Chelsea, Marc, and the ‘new world’ of religion

Chelsea, Marc, and the ‘new world’ of religion

One of the mysteries associated with the Chelsea Clinton-Marc Mezvinsky wedding was who would officiate at the nuptials between this Methodist-Jewish couple. The answer is one from Column A and one from Column B.

A press release from the family said Rabbi James Ponet and the Rev. William Shillady co-officiated for the Jewish groom and Methodist bride.

USA Today reported the ceremony included numerous Jewish traditions: They wed under a canopy, he wore a skullcap and prayer shawl, and friends and family recited the seven blessings key to a Jewish wedding. However, it was an early evening ceremony and it took place before the end of the Jewish Sabbath.

The Jewish Daily Forward Shmooze column reports Ponet is Yale’s Jewish chaplain and heads the university’s Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life, “where he taught a seminar on ‘The Family in Jewish Tradition,’ with sexpert…Dr. Ruth Westheimer.” Ponet is a Reform rabbi.

Intermarriage has been a hot-button issue in American Judaism for decades because it usually means that, within a few generations, family members will cease identifying themselves as Jewish. Coupled with low fertility rates, the total Jewish population in the United States is declining.

Many commentators on the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding state what happens next is the important thing.

There had been speculation that Chelsea may convert. This is important because, under Halacha, to be Jewish your mother has to be Jewish. Thus, without conversion, the couple’s children would not be considered Jewish under Jewish law, raising another current hot-button issue, the conversion bill pending in the Knesset.

Susan Katz Miller, who bills herself as a “Happy Interfaith Poster Child,” writing an on-line letter to Chelsea in the on-line magazine Jewcy, advises Chelsea to “Ignore the Buttinskys”:

It is not your job to respond to the terrible pressure to convert, or raise Jewish children. Your job is to figure out how to have the strongest possible marriage and the happiest children. As an adult interfaith child who has spent a lifetime dealing with these issues, here are some of the tiresome unsolicited comments I know you are facing…

Meanwhile, on The Huffington Post, Rabbi Irwin Kula, a Conservative rabbi who is billed as an author, president of CLAL, “wisdom teacher,” and cultural commentator, wishes the couple “Mazel Tov.”

To Kula, The Wedding is an example of religious syncretism, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice.” It seems that Kula is for intermarriage as the next evolutionary step in American religious culture.

Kula infers that the days of structured religion are numbered. “Fewer and fewer Americans are getting religion in the cathedrals,” he writes.

Kula writes, “The Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding is a perfect expression of the emerging American religious and social landscape in which one’s inherited group identity bears little or no significance on one’s marriage. As a consequence of the unprecedented freedom we enjoy to cross boundaries that even a generation ago would have been taboo…. Welcome to the new world of religion in America.”

Issuing a warning to less enlightened religious leaders, Kula writes:

Religious leaders who do not see these changes as threatening the integrity of their faiths and groups will need to be concerned less with creating good upstanding members of their group (theologically or sociologically) and more with providing wisdom and practice drawn from their tradition that is accessible, usable, and good enough to get the job done: helping “mixers, blenders, benders, and switchers” construct ever-changing lives that are more ethical, vital, and loving within their already-existing webs of relations.

Echoing Rodney King’s famous plaint, “Why can’t we all just get along,” Kula declares, “Loving each other across boundaries and building families to which multiple traditions are brought is far better for the planet than what our religions have too often done: demonizing the other.”

There is not one word in Kula’s blessing of the nuptials about the future children of the marriage. Miller, the “Happy Interfaith Poster Child,” at least recognizes the problems associated with raising children in an interfaith marriage. The learned rabbi and “wisdom teacher” did not, or chose to avoid them.

The problem of intermarriage is age old. Ruth, the great-grandmother of David, is probably one of the most famous converts to Judaism.

In popular literature, Tevye the dairyman disowned his daughter Chava, who was going to marry a Russian, because he could not turn his back on “Tradition” and his way of life. In the end, he reconciled with Chava.

For my part, I don’t know what I would do if either my son or daughter placed me in Tevye’s shoes. I do know that I would want my child and grandchildren to remain in the Jewish tradition. Thus, I have trouble with Kula’s prescription.

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