It’s never a bad idea for couples to get premarital counseling before tying the knot. Although counselors play an important role, there are some roles they’re not suited for. For those roles, you need a rabbi.
“Couples come to me as a rabbi to get a Jewish perspective,” said Rabbi Marc Berkson of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in River Hills.
In addition to meeting with couples on average about five times before the wedding to talk about challenges and expectations, Berkson assigns readings, such as “The New Jewish Wedding” by Anita Diamant.
Rabbi Joel Alter of Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid in Glendale also emphasized he’s not a professional counselor, but as a rabbi he has a lot to offer.
“A big part of my job as a rabbi is to help couples articulate their hopes and dreams in the context of their Jewish identity. I regard it as central to my work … That’s a conversation I can have as a rabbi that a [regular] counselor cannot.”
Premarital counseling is such an important aspect of being a rabbi that Rabbi Noah Chertkoff, senior rabbi at Congregation Shalom, became a certified facilitator through Prepare-Enrich, an online marriage preparation program that uses assessment tools to focus on areas where many couples have problems.
“The company does it based on religiosity,” said Chertkoff, adding that the assessments help him to provide structure when he meets couples for counseling.
An obvious service a rabbi can provide that a regular counselor cannot is preparing couples for the wedding ceremony itself. This is important, of course, but equally if not more important is helping couples understand the meaning behind the rituals.
“It’s not just a to-do list,” Alter said. “I help them understand the traditions to make the ceremony more meaningful for them.”
Chertkoff said, “We talk about the wedding rituals and Jewish traditions.”
There are even non-relationship reasons why premarital counseling sessions are helpful.
“I’ve become convinced it’s a great time to talk about Jewish genetic diseases that are common among Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews,” Berkson said.
The wedding-day ceremony aside, the primary reason couples seek premarital counseling is to build a lifelong marriage, because statistics show marriage isn’t easy.
But this is nothing new, said Berkson, citing a Midrash based on Bereshit Rabba 68:4, which recounts a dialogue between Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta — one of the Mishnah’s most prominent sages—and a high-ranking Roman woman:
She asked R. Yosi, “In how many days did God create the world?” “In six,” he answered. “And since then,” she asked, “what has God been doing?” “Matching couples for marriage,” responded R. Yosi. “That’s it!” she said dismissively. “Even I can do that. I have many slaves, both male and female. In no time at all, I can match them for marriage.” To which R. Yosi countered, “Though this may be an easy thing for you to do, for God it is as difficult as splitting the Sea of Reeds.”
The next day the Roman woman paired a thousand male and female slaves before nightfall. By morning, injured slaves milled about. Nobody, it seemed, wanted his or her assigned mate. The Roman woman told the rabbi, “You spoke wisely.”