The best television comedy featuring interfaith families right now has to be “Grace and Frankie,” with the powerhouse quartet of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston. Netflix released the second season last week, and a lot of us have been bingeing. Sheen and Waterston play business partners who carried on a secret love affair for decades before coming out to their wives. Fonda and Tomlin play those wives–an odd couple (a country-club alcoholic and a pot-smoking hippie, respectively) who move in together as platonic roommates after their husbands leave them.
Religion plays a relatively minor role in the series, with occasional references to the Catholic/Christian background of Robert and Grace (Sheen and Fonda), and the fact that Sol and Frankie (Waterston and Tomlin) raised their adopted sons Jewish. But as the second season gets underway (spoiler alert), Grace and Frankie find themselves rushing around a hospital in a frantic attempt to find a clergy member who will officiate at a bedside marriage for Robert and Sol.
Somewhat naively, they try the Catholic chaplain first. Frankie asks, “There’s no leeway? Even with this new Pope?” Turned away, they next go down the hall and try the Jewish chaplain.
Grace: “Do you have any issue marrying two men?”
Rabbi: “No of course not. I am in complete support of gay marriage.”
But after Grace fails to provide the rabbi with a plausible Hebrew name for Robert, the conversation goes downhill.
Rabbi: “He’s not Jewish, is he.”
Grace: “Well what does it matter? I mean you said you’d marry two men, and they’re both men. Let’s go! Do this!”
Rabbi: “I’m so sorry, I don’t do interfaith marriages.”
Grace: “Are you fucking kidding me?! Why not? You’re supposed to be so lefty and progressive.”
The rabbi attempts to explain his position, but the women get up and storm out of the office. This scene plays as both hilarious and excruciating for the many interfaith couples who have been turned down by rabbis. While others, including me, have written about this before, it is still moving to watch a pop culture depiction of what feels like the irony, or the hypocrisy, of progressive rabbis who officiate at marriages for LGBTQ people but not at interfaith marriages. Do we accept that love transcends boundaries, or not? At least watching Grace’s brutally honest, supremely frustrated, and hilariously profane response provides some measure of catharsis.
I was wondering if Grace and Frankie would go on to open door number three on the hall of chaplains, and discover a Presbyterian or Unitarian-Universalist minister who would be perfectly glad to officiate at a marriage for a same-sex, interfaith couple. I hope viewers realize that door is open to them. And I hope they realize that there are some rabbis who would have said “yes” to this marriage. But the women end up taking a different route.
Several episodes later, Robert prepares a Shabbat dinner for his new husband, including roasting a chicken and learning a Hebrew blessing from the internet. (It is not made clear whether the couple even knows that a rabbi has turned them down). I have to wonder if, watching this tender love scene, the fictional rabbi would have had any regrets about turning this interfaith couple away. Or, would he be counting on Judaism to be so compelling that he can get away with turning couples away, and still bet that they will engage with these ancient rituals? You can play those odds, fictional rabbi. But they still involve loss, for the Jewish community, and for the couples who cannot get past rejection at a most vulnerable moment. Not everyone can be as resilient as a Netflix character.
Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.