Wedding Blues: Rabbis at Odds With Their Rules

Interfaith Ceremony: Chelsea Clinton and former President Bill Clinton walk down the aisle during her Sabbath day wedding. Among the guests was a man (on right, back to camera) who wore a yarmulke.
GETTY IMAGES
Interfaith Ceremony: Chelsea Clinton and former President Bill Clinton walk down the aisle during her Sabbath day wedding. Among the guests was a man (on right, back to camera) who wore a yarmulke.

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

Published August 04, 2010, issue of August 13, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The so-called wedding of the century featured a ketubah, a chupah, a groom wearing a tallis and yarmulke, a crushed glass at the end of the ceremony and both sets of parents being hoisted up in chairs as guests danced the hora.

But despite the wedding’s Jewish symbols, 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.

A Methodist minister co-officiated the wedding ceremony with Reform Rabbi James Ponet, the Jewish chaplain of Yale University, though reports on the ceremony contained nary a word about any exclusive Christian content.

Ponet’s own rabbinic organization criticized his involvement in the event. But Conservative Jewish leaders were less ready to negatively judge the decision of the chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s flagship institution for ordaining rabbis, to attend the wedding reception.

In many ways, the reactions of rabbinic leaders to the event’s Jewish complexities offered a window on their movements’ struggles to engage the increasingly common phenomenon of the interfaith wedding.

According to an official statement emailed in response to a query from the Forward, JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen did not attend the ceremony itself, which took place during the Sabbath, a violation of traditional Jewish practice. The reception took place in the evening, after the end of the Sabbath. Eisen was invited as a result of his friendship with the couple, which began when they were his students at Stanford University.

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is the Reform movement’s official rabbinic association, termed Ponet’s participation in the ceremony a clear violation of the association’s rules, specifically its bar against rabbis co-officiating with non-Jewish clergy and conducting a wedding during the Sabbath.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, couldn’t foresee any action being taken against Ponet, who could not be reached for comment.

“We accept the autonomy of the rabbi,” Yoffie said. “Generally speaking, we understand the rabbi has the right to make [his] own choice. Someone could bring him up on charges, but I don’t think it would happen.”

According to Yoffie and Dreyfus, this “live and let live” practice has been largely adopted among Reform rabbis, despite a 1982 resolution reconfirming the CCAR’s opposition to co-officiation of wedding ceremonies with non-Jewish clergy and holding wedding ceremonies on the Sabbath, and a March CCAR task force report reaffirming this.

Dreyfus said the policy has not been enforced and that she doesn’t know of any instances in which disobedient rabbis were reprimanded. Of the Clinton-Mezvinsky marriage, she stated in an e-mail to the Forward that “there are those who would question whether this is ‘a Jewish marriage’ because one partner is not Jewish. The CCAR does not have answers to that question.”

Conservative Judaism, however, does. Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, stressed, “A Jewish marriage is a marriage between two Jews. If you’re not obligated to the laws of Moses in Israel, you can’t commit yourself to each other in that way.”

In the Rabbinic Assembly, this principle is reflected in a rule stating that rabbis “may not officiate at, participate in or attend an intermarriage,” the R.A.’s executive vice president, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, wrote in an e-mail. She said the question of a Conservative rabbi attending an interfaith wedding reception after the religious ceremony “has not arisen formally.” Eisen, the JTS chancellor who attended the Clinton-Mezvinsky reception, is not a rabbi but is seen as a role model. Nevertheless, Conservative scholars interviewed by the Forward did not criticize his decision.

“Arnie was walking a fine line,” said one rabbinic scholar who has been involved with developing rabbinic standards on this issue. “He was in a tough place as a family friend and mentor to this young couple. He also wanted to show respect to those in power in our government.”

Rabbi Morris Faierstein, a retired military chaplain, said that, having received his invitation, Eisen’s attendance might be seen as a grey area under longstanding tradition, which enjoins one to show “special deference” to a king or head of state — in this case the former president or his spouse, the sitting secretary of state. “I can see why the normal rules might be bent somewhat on this occasion,” Faierstein said.

Eisen’s presence at the reception is a sign of the Conservative movement’s ideological shift “from outrage to outreach,” according to Rabbi Ken Cohen, Hillel director at American University. “Given who this is, and the evolution of the attitudes of Conservative rabbis on this issue, I am sure 80% of the Conservative rabbis would support Arnie going to the simcha.”

Rabbi Susan Grossman, spiritual leader of Beth Shalom, in Columbia, Md., said, “[Queen] Esther certainly married someone who wasn’t Jewish, and that worked out all right. I hope this is the case for Chelsea’s husband. The Clintons have been great friends to Israel and to Jews in general.”

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.”

Laurie Stern contributed to this article.

Contact Allison Gaudet Yarrow at yarrow@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.