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Into the Jewish People

The rabbi who co-officiated at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding on his journey to accepting intermarriage

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Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton at their wedding, July 31, 2010. (Genevieve de Manio via Getty Images)

I recently co-officiated with a Methodist minister at what The New York Times described as “the most publicized interfaith wedding in recent American history,” and the Times went on to describe me as having “led a very public journey” on intermarriage. I’d like to talk about that journey, in the hope that it raises a series of questions and conjectures about the future and responsibilities of Jews and Judaism that we would all do well to consider this Rosh Hashanah.

When I arrived at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the flagship campus of the Reform movement’s seminary, in June 1968, cheeseburgers were still served in the dining room—a vivid expression of classical Reform Judaism’s disregard for kashrut and other Talmudic customs. Months before, a rabbinical student who had dared to stand up to lead services wearing a kippah and a tallit had been forced off the bimah by school authorities. His act served notice that a generation of emerging Reform leaders was fascinated by traditions that earlier leaders had categorically rejected.

At the time, Reform Judaism—a movement that in 19th-century Germany had characterized Judaism as exclusively a matter of faith and so had abandoned the notion of Jewish peoplehood and the authority of rabbinic law—was absorbing the implications of the Holocaust and the rebirth of a Jewish polity in Israel. The pride and wonderment of the Six Day War were palpable; within a few years, Hebrew Union would lead all Jewish seminaries in establishing a mandatory one-year program in Israel for its rabbinical students.

I remember the perplexity I felt the first time I heard fellow students discuss the notion that tradition might command us, that the religious norms of the past might become existentially alive to us. I did not know it at the time, but we were in effect entering a conversation that had been conducted 45 years earlier in Germany, between Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, concerning the nature of Jewish law and the renewal of Judaism. Buber had utterly rejected rabbinic law, or halachah, as having anything to do with God or revelation, and he claimed that the forms of traditional Judaism had ossified and served only to stifle authentic religious encounter. Rosenzweig, on the other hand, asserted that spontaneity and freedom were intrinsic to the experience of being commanded, that “Law [Gesetz, in German] must again become commandment [Gebot] which seeks to be transformed into deed at the very moment it is heard.”

I would soon learn that the Talmudic sages had taught 1,700 years prior that true freedom, cherut in Hebrew, could only be found in compliance with the Torah. But doctrine is one thing and experience another. The Reform Judaism that I was drawn to was God-centered and freedom-based. While the Hebrew Union curriculum included a fair amount of Jewish history—ancient Israel, medieval Diaspora, modern Europe, American Judaism, birth of Israel—my keenest interest was theology, an area that I found insufficiently addressed.

Perhaps that interest led me to Israel in 1969—this was before the Israel year was formally built into the Hebrew Union curriculum—to spend my second year of rabbinical training in Jerusalem. I left an America in which my generation lived in the shadow of the Vietnam War, immersed in the social, political, and cultural struggles that shook American democracy. In Jerusalem, I came to realize how fortunate I was to witness the rebirth of a people, a language, and a land-based culture. I came to understand in the depths of my soul what a privilege it is to live one’s life as a member of the Jewish people, to participate in the shaping of this ancient-new civilization. The possibility of the emergence of a “new Jew” became critical to my sense of our people as ever-evolving. And I glimpsed the possibility of the emergence of a new me when Elana Rockower, who had come to Israel on her own religious quest, agreed to become my wife. I have been blessed to share my journey with her ever since.

Because I had never planned to serve as a congregational rabbi but rather had been drawn to rabbinical school as a way to fill in some of the gaps in my Jewish education, I was thrilled when Elana and I were hired, during the last year of seminary, to teach in the pilot year of the Miami High School in Israel, the brainchild of the late Rabbi Morris Kipper. A pioneer in the field of Jewish immersion education in Israel, long before Birthright/Taglit, Kipper had understood the transformative educational potential of bringing young American Jews to Israel to study the history of their people. Under intense, camp-like conditions, we purveyed an exciting overview of 3,000 years of Jewish history, on and off the land, and augmented classroom time with regular trips to the field.

In that context, during a field trip, Elana and I first visited Kfar Chabad, the Chabad village in central Israel. We came to love the totality of experience Chabad offered, the sense that on Friday afternoon as the gates to the village closed, you left the 20th century behind and found yourself back a century or two inside a Polish or Ukrainian shtetl. Here I felt one could live a God-centered life. I began covering my head, and Elana and I took up thrice-daily prayer using the siddur T’hilat HaShem.

