During the last 2 months, I went to three weddings. The weddings were quite different.
The first one was a wedding of two chareidi [ultra-orthodox] people, both of whom came from families that were not as observant as the couple. (The bride’s immediate family is modern orthodox while her extended family is mostly unaffiliated; the groom’s family is mostly conservative). This wedding was held in the bride’s family’s synagoge, and was a small and intimate yet elegant affair. There was a lot of emphasis on modesty. The wedding invitation included the line “modest attire requested”. We, as female friends of the bride, had prepared some cute presentations for the couple, but were asked to present only to the bride for modesty reasons.
The other wedding I went to was vastly different. The couple was modern orthodox, and had spent the last few months working on a farm together. The wedding venue was a nature reserve. Instead of the traditional kabbalat panim, where the bride sits in a chair and is greeted by all the female guests one by one, The bride had a kallah’s tish/drum circle, located in the reserve’s historic barn. She didn’t have a hair or makeup stylist, instead electing to do everything herself. The chuppah canopy was held up on poles by four couples that the bride and groom had close relationships with (we were one of the couples). The bride gave the groom his ring publicly at the bedeken (veiling ceremony) instead of privately, after the ceremony.
The third one was held in a large, all-in-one wedding hall in Brooklyn. These wedding halls are known for being all inclusive, all you do is pick the date, and tell them how many people you expect, and then they take care of everything from orchestrating the ceremony to planning the menu. This particular hall had rules that any wedding in that hall must have separate seating for men and women, both at the ceremony and the meal.
Despite their differences, the weddings were, in many ways, very similar. All were orthodox weddings, so all featured no touching between the bride and groom until after the ceremony. All featured separate dancing for men and women. All had kosher food.
Another thing that both weddings featured was separate seating for men and women at the ceremony.
According to halacha, there is absolutely nothing wrong with men and women sitting next to each other while watching the ceremony. Orthodox synagogues feature separate seating for prayers, but that restriction is limited to times of prayer and places that regularly serve as places of prayer. Therefore, an impromptu minyan in an individual’s home does not require a separation. Furthermore, a non-prayer function in a synagoge, such as a lecture or a wedding, does not require separate seating. While there are brachot that are said during a wedding, this does not fall into the same category as prayer and therefore does not require separation.
Before the first two weddings, I chatted about the details with each bride. I asked each of them what amount of separation there would be. The first wedding’s bride told me that the ceremony would be separate, but the meal would be together, although there would still be a partition for the dancing. She said she would probably have preferred to have the the meal separate too, but their families wouldn’t hear of it. The second wedding’s bride told me that everyone would be sitting together at the wedding, because she didn’t feel there was any reason to split the seating. The third wedding was dictated by the wedding hall rules.
A funny thing happened at the second wedding. Although the bride had specifically instructed her friends that seating was mixed, most of the other guests just assumed it was separate, and chose to sit separately. The few friends who were sitting on the “wrong” side were forced to give up their seats to members of the opposite sex, and to find other seating on the “correct” side. All this took place while the bride and groom were in the back, when they entered, they were completely surprised to find all the men on one side of the isle while all the women were on the other.
THIS angered me more than anything else. I respect a couple’s right to choose to conduct their wedding in whichever way they see fit. If they want separate everything, fine, I don’t love it, but I’ll respect it. BUT, the fact that the assumption is now that seating should be separate is problematic.
Since I’ve been married, I’ve had the occasion to go to more than one wedding where the only person I knew there was my husband. It’s quite un-fun to sit amongst a pile of women not knowing anyone, and without having my husband as a buffer to introduce me to the few women that he happens to. “Oh”, you say. “That’s not a big deal. The ceremony is only half a hour, 45 minutes at most. You have the whole rest of the wedding to spend with your husband and your male friends”. Wrong. As evidenced by this third wedding, separate seating at meals is becoming increasingly popular as well. “Oh”, you say. “Thats just a small minority of ultra-orthodox extremists. In your modern orthodox circles, you probably won’t have to deal with it too much”. Wrong again. Separate seating at ceremonies used to be unheard of, something practiced only by the most stringent. Now, apparently, it’s the assumption.Rather than posting signs to inform guests of separate seating, couples who wish to ensure that their friends are able to sit with the people that they choose are forced to put signs up indicating the wedding is mixed seating. My prediction is that if things keep going the way they are, in five years the standard will be that people will be sitting separately at the meals, too. This is something that the Modern Orthodox community shouldn’t take lightly, we should fight it at every opportunity we have. If we don’t, we let the Brooklyn wedding mills win.