Rosh Hashanah Sermon I
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
At least two daughters of former presidents have married Jewish men -- Chelsea Clinton and Caroline Kennedy. The contrast between the two weddings which took place 24 years apart, helps to illustrate some important changes in American life.
Two summers ago, like many others in the American Jewish community, I wondered what Chelsea Clinton’s wedding to Marc Mezvinsky would look like. Since access was tightly controlled, the only photographs of the wedding which were ultimately released are those the couple or their parents wanted seen. And what they chose to reveal was quite interesting. Here are Marc and Chelsea walking arm-in-arm up the aisle. She is in her Vera Wang strapless gown; he is in his Burberry tuxedo, over which is wrapped a white silk tallis with gold stripes. She of course is wearing a veil; he is wearing a black velvet kippah.
And here is another picture, the bride and groom facing each other under the chuppah, their ketubah framed and mounted on a stand for all the world to see.
Chelsea’s wedding could not have been more different than Caroline Kennedy’s 1986 wedding to Edwin Schlossberg. Although he did not convert, Kennedy and Schlossberg were married in a church, with a Roman Catholic priest conducting the Catholic ceremony. No kippah, no tallit, no ketubah, no rabbi. The price of marrying into the Kennedy family was not necessarily becoming Catholic, but it was clear that Catholicism was to be the religion of the household and that any children would be raised in the Church.
By contrast, Clinton and Mezvinsky were married in an interfaith ceremony that had a lot of Jewish symbolism. A rabbi and a United Methodist minister officiated. There were the tallit and the yarmulke and the ketubah I already mentioned. Friends and relatives read the sheva berachot, the seven blessings which are part of the Jewish wedding ceremony; and the ceremony ended with the groom smashing a glass under his foot and those in attendance shouting “mazal tov.”
None of this was really surprising. When Chelsea and Marc were dating but not yet engaged, they had attended High Holiday services together at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Moreover, the Clinton family is known to have positive feelings for Jews and Judaism. During his presidency, they had attended High Holiday services on Martha’s Vineyard. President Clinton had many Jews in his administration, and many of them were quite serious about their Judaism: Daniel Kurtzer, Jack Lew, Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller, Rahm Emanuel. It was Bill Clinton who gave the main eulogy at the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; Clinton’s phrase after Rabin’s murder, “Shalom, Chaver,” became a popular bumper sticker in Israel and the name of both a memorial book and a memorial CD. It was clear that the Clintons have no problem with Jews or Judaism, and while Chelsea has not converted, nor has the couple made any statements about how they plan to raise any children they might have -- nor would I expect them to -- it would not surprise anyone to see Zaidy Bill and Bubby Hillary participate in a grandchild’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah fifteen or so years down the road.
The Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding marks a shift in the acceptance of Jews and Judaism as part of American society. Particularly because the visual images coming out of the wedding were so controlled, it is safe to assume that the message we received is the message the couple and their parents wanted to send. Marc Mezvinsky in kippah and tallit, standing under the chuppah near his ketubah, is sending us a message. Yes, I am marrying this Protestant woman, but I am still very much a Jew. My Jewish identity matters to me and on my wedding day I choose to emphasize that this is who I am. And the Clintons are sending a message as well, a message of acceptance and embrace of Marc’s Jewishness and, if the wedding sets a tone for the couple’s life together, a strong measure of Jewish identity in the home and, presumably, in the lives and identities of any future grandchildren.
What I personally found surprising about the Clinton - Mezvinsky wedding was the identity of the rabbi who participated, and the fact that he chose to do so also says something about the nature of Jewish identity today.
Rabbi James Ponet is the Hillel rabbi at Yale University, and he has held that position since 1981. I don’t know him well, but I do know him, since for eight years in the late 80’s to mid-90’s I was also a Hillel rabbi and I would see him every year at our staff conference and other professional meetings.
In the world of Hillel denominational affiliation doesn’t matter very much, and at the two different schools where I was the Hillel director -- the University of Virginia and American University -- I often had graduate or law students who had done their undergraduate work at Yale. When they would discuss their time at Yale Hillel, very few knew that Rabbi Ponet was at least on paper a Reform rabbi. Most would describe him as Conservative, some as Orthodox, because his observance was pretty traditional. In fact, after his ordination from the Reform rabbinical school in 1973, he spent eight years in Israel, where he studied and taught in liberal Orthodox settings like the Pardes yeshiva and the Shalom Hartman Institute, and helped to found one of the more liberal Orthodox synagogues in Jerusalem. After eight years in Israel as part of Jerusalem’s liberal Orthodox community, he came back to the US in 1981 to take the Hillel position at Yale, where he had been an undergraduate.
As you know, Conservative rabbis are forbidden by our professional association to officiate at a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. It is not my purpose today to either defend or criticize that policy, which I am obligated to follow and which is not likely to be changed any time soon. But as a rule rabbis whose constituents regularly assume them to be either Orthodox or Conservative do not co-officiate at intermarriages, with a Christian minister, on Shabbat. So you can imagine why as pleased as I was by all the Jewish symbolism in the Clinton - Mezvinsky wedding, I was surprised that Rabbi Ponet was the rabbi involved. Although unlike many of his students I knew that he was officially affiliated with the Reform movement, I also knew him to be a very traditionally observant Jew.
