Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Marriage in generalized coordinates

As I mentioned, wedding-related posts are coming at some point. In the meantime, some meta notes on the topic: liberal/egalitarian Jewish marriage is in a period of ferment. If our evolving civilization is characterized by punctuated equilibrium, we are very much between equilibria at least in this particular area. In a few decades or so, I think things may settle down, but in the meantime, there's no universal standard of how to effect an egalitarian Jewish marriage, either practically or conceptually, and the options are multiplying. This means that everyone who gets married has significant decisions to make. The other night I was speaking to someone else who recently got married, and they were talking about the decisions they had made about these ritual matters, based on the specific constraints of their situation.

I should note that my day job currently includes thinking about Lagrangian mechanics. That night, I got up to use the bathroom, but was still mostly asleep, and in the moments my thoughts were adrift, with the Kiddushin Variations intermingling with the calculus of variations, I had an insight that seemed profound at the same time, and in the morning seemed less profound but still worth blogging:

Devising an egalitarian Jewish wedding ceremony is a variational problem. We each have different constraints, and the goal is to find a trajectory that gets us from the initial point to the final point and (at least locally) extremizes the action. Part of the task that each couple undergoes is choosing the appropriate generalized coordinates that take these constraints into account, and then formulating their Lagrangian. Unfortunately, at that point there are no Euler-Lagrange equations to simplify the calculations (and in any case, the equations of motion aren't solvable analytically), so instead we just have to choose and compare possible trajectories by hand.


  1. You posting reminds me of why I left the Conservative movement a few decades ago. It is the apparent necessity among many of its serious adherents (and the adherents of other "liberal" Jewish movements) to feel that they have to constantly reinvent and reinterpret everything that they encounter in Halacha and Jewish Tradition. After all, many, many couples get married every year using the time-honored traditions and halachot without any problem. I just don't see how a movement that can propagate itself from one generation to another can subject its followers to doing exhausting reappraisals for everything they encounter in Judaism.
    As a student of physics you have probably encountered the question of why people kept accepting Aristotelian views of motion when it is "so obvious" that they are wrong, and we had to wait for Galileo and others to disprove them. Why didn't it happen earlier? A historian of science explained that most people, including educated people, have neither the time, energy or inclination to question the bases of everything they were taught, so they end up accepting most of what is given to them. This is human nature. I extrapolate this to Jewish observance....I believe it is self-defeating for someone who passionately believes in the preservation of Judaism to feel there is a necessity to continually scutinize it and re-evaluate it with outside value systems that often end up being ephemeral and transient. I am not taking an anti-intellectual position and saying that one shouldn't question anything, but I see in educating my children that it would be counter-productive to constantly challenge them with the question "why the heck are we doing this particular minhag or halacha, and is it meaningful to us in its current format?".

  2. I don't think non-Orthodox Jews reinterpret everything, only the things that are problematic. And that's a relatively small set.

    Like it or not, the way people view the role of women has changed tremendously over the past 100 years, and certainly over the past 30 or 40. And that requires some rethinking of those areas of Judaism that involve gender roles.

    The Orthodox world is not immune from this. More girls are being taught mishna and even gemara in school, and there is demand in some circles for all-women prayer groups. Many Orthodox women are college-educated and professionals, and that has led to some difficult questions about work and family.

    So this is an issue because it is an real issue, not because moderate and liberal Jews want to reinterpret everything. I just don't see the same energy being put into new ways of doing shatnes.

  3. re: YBD

    Some women who get married using "time honored traditions and halachot" do indeed experience problems down the road.

    Educate your children however you like, but there are women out there who:

    -prefer not to be passive in entering into marriage

    -prefer not to enter into an agreement that she is unable remove herself from (only the male partner can do that).

  4. Interesting post. I broadened your question and blogged about it. The more general issue is how do Jewish practices evolve or not evolve. More details here:

    In any case, l'shana tovah and congratulations.

  5. Here's a better link:

  6. re: YBD
    The customs should not be reinvented each wedding every five minutes. If families had no people with ideas like yours there would be a standard egalitarian ceremony in ten to twenty years from 1942 (like bat mitzvas) and that would be that.
    But there are all these people who have funky ideas that things should be conservative. So people negotiate and cajole and compromise and every couple does its own thing.
    There's no point in propagating ideas such as having women beholden to men for their freedom. They are terrible and backward ideas, debilitating women like a carseat for a 50-year-old who is overweight. We don't believe them, even the Orthodox; if we keep doing the rituals that reflect them then either we don't take the ritual seriously, or we're making a mockery of our values.

    And I agree you shouldn't invent rituals. Tell this to Orthodox parents of girls who invent new rituals every time they have a daugher, then she grows up and becomes twelve, then looks for a place to learn, then looks for a place to davven.