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, numbers, 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.
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 one 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 there’s 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 antisemitism decimated our ranks. Nowadays first cousins can run into the fifties and seconds 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 studying full-time. This is not atypical.