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A Chuppah for Chelsea: The Kids are Marrying Out

It was a lavish New York wedding on a perfect summer’s eve, covered by the media with the fascination reserved for movie stars, moguls – and the offspring of a former President and the Secretary of State.  But the steady buzz surrounding last weekend’s union between Chelsea Clinton and her longtime beau, Marc Mezvinsky, has extended beyond hearts-and-flowers and Vera Wang dresses to a complex issue that impacts – and divides – many American families: interfaith marriage.

On Saturday the radiant bride (a Methodist) and handsome groom (a Conservative Jew) were united “beneath an immense chuppah made of woven willow branches, white roses and hydrangeas,” wrote The Washington Post. Presided over by a minister and a Reform rabbi, the interfaith ceremony incorporated a number of traditional Jewish elements: the groom wore a kippah and tallit (skullcap and prayer shawl) and broke a glass underfoot, the couple signed a decorative ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), and was regaled with the chanting of the shevah brachot (“seven blessings” for the newlyweds). The celebration that followed featured an exuberant hora, complete with Chelsea and Marc and both sets of parents hoisted high onto chairs above the dancing guests.

If this was culture shock to the church-going mother of the bride, she didn’t show it. When asked about Chelsea’s approaching marriage during a recent interview with NBC Nightly News, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a model of acceptance:

“I think it says a lot about not only the two young people involved and their strong love but also their deep faith, both of them. But it says a lot about the United States, it says a lot about this wonderful experiment known as America, where we recognize the right that every single person has to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And over the years so many of the barriers that prevented people from getting married, crossing lines of faith, or color or ethnicity, have just disappeared. Because what’s important is, are you making a responsible decision, have you thought it through, do you understand the consequences? And I think that in the world we’re living in today, we need more of that…”

A  USA Today article titled “Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding reflects mix of religions in USA” didn’t specifically deal with “crossing lines of… color or ethnicity” – nor will this post; but it did spotlight interfaith marriage as a growing trend, painting it a much less rosy hue when both partners are deeply committed to different religions:

“… life-cycle decisions will loom, from baptism (No? Yes? Whose church?) to burial (Can you rest in sacred ground of another faith?).

Every rite of passage, sacred ritual and major holy day will require negotiation: First Communion? Bar or bat mitzvah? Passover Seder, Easter vigil or Eid Al-Fitr feast to break Islam’s Ramadan fast?

Looking on: Parents and clergy who fear that distinctive beliefs, sacred rituals and centuries-old cultural traditions will be diluted or discarded.”

And in the “On Faith” section of last week’s Washington Post, a whopping 20 panelists, representing believers and nonbelievers of many  stripes, used the Clinton-Mezvinsky marriage as a jumping-off point for provocative discussion:

“Statistics show that 37 percent of Americans have a spouse of a different faith. Statistics also show that couples in interfaith marriages are ‘three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.’  Is interfaith marriage good for American society? Is it good for religion? What is lost -and gained -when religious people intermarry?”

Nowhere is this is a topic of more heated debate than in the American-Jewish community, where the latest statistics (from the 2001 Jewish Population Survey, updated in 2004) revealed that intermarriage among younger Jews (those married after 1996) was at the 47% mark. While this high rate reflects, on the one hand, the acceptance of  Jews into this country’s mainstream, it’s become a call to action among  those who are deeply concerned about Jewish continuity – even, some allege, Jewish survival.

The thing is, those actions vary widely. While the more liberal denominations – Reform and to a lesser degree, Conservative – embrace interfaith families and pledge to provide them with meaningful Jewish experiences, not all Reform rabbis, and no Conservative rabbis, will consent to take part in a ceremony like the Clinton-Mezvinsky’s.  Among the Orthodox, there are those who will still “sit shiva” for a child who betrays Torah principles by marrying outside the faith, severing all ties like Tevye the Milkman vowed to do in “Fiddler on the Roof.” But even within Orthodoxy, some are beginning to grapple with the notion that Judaism cannot afford to turn its back on its children who marry out, or on non-Jewish spouses who (in some instances) commit to raising Jewish children and who may even opt to enter the fold someday, if the door is left open.

In a recent article in The Jewish Week, Conservative rabbi and award-winning blogger Joshua Hammerman wrote movingly of today’s intermarriage conundrum, as it plays out for the faithful living in a time and place of blessed inclusion and diversity.  He concluded:

“Would I sit shiva for my child if he married out? Would I officiate at his wedding?

No and no.

But would I celebrate?

In the words of [Tevye] the immortal dairyman: ‘I’ll tell you… I don’t know.’

But I know that, like Abraham, I will love anyone who comes into my home with an unconditional, unbounded love. I’ll do it because it is precisely that kind of love that will bring renewed vitality to the Jewish people and eternal relevance to the Jewish message.

And I’ll do it because, as I’m sure Tevye would agree, loving our neighbor is a tradition; for it reminds us who we are and what God expects us to do.”

~~~~~~~

What’s a “chuppah,” anyway?  The traditional Jewish marriage canopy stands as the couple’s first “home” together as husband and wife, a sacred space that is open and welcoming on all sides, as were the tents of Abraham and Sarah in Biblical times.  On August 1, 1982 – 28 years before Chelsea Clinton stood under her chuppah – I stood under mine. This poem expresses not only what the canopy symbolizes – but what marriage itself can mean, for hopeful partners of all faiths and no faith, and through the generations.

The Chuppah
by Marge Piercy

The chuppah stands on four poles.
The home has its four corners.
The chuppah stands on four poles.
The marriage stands on four legs.
Four points loose the winds
that blow on the walls of the house,
the south wind that brings the warm rain,
the east wind that brings the cold rain,
the north wind that brings the cold sun
and the snow, the long west wind
bringing the weather off the far plains.

Here we live open to the seasons.
Here the winds caress and cuff us
contrary and fierce as bears.
Here the winds are caught and snarling
in the pines, a cat in a net clawing
breaking twigs to fight loose.
Here the winds brush our faces
soft in the morning as feathers
that float down from a dove’s breast.

Here the moon sails up out of the ocean
dripping like a just washed apple.
Here the sun wakes us like a baby.
Therefore the chuppah has no sides.

It is not a box.
It is not a coffin.
It is not a dead end.
Therefore the chuppah has no walls.
We have made a home together
open to the weather of our time.
We are mills that turn in the winds of struggle
converting fierce energy into bread.

The canopy is the cloth of our table
where we share fruit and vegetables
of our labor, where our care for the earth
comes back and we take its body in ours.

The canopy is the cover of our bed
where our bodies open their portals wide,
where we eat and drink the blood
of our love, where the skin shines red
as a swallowed sunrise and we burn
in one furnace of joy molten as steel
and the dream is flesh and flower.

O my love O my love we dance
under the chuppah standing over us
like an animal on its four legs,
like a table on which we set our love
as a feast, like a tent
under which we work
not safe but no longer solitary
in the searing heat of our time.

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