By Eyal Clyne | Translation from Hebrew: Hava Oz
Women often fantasize about their wedding day, even though this event is a public celebration of their inferiority. Modern weddings among secular and progressive Jews are supposedly characterized by more individualistic and egalitarian traits. We have wrongfully come to believe that the oppressive and subordinating nature of the marriage ritual and its language have been nullified. This, however, is not the case. Despite all the (welcome) changes, the core of weddings remains the same: it is a symbol of the purchase of a woman.
Women-trafficking in language
In religious Jewish weddings, or any wedding conducted in Hebrew, the terms in use are Ba’al ve-Isha (בעל ואישה), which are regarded as equivalent to “man and wife”. This translation, though, is inaccurate, since Ba’al doesn’t mean ‘man’, rather it means ‘owner’. Since modern-Hebrew is now spoken again, much feminist thought in contemporary Israel was given to dismantle some of the Hebrew androcentric idioms (male-oriented phrases) of marriage, and Ba’al is one of them. Some women decide not to use Ba’ali (בעלי), the common term for “my husband”, and prefer using Ishi (אישי), in order to decrease/deny any trace of ancient ownership relations, as the latter means “my man”, deriving from the similar common form of saying “my wife”, ishti (אשתי, my woman). The new term exchanges ownership for mutual-belonging, but somehow using Ba’alati (בעלתי, my female-owner) alongside Ba’ali, as expressing mutual ownership, still sounds like an absurd option.
And for good reason. The root “בעל” (ba’al) should be avoided because it expresses a different, unspoken sense of “taking a woman”. That is, the verb – liv’ol (לבעול), according to the commonly-used Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary of A. Shushan, means: (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 verb for someone (male) becoming a husband, and/by performing a sexualy intrusive act, of taking a woman’s virginity. This word is also a noun, representing the acting man. Therefore the Bo’el is making himself the woman’s owner/master/husband (Ba’al), by making a claim of possession, with a symbolic “mark of territory” and actual ownership in the woman’s body. In weddings the woman is marked by her virginity, which is then “taken” by her husband-to-be. The use of Be’ila (בעילה) serves to bear witness to her virginity to the community-present, proving her to be “brand new” and “sealed” in the “original packaging”. Many cultures make external permanent marks of ownership on living bodies: in beasts and livestock by branding (using hot iron, piercing, coloring etc.), in slaves (during biblical times their ears were pierced), in women and children (injuring organs, piercing, tattoo’s, circumcision etc.). Pimps and human-traffic agents still mark their “property” with tattoo’s and piercings, as a form of making status and ownership public through external signification. The similarity between weddings and human-trafficking (i.e. trade in women) shows the stability and transparency of the everyday reification of women; confiscating their bodies by marking it with ownership signs.
It is not without reason that the ownership of women is anchored through the use of sex. The main taboo about marriage is that it is all about sex. In Judaism, sex is the “right” of the husband over his wife (ishto), as she is becoming “allowed to him” (מותרת לו). And, as the verb Bo’el (takes ownership/woman/viriginity) hints, the action is always unilateral and sexually asymmetric. Linguistically, a woman simply cannot be Bo’elet, but only Niv’elet (the passive form of the verb: becoming owned/married/loosing virginity). Consequently, there cannot be any Ba’alati (my female-owner), as the dictionary clarifies with elaborate examples: “בועל, נִבְעלה; נישאה לאיש” (i.e. bo’el, niv’ala; was married off to a man). In other words, from the very use of Hebrew in the ceremony, or the choice of Zionism to “revive” (or more accurately – rely heavily on) ancient Hebrew, all women are bound to be the objects of men. And objects, naturally, are not active (in Sociology: they are said to have no agency); they need men (agents) to “activate”/operate them.
While Ba’ali (בעלי) is an expression of clear 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 rebut this option, especially in the way that “Ba’alati” (my female-owner) could have. Therefore, some prefer the less obliging and less institutionalized terms אהובתי, בת זוגי (meaning my [female] love or partner) or רעייתי, (my female-friend; in use today as a synonym for wife, which I find very romantic, as it is taken from the Song of Songs, but it loses its meaning when used in masculine form).
Another illustration of the linguistic asymmetry and connotations of ownership-relations is encapsulated in the name of the marriage-institution “nisu’in” (נישואין). The verb is laset (לשאת, to marry, to carry), and it expresses – again – male activeness and female passiveness. In Hebrew you can marry/carry a wife (laset (le)-isha, לשאת אישה), but not marry/carry a husband. He is the carrying subject, she is the carried object. Here as well, the dictionary explains 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.