What I did not know until a couple of days later, when the New York Times ran a profile of Rabbi Ponet, was that over the last seven years or so he has been, as the newspaper put it, on a spiritual journey. “The yarmulke disappeared; he could be heard joking about eating shellfish again, as he had in his youth. Did he get less observant? “In the public eye,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that in the private eye. I still consider Shabbat” — the Sabbath — “the pivot of my life.” While he once counseled against intermarriage, for the last five years or so he has, on occasion, officiated at them.
As we will see, in changing at least the outward manifestations of his Jewish observance, Rabbi Ponet is hardly unique. All of us are on spiritual journeys and there is no guarantee that a year from now, any one of us will be precisely at the same point as we are today. We may believe differently, we may behave differently. Some of the mitzvot we now observe may lose their luster; other mitzvot which today seem devoid of meaning or simply impractical may suddenly seem full of potential to enhance our lives and deepen our relationship to God.
As many of you know, two years ago I was awarded a fellowship by CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, to be one of 20 rabbis -- chosen from over 80 who applied -- to participate in their “Rabbis Without Borders” program. The goal of the program, according to CLAL, is to “nurture and develop a network of rabbis with a shared vision to make Jewish wisdom available to anyone looking to enrich his or her life. We provide rabbis and rabbinical students with cutting edge methodologies for addressing the challenges people face today.”
At our first meeting in October 2010 we studied with Barry Kosmin, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford and one of the leading experts in the sociology of American religion. One of the items we studied with him was a Pew Forum report he co-authored called “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the US.”
There are trends going on in American religious life which we need to understand if we are going to make sense of the world in which we live. We need to understand them while we, as a congregation, ponder our future direction. Those of us who are parents or grandparents need to understand them as we watch our children and grandchildren make decisions about their own lives, decisions we may not necessarily approve of or even understand but decisions we will have to learn to accommodate nonetheless.
The key finding of the Pew Report is that 44% of all Americans do not currently follow the religion in which they are raised. Of the 56% who do follow the religion in which they were raised, 16% had at one time left it for a different one but then returned. That 16% of the 56% makes up a total of 9% of the overall population -- which means that 53% of all Americans have at one time or another left their original religion. Many Americans have switched religions more than once.
It’s not just a question of people leaving one religion for another, however. The quickest growing category in the American religious landscape is unaffiliated or “none.” While only 7% of American adults say they were raised without any particular religious affiliation, 16% of the American population is currently unaffiliated. They are now the third largest religious grouping in America after Catholics and Baptists. Many of these “nones” say they believe in God and many observe various religious practices and ceremonies. They just do so without formally joining a church, synagogue or mosque. You probably have friends or relatives who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and they may fall into this category as well.
Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL, himself a Conservative rabbi, wrote an interesting article in the Huffington Post about the Clinton - Mezvinsky wedding and what it says about the changing American religious landscape.
“Welcome to the new world of religion in America,” writes Rabbi Kula. “Chelsea's parents were an interdenominational marriage of a social justice Methodist and a Baptist, which would have been unheard of 50 years ago. Chelsea grew up proudly within mainstream Protestantism, while Marc was raised clearly identified in a mainstream Jewish denomination. Their marriage is the next generational step in crossing borders -- from Methodist-Baptist to Christian-Jew. What is unprecedented -- wonderful for some and horrifying to others -- is that in this era no one needs to reject his or her identity to cross these century-old boundaries. Multiple identities -- in the example of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, at least three different traditions being brought to bear -- is the new reality.”
Rabbi Kula continues: “ we Americans are increasingly becoming what I call "mixers, blenders, benders and switchers" (MBBS). We customize our religious identities -- less in terms of some group-belonging need, creedal purity, or theological consistency, and more in order to get a job done -- and in doing so, we find greater meaning and purpose. Identity, including our religious identity, is becoming fluid, permeable, and an ongoing construction -- a verb rather than a noun.”
“Millions of us are moving from the cathedral to the bazaar. Of course, you cannot have people mixing religious ideas and practices in a divine smorgasbord of choice, creating families with diverse inheritances, and, because of new powerful technologies from search engines to connection technologies, getting their religious and spiritual resources independent of religious authorities and expect existing religious institutions to be unaffected. The existing business models and organizational structures of mainstream religion are, as in many fields of meaning-making today (journalism, film, and music), increasingly unsustainable. Fewer and fewer Americans are getting religion in the cathedrals. They are getting what they need to get their spiritual/meaning-making job done in the bazaar, which has a very different model of authority and hierarchy, has very limited barriers of entry and far more choices, and which tends to be a user-friendly and open source environment.”
