Shannon practiced saying âShanah tovahâ during the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
âHow do you say that thing?â she said.
âWhat thing?â I replied, all innocence.
âYou know, that thing you say that means âhappy new year.ââ
âOh, that thing.â I told Shannon how to say it and listened as she repeated it. That she wanted know the right thing to say, and how to say it, made me smile.
Communication featured prominently in last weekâs
The tower of Babel is, on its surface, a straightforward explanation as to why people speak many languages rather than one. Having seen humankindâs hubris, God literally descends from the heavens to which the people were building and puts a stop to it. Some of my fellow congregants at Rodeph Shalom were troubled by what they perceived as Godâs capriciousness. âWhy,â they asked, âwould God give us the potential to do something, and then, when we do it, punish us for it? Why would God make it harder for us to understand one another, which leads to endless strife?â
There are deeper theological currents in such questions than Iâm qualified to parse, but I donât think that by âconfoundingâ our speech God was simply âpunishingâ us. Indeed, absent from the story is any sense of severe judgment, and God is forgiving considering we were building a stairway to his house. âNothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach,â God says. Should we have reached our zenith at the very beginnings of history? If it is true in Judaism that we are Godâs partners in the act of creation, and that we use the tools we have to work toward a more perfect world, then I prefer to think of the worldâs many languages not as barriers to understanding, but as a nudge to better comprehend oneâs fellows, as reason to reach out not with a closed fist, but with an open hand.
As our wedding approaches, Shannon and I are becoming more aware of the ways in which the ceremony will be an act of translation, of one culture speaking to another. The irony of our wedding night is that, of the dozen or so people present, only two will be Jewish: myself and the rabbi. My family members have rarely encountered Jewish people, and the only Jewish event they ever attended was my conversion. Thus Shannon and I, and our friend and officiant, Rabbi Eli Freedman, have determined that our wedding will be not only a ritual we perform for ourselves, but also an opportunity to educate our families about the faithway that informs our lives.
Rabbi Freedman will not only lead the ceremony, but heâll also narrate it for the benefit of our families. Heâll explain to our mothers and siblings what weâre doing and why. We want our families to understand the symbolism of the event, to know why weâll circle one another and why Iâll break the glass.
What better way to âtranslateâ Judaism for others than by to invite them to participate? Family is one of the foremost Jewish values, and, to that end, our families have roles to fulfill during the ceremony. My sister and Shannonâs brothers and sister-in-law will hold the poles of the chuppah. Shannonâs mother will read the Irish wedding blessing (which is cultural, not religious). And weâll remember my father, without naming him, when my mother reads Koholet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1-8, which was read at his funeral service. Weâll emphasize the positive half of each of those verses, âa time to build…a time to laugh…a time to dance,â and not only honor my father, but also invest them with a happier significance.
There are elements in the contemporary Jewish community that see only a tide of darkness, âa time to weep, a time to mourn,â especially in regards to interfaith marriages. To approach it thus is to say, as my fellow congregants did, âWhy did God do this to us?â Shannon and I choose to celebrate our marriage as an opportunity for greater understanding. We were given different ways of speech, Jewish and not, but that doesnât mean we canât communicate. âCome, let us build a city.â