At the same time the culture of universal life-time study as the norm for adult Charedi men is reaching the point where either poverty or social dislocation will produce disaffection and even violence, as it invariably does regardless of religion.
Now it is true that Judaism is expanding because of its families blessed with many children. And it is true that social welfare (incidentally a product of the secular culture they despise) enables this mindset. But at some point social welfare will eventually have to be cut back as fewer and fewer enter the workplace to fund all this with their taxes. Shouldn’t we be thinking longer term?
If we cannot survive and grow without our families, it is also true that for Judaism to survive we need education and Jewish schools. In America there is a massive crisis over the cost of Jewish education. At $30,000 per child per year, after tax, fewer and fewer Jewish families can afford Jewish schools. The Charedi world has a way of taking care of its own. The absence of significant secular education cuts their expenses by more than half. Secular or less religiously committed Jews don’t bother with Jewish education altogether, and the resulting assimilation is now a veritable tidal wave. It is the modern or centrist Jews who carry the massive burden, because they want a dual-track Jewish and secular education. But the costs are making it harder and harder to afford.
In Britain, state aid has made Jewish education affordable. But there are not enough schools. A well-known campaigner for Jewish schools in London recently confided that he has a list of 1,500 Jewish children in the northern suburbs who are clamoring for Jewish education, but he cannot raise the money to start a school that, once it is running, the state would then support. The Charedi rich only contribute to Charedi education. The non-religious only care about non-Jewish education, and the middle either can’t afford to give or don’t care enough.
For our own good as a people, we must call a halt to throwing so much money away on pure self-indulgence. If we care for our future we must give as much attention to supporting Jewish education as we do to Jewish reproduction. The place to start is weddings. Make your calculations. Then carve them in half and divide the sum evenly between the two pillars that keep us alive and well and Jewish.