Notice that while Irwin Kula is a rabbi and works for a Jewish think tank, he is talking here not about “Judaism” but about “American religion.” We are not insulated from the trends which are occurring in the rest of American society. The difficulties that synagogues are having have less to do with the nature of the American Jewish community and more to do with the nature of religious belonging in American society. As an aside, if you think it is only synagogues which are in trouble you don’t know very much about mainline Protestantism. In 1990, out of 248 million Americans, 33 million were mainline Protestants. In 2008, out of 308 million Americans, 29 million were mainline Protestants -- an absolute loss of 4 million members even as the US population increased by almost 25 percent, and a decline in the percentage of the population from 13% to 9.5 percent. There are currently no Protestants on the US Supreme Court and no White Protestants on either presidential ticket.
The reality of “mixers, blenders, benders and switchers” has been with us for some time but we have yet to figure out a way to adjust to this new reality. Rabbi Kula writes “This is unnerving stuff, and predictably, we have some religious communities becoming more conformist, exclusive, and intolerant.” In other worlds, when the outside world threatens, one natural response is to circle the wagons. The other natural response, writes Rabbi Kula, is to become “more diverse, inclusive, and syncretistic.”
This is not an easy reality to adjust to for those of us who identify with Conservative Judaism. On the one hand, we belong to a movement that has historically said that our decision making process must be in accordance with Jewish law. We have said that kiddushin, Jewish marriage, is between a Jewish man and a Jewish woman. We have said that a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother or who has undergone a proper conversion which includes a trip to the mikveh, and ritual circumcision in the case of a man. Indeed, for Conservative rabbis all of these are not merely norms but what are known as Standards of Rabbinic Practice -- meaning that by failing to adhere to them we could lose our standing as Conservative rabbis, with all that entails.
On the other hand, we Conservative Jews are in fact religious liberals. We don’t live in isolation from the rest of American society. We live in multireligious neighborhoods and we send our kids to multiethnic schools. And we understand that in living in these neighborhoods and attending these schools, we are going to meet and fall in love with people who are compatible with us in every way but one -- religion. And so we figure out how best to deal with that reality. I find it interesting that until some time in the 1950s a Jew who was married to a non-Jew could not, according to United Synagogue policy, be a member of a Conservative congregation. And then the United Synagogue said you could be a member but not a board member; then a board member but not an officer; and today the official policy is that a Jew married to a non-Jew can be an officer but not the president -- a policy which my prior pulpit in Norwich, CT ignored on more than one occasion with no repercussions. The United Synagogue was still happy to accept their dues.
I should add that it is not only we Conservative Jews who are still struggling to adapt to the new American religious realities. Our Reform cousins are generally perceived to be “friendlier” to mixed couples and their children. For example, they will accept the child of one Jewish parent as a Jew, regardless of whether that parent is the mother or the father, provided that the child is raised with an exclusive Jewish identity. But therein lies the rub -- exclusive Jewish identity. Reform Judaism is no friendlier than we are to the idea that a child can be both a Jew and a Christian at the same time, that a baby can have both a baptism and a bris or a synagogue naming ceremony. Neither they nor we are willing to accommodate a family that wants on some weeks to send their child to the synagogue religious school and some weeks to Sunday school at a church. The Reform message, like ours, is, you can be a Jewish child with a Christian parent, you can be a Christian child with a Jewish parent, but you can’t be a Christian and a Jew at the same time.
Many parents in Reform and Conservative congregations accept this reality; we have many Jewish young men and women who have a non-Jewish parent who is fully supportive of their child’s development as a Jew. But Rabbi Kula’s idea that we are moving from the “cathedral” to the “bazaar” may mean that increasingly, parents will want to take aspects from whatever identity they find meaningful without necessarily buying into the whole package. We can accommodate their desires or not, but we don’t own a copyright on the name Judaism and ultimately, people will do what works for them, or in Rabbi Kula’s phrase, “gets the job done.”
My talk this morning has been more descriptive than prescriptive. I can assure you that a few years ago I would have decried many of the phenomena I have described this morning, because at heart I am basically comfortable with the Jewish tradition as we’ve inherited it. But at a certain point in my life I came to a realization: people are going to do what they are going to do and it doesn’t really matter very much whether I approve or not. The role of the rabbi is no longer, if it ever was, telling people what to do. It is to share his or her wisdom and knowledge with people, Jewish and Gentile, both or neither, in hopes that some of it will make sense and enrich the lives of those with whom he or she comes in contact. As Rabbi Kula writes: “indeed, there are no road maps, -- so we are making it up as we go along. But the more people love each other, and the more people with different inheritances and traditions form intimate relationships and families, the better we will understand each other across all boundaries, and the wiser we will be at knowing what from our rich traditions we need to let go of and transcend, and what we need to bring along with us to help us create better lives and build a better world.”
To the extent that our traditions and institutions help people create better lives and a better world, they will continue to be viable. And that, after all, is the task to which we are called as humans and as Jews, and to which we are called to rededicate ourselves on Rosh Hashanah. Hayom Harat Olam -- this day the world is created. It’s a confusing and sometimes crazy-making world -- but I wouldn’t trade it for any other.