The Jewish World Reacts to the Clinton-Mezvinsky Wedding — and It Isn’t Pretty

It’s been a long week at InterfaithFamily.com, starting with the news last Saturday night that Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky had a rabbi and a minister at their wedding with very evident Jewish traditions. In this post I’m going to try to just summarize the coverage. I’m still reflecting on the significance of it all, and will have more to say about that.

At the beginning of the week the media coverage from the Jewish angle focused on what happens next for newly married interfaith couples. On Monday there was a story on ABCNews.com, Chelsea Clinton’s Interfaith Marriage Challenge: Kids, Holidays, Soul-Searching.The writer, Luchina Fisher, noted that the wedding featured many Jewish traditions: the couple married under a chuppah or canopy; the groom wore a yarmulke or skull cap and tallis or prayer shawl; friends and family recited the Seven Blessings typically read at traditional Jewish weddings. She then quoted me:

“To me that’s an indication that the groom identifies Jewishly,” Edmund Case, the head of InterfaithFamily.com told ABCNews.com. “It’s also apparent that Chelsea must have been fine with it or it wouldn’t have happened. Also, given the prominence of her family, they must have been accepting of it.”

Cathy Grossman also had a story on Monday, Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding reflects mix of religions in USA. Cathy noted,

The website InterfaithFamily.com offers DVDs for a Love and Religion course created by Marion Usher, a marriage and family counselor who has run workshops for interfaith couples for 16 years at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C. DVD sales soared after Usher began offering advice online timed to the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding.

On Tuesday I had a second post on the Huffington Post, where I tried to answer the question,Chelsea Clinton’s Interfaith Marriage: What Comes Next?.

Later on Tuesday, though, the coverage from the Jewish perspective turned away from what couples like Chelsea and Marc face, and started reporting on negative reactions to the wedding in the Jewish world. Jacob Berkman had a story for JTA, which is starting to be widely re-printed in local Jewish papers:  Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding raises questions about intermarriage. After a great introduction – “Is it possible that the first iconic Jewish picture of the decade is of an interfaith marriage? Photographs taken Saturday show the Jewish groom wearing a yarmulke and a crumpled tallit staring into the eyes of his giddy bride under a traditional Jewish wedding canopy with a framed ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract, in the background.” – Jacob starts quoting Jewish leaders expressing ambivalence.

First, Steven M. Cohen tries to have it both ways: “we should celebrate the particular marriage of these two fine individuals, but we ought not celebrate the type of marriage it constitutes and represents.” Then Rabbi Eric Yoffie reportedly told JTA, “The Reform movement frowns upon its rabbis conducting weddings on the Sabbath.” “Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said intermarriage is certainly ‘not ideal,’ but that the Conservative movement in 2008 decided that it must welcome interfaith families and ‘help their spouses along their spiritual journeys.’” At least Rabbi Yoffie also said, “I look at the couple and my response is, ‘I hope they will make a choice to raise their children in a single religion and tradition and second, as a Jew and rabbi, I hope it will be Judaism.”

It was left to me to make an unequivocal statement: “Case said that accepting this marriage and welcoming this intermarried family into the Jewish fold could help pave the way for the Jewish community to be more accepting of others.” I was also quoted as saying that “the Clinton wedding certainly had stirred interest in intermarriage, noting that traffic to his website was up 35 percent in July compared to the same month last year. “

Also on Tuesday, Julie Wiener put up her article that would appear in the New York Jewish Week, which focuses on co-officiation. Julie says that “Even as the number of liberal rabbis willing to preside at weddings of Jews to gentiles appears to be growing, co-officiation with clergy of another faith, while hardly unheard of, remains taboo.” Julie quotes me:

“The mainstream of the Reform rabbinate is not with co-officiation yet,” says Ed Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, which since 2007 has run a free referral service for interfaith couples seeking clergy to officiate at their wedding. Despite the mainstream opposition, 40 percent of the almost 400 rabbis and cantors in IFF’s database (some ordained by the Reform and Reconstructionist seminaries, some by nondenominational ones) are willing to co-officiate, and in the past six months 31.5 percent of the approximately 120 couples each month using the service have sought someone to co-officiate. (In 2009, 43 percent of couples contacting IFF were seeking someone to co-officiate.) “I’ve had Reform rabbis say they don’t want to have anything to do with us because our referral service” provides co-officiating rabbis to those couples who want them, Case says.

Julie interviewed Rabbi Ellen Dreyfuss, the president of the Reform rabbis’ association, who said “The rabbi’s presence and officiation at a wedding is reflective of a commitment on the part of the couple to have a Jewish home and a Jewish family, so co-officiation with clergy of another faith does not reflect that commit. It reflects, rather, indecision on the part of the couple… Religiously it’s problematic because [the bride and groom are] trying to create a both and there’s no such thing as a both.” Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, also says that “having a co-officiated ceremony points in the direction of a home that won’t be primarily Jewish.”

As Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of JOI aptly points out, however, “the common assumption is that when a couple wishes a rabbi to co-officiate, the couple is going to bring up the future children in two faiths or the couple has not made a decision…. That’s probably a premature conclusion to make.” And I said, about Rabbi James Ponet, who co-officiated at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, “I think it’s really significant that a highly regarded rabbi would be willing to co-officiate and before Shabbat was over. I think it’s positive too. Maybe it will have some influence.”

Julie gives our own Rabbi Lev Baesh the last word:

Lev Baesh, a Reform rabbi and CCAR member who is the director of InterfaithFamily.com’s resource center for Jewish clergy and oversees the referral service, says he co-officiates because, “My view is that any Jew who wants Jewish ritual in their life should have it.”
Even if a couple hasn’t yet decided whether or not to have a Jewish household, “the wedding is a great opportunity to show Judaism is something that has meaning and value for them.”
The hope is that if they have a good experience, then “down the road” these couples will get more engaged in Jewish life.
“I know that I’m not just hoping this, because I also do a lot of baby namings,” Rabbi Baesh says.

Finally, on Thursday, Allison Gaudet Yarrow at the Forward wrote Wedding Blues: Rabbis At Odds With Their Rules, which again focuses on co-officiation. Yarrow’s summary: “Top leaders from all the major streams of Judaism – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist – were at pains to stress that the Sabbath day nuptials of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky were not a Jewish event.” She quoted me as saying,

In his work with Interfaithfamily.com, which offers, among other things, a clergy referral service, CEO Ed Case sees a disconnect between rabbis who feel they can navigate the interfaith issue without offending interfaith couples and those particular couples’ experience of interacting with rabbis who won’t perform or recognize interfaith unions.
“For better or for worse, what couples want and what lay people want are different than where the rabbinate is. People don’t feel bound by requirements or traditions, and they want to do what they want to do,” he said.
Case hoped interfaith couples would look at the Jewish rituals in the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding and think, “If this is good enough for Chelsea Clinton, it’s good enough for me.”

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2 thoughts on “The Jewish World Reacts to the Clinton-Mezvinsky Wedding — and It Isn’t Pretty

  1. The discussions had this week have been interesting and I unfortunately wish the talk was not always so negative from the Jewish Community.

    Almost 4 years ago I had a Rabbi and a Catholic Priest officiate my wedding. It was a beautiful ceremony that took place right after sundown on a Saturday evening. In my opinion a wedding is not just about 2 people, it is about 2 families joining. It is not a easy route, or a cope-out. And it is not a reflection of how a couple will raise future children.  

    My husband and I made the decision to raise our now 4 month old son exclusively Jewish, but that does not change the importance or meaningfulness of our wedding ceremony. I am still Catholic. My son’s grandparents are Catholic. He has Catholic Aunts and Uncles, he will have Catholic cousins and that is the reality of an interfaith family. Regardless of our future, my wedding represented my background and my family as much as it did my husband’s and I believe the same is true for the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding.

    I applaud her for including both traditions and families and believe this is not a reflection on how her family will precede to raise children, or what their home will be.

    When you marry you join a part of your past in order to make a future, by ignoring the religious aspect of one person’s past you are ignoring who that person is.

    It’s unfortunate the Jewish community continues to make such an issue of intermarriage and ceremonies such as this one, instead of embracing the love of a couple, who took the harder route – the more complicated task of respecting both religions. They could have easily had a non-denominational wedding ceremony and where would that have left the Jewish community?

  2. In my opinion, religion is a set of tools, a path to God, and there is more than one path. We have the Jewish path, but it is not the only way. Many religions claim their way is the only way, and Christianity is one such faith. Growing closer to God should be the focus, regardless of which path one chooses. That being said, the Jewish way is precious, and Jews tend to fear it will be lost if the traditions are not passed on to the next generation. Intermarriage can result in such a loss, but it doesn’t have to. Intermarriage can also lead to a gain, particularly if spouses of other faiths feel welcome, included, and are offered educational opportunities even if they choose not to leave their original faith. It seems to me the most important thing is knowledge – really learning what Judaism is about, learning how we read our classic texts, which is something even many Jews don’t know. So many died in the holocaust, which means much information was lost – there are fewer today who can teach, because they themselves lost the generation best equipped to teach them. So the bigger question seems to be not who is marrying whom, but how we can preserve Jewish knowledge.

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