Chelsea’s Interfaith Wedding: Recognition and Transcendence

An interfaith wedding took place yesterday, co-officiated by a Rabbi and a Minister: not a novel or remarkable event in my world, or for readers of this blog. But because, in this particular case, Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky, a lot of new voices suddenly joined our ongoing discussion on interfaith families.

As someone who thinks about and writes about little else, tracking the sudden proliferation of writing on interfaith marriage has moved me to sorrow, worry, gratitude and delight.

I feel sadness, because the comment sections on many posts have been filled with ignorance, tribalism and general small-mindedness from folks purporting to represent several different religions (and no religion). I am all too aware that I am raising my interfaith children in a progressive bubble, in a sophisticated urban center, and my heart goes out to interfaith families who have frequent and corrosive contact with such intolerance and bile.

I feel protective concern for the wonderful Rabbi James Ponet and Methodist Reverend William Shillady, who co-officiated at Marc and Chelsea’s wedding. Rabbi Ponet, the Jewish chaplain at Yale University since 1981, now faces the wrath and disdain of Orthodox and Conservative Jews, who do not allow Rabbis to officiate at intermarriages (or allow marriage to start before sundown on the Sabbath, as this one did). He has also placed himself in the center of the continuing struggle in his own Reform Jewish movement over how far to go in welcoming interfaith couples. Some Reform rabbis refuse to officiate at interfaith weddings, some officiate but would not co-officiate with a Minister, some officiate only with the (unenforceable) condition that children be raised Jewish.

Those who draw these lines and struggle to maintain them await Rabbi Ponet’s words on how and why he decided to marry Marc and Chelsea. The rabbi is brilliant and thoughtful, as one would expect a rabbi at Yale to be. In an essay on the meaning of Hannukah, he wrote of “the capacity to sustain intimate relations with another without totally ceding your own sense of self, the ability to love without permanently merging.” Reading these words, one senses the how and the why of his decision.

I feel thankful for the spiritual and intellectual freedom afforded to clergy who work as university chaplains, rather than for congregations or denominational institutions. In a university setting, our priests and imams and rabbis and ministers can engage in deep and sustained interfaith collaboration, teaching and counseling together, modeling respect, sheltered to some degree from church and synagogue politics. Not coincidentally, both the minister who co-officiated at my own interfaith marriage (the Reverend Rick Spalding), and my beloved current rabbi (Rabbi Harold White), both of them pioneers in the interfaith field, work for universities.

Finally, the flurry of interfaith blogposts this week brought one thrilling moment: the deep satisfaction of feeling completely understood, known, seen. Rabbi Irwin Kula, a prominent author, posted a groundbreaking essay on Huffington Post that I hope will permanently shift the official discourse on interfaith families. Rabbi Kula concludes, “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.”

Rabbi Kula is co-President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His co-President (and partner on a radio show) is Brad Hirschfeld, an Orthodox Rabbi.  Rabbi Hirschfeld recently published his own mind-blowing essay, in which he refuted the idea that exposing children to more than one faith will confuse them. Clearly, these two visionaries have been talking about all of the available pathways for interfaith families, and how to support those of us who have been supporting ourselves for a long time, outside of institutions and denominations.

For many years, I have been frustrated with “interfaith dialogue,” as spiritual leaders embraced each other at conferences and then urged everyone to retreat to their separate corners after the embrace, sidestepping the growing reality of interfaith families. Now, after the somewhat random occurrence of a celebrity wedding, as more and more clergy speak out about our reality, interfaith families have a chance to feel less invisible, more recognized. Recognized, not as a dilemma, a problem, an issue. Recognized as constructive, inspiring, even transcendent.

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