Marriage 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 the family name. Although most couples still take the man’s surname (at least in Israel), many “feminist” couples decide today to carry a double-surname upon marriage (sometimes only the women do), by adding her maiden-surname to the partrilineal surname. This leads one to some comical speculations about the next generations. If their descendents decide to follow the new-tradition, they will need to have 4 names, then 8, and so on, in an ever-growing series of exponents…. More seriously, but nevertheless interesting, is the fact that almost no one (well, at least in Israel), has decided on using the woman’s family-name alone, and to drop the man’s name. One reason is probably that it didn’t cross their minds, and another is that, given the norm, it may be conveyed as an insult to the man’s family and heritage (a syndrome known as “everybody wants to be a feminist, but no one’s willing to pay the price”). But there’s more to it. Taking the patrilineal name has historical roots going back to ancient times, when marriage was a financial deal of selling and buying daughters-women-wives. Changing one’s family-name expresses one’s joining into a different family and the giving up of one’s previous identity. Since the woman was the one being sold, replacing the man’s family-name makes 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 woman, the property, which was 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.
The custom of the ring belongs to an early part of the wedding ritual. Despite the appearance of more contemporary versions, it is somewhat surprising to discover the degree to which the basic stages of weddings have remained similar to the “orthodox”-religious version. First there is a period of shiduch (שידוך, which was previously the engagement. Among “secular” and modern Jews this was modified to an unofficial period of committed-relationship prior to the wedding). This is followed by the erusin/kidushin (engagement, usually by putting on a ring); then the ketubah (contract); and finally nisu’in/huppah (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 this moment on, when the man mekadesh (dedicates/sanctifies) the woman (for himself) with money (or any equivalent, such as the ring), in the presence of witnesses (you guessed it, only men), she becomes asura (forbidden; note the passivism) to other men. 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 deal, 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). Here too, 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 proof for some rabbis that there is no forced marriage in Judaism, but in reality, the woman must agree. She may be able to refuse a specific marriage (and sometimes not even that), but she must agree to her general condition, and to the subordination system. As in many places in the holy scriptures (see: “You shall not covet”), marriage too, is an example of adding women to the list of a man’s assets, together with slaves, cattle or anything else “belonging to him”. Originally, men were also allowed to marry several women, precisely for the reason that they are property (and never the other way around).
(Interestingly enough, 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).
Prior to the wedding, the future owner must take part in two public agreements of purchase, terms-of-use, and conveyance. (In Israel these carry full-legal meaning: kidushin and ketubah). The ketubah is also often presented by some rabbis as a “declaration of women’s rights”, but 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 ketubah is similar to guaranteeing workers’ rights in a contract for life, drafted by employers. It is written in Aramaic, and 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 fine) in case of a divorce. The contract (drafted by men) is signed (by men), money changes hands, in the presence of kosher-witnesses (men) and a rabbi (man), and the road to the huppah is now paved.
As the Talmud explains, once the wedding is completed, the woman enters the state of rahsut ha-ba’al (the husband’s service/authority/allowance).
Not what 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 the ceremony and its related rituals were unable to dismantle the oppression of women, rather their power preserves it. It is also true that the power of the ritual itself has been reduced, as one can see from the growing numbers 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 does this mean that marriage has also lost its strength? Are weddings no longer exciting? Have they become unnecessary? Not necessarily.
In fact, it is fair to say that today’s excitement, preparation and related customs are over all proportion in comparison to those of the past. The reason is that marriage is not originally a romantic establishment. Ancient relations between the sexes were based on a serious need to protect women from forced or occasional sex, which left them pregnant and impure, and men free of any concern. Women’s rights were not about sexual freedom sex-and-the-city style, on the contrary, there was a need to protect women from casual sex. Moreover, marriage was used, and still is in many communities, as a tool to bridge conflicts, to unite kingdoms (by marrying 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 a practical solution to concrete problems. So basically, marriage is not at all a romantic institution, and despite the romanticism ascribed to it today, the language and customs still derive from the ancient ritual. That is also the reason why marriage is never an intimate issue of the couple alone, but 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.
To conclude, treating women as property in human trafficking is not the exception, but the norm in a blunt form. It is in the marriage – and not in the divorce – that women start being abandoned and oppressed; and it is in everyday life – not in criminal acts and harassment – where we should look for the root of the objectification of women. We’ll find them in culture, family, weddings, language, surnames and other elements of Jewish tradition, among others.
Eyal Clyne is an independent Israeli blogger-researcher (among other things, and not as a source for income). His Hebrew blog is named after Ahad Ha’am’s inspiring essay “Truth from Eretz Israel”, and focuses on the conflict and other Israeli-political issues.