We were in the Old City of Jerusalem davening at the Chabad shul on Yom Kippur 1973 when we first heard the sirens that signaled the onset of the war. All of our students remained in Israel during the war, and together we spent much time picking vegetables and pruning roses on various collective farms, called moshavim, and visiting the wounded, some of whom we had just met on our campus at Beit Berl. The war changed everything for everybody. For Elana and me, it hastened our path to parenthood and deepened our attachment to Israel.

After a year at the Miami High School in Beit Berl, we moved to Jerusalem, planning to spend a year during which I wanted to study Talmud at a yeshiva. In 1974 we became parents, joined a community of young Anglo-American, modern Orthodox Jews, and met a visionary teacher who became our “rebbe,” Rabbi David Hartman. A recent immigrant from Montreal, a disciple of the leading light of modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Hartman deployed his charismatic intellect to reveal the vital wisdom of Jewish law and to demonstrate how the State of Israel was the testing ground where the true value of halachah would be determined.

We felt that we had finally come home. I studied with Hartman at Hebrew University, worked with him in establishing the Shalom Hartman Institute, taught at Pardes Institute and Young Judaea Year Program, and worked with American students in Reform and Conservative youth programs and Israeli high-school students. During that time I also went through boot camp and artillery training in the IDF, during a peaceful interbellum season. I loved it.

But when in 1981 I received a phone call from Rabbi Richard Israel, who had been my Hillel rabbi when I was an undergraduate at Yale, inviting me to consider becoming Jewish chaplain there, I leaped at the opportunity. Almost all of my teaching in Israel had involved American Jews. I remembered the decisive impact Rabbi Israel had exerted in my life, and I felt ready to offer that kind of energy to the next generation of American Jews. So, Elana and I began the process of wrenching ourselves away from a life that was precious to us. We believed we would return to Jerusalem after three years. It has now been almost 30.

When asked by Yale students and faculty in 1981 what kind of Jew I was, the best answer I could muster was that I was a Jew from Jerusalem, that I had begun my Jewish life in the Reform tradition but understood myself as trans-denominational, connected to all forms of Jewish religious expression and not an advocate of any particular one.

In the course of my study in Jerusalem inside the Shalom Hartman Institute, I had come to understand that halachah reflects not so much the truth of God as the pragmatics of attempting to live in the world connected to divine norms whose claim, by definition, eludes one’s ability fully to realize. This understanding has guided me as a practicing rabbi as I have been called upon to make practical decisions, especially in areas where there is no precedent. Like intermarriage.

For many years when couples of differing religions presented themselves to me at Yale, I told them that I would gladly help them design a wedding ceremony that gave expression to their different religious traditions, but I explained that I could not myself preside. Jewish law, I said, simply does not recognize the possibility of a Jew contracting a marriage with a non-Jew. And further, since the presence of a rabbi evokes the generations of Jews who came before us, one needs to ask whether the prior generations belong at this wedding.

About five years ago, however, I began to acknowledge that my legal scruple about officiating or co-officiating at such a wedding was not consistent with my willingness to discount many other traditional norms. The halachah’s non-recognition of a particular action had never restrained me from praying in an egalitarian minyan where a woman might serve as cantor, for example, or joining in a service at which instruments were played on Shabbat.

I also found myself rethinking the nature, function, and meaning of conversion. For a good number of years I had felt obliged to preface my work with a conversion candidate with a disclaimer. “You realize,” I would say, “that regardless of your effort and sincerity in this process, a large number of Jews will never recognize you as a Jew. You will not be able to get married or be buried in Israel, because the court that I convene does not have universal jurisdiction among Jews. If you choose to become an Orthodox Jew and work to that end with an Orthodox rabbi, you will come closer to achieving full recognition.” The vast majority of the people I worked with, however, were clear that they did not want to become Orthodox Jews. One young man said to me, “I want you to help me become a Jew like my fiancée and the majority of our friends: a secular, cultural Jew.” I found a way.

Conversion, I came to realize, is a highly personal decision that should be presented as an option, never as a precondition. I always explore the possibility of conversion with a couple of mixed religions, for it is one of the glories of Jewish law that it long ago codified the gesture of solidarity enacted spontaneously by biblical Ruth into the formula of giyyur, a mode not only of marrying into the Jewish people but also of marrying the Jewish people itself directly. But I have begun to meet serious young couples of differing backgrounds to whose wedding I would not hesitate to invite the ancestors even if the non-Jew declines the conversion option.

My problem with intermarriage, I now realize, is based on legitimate fears about the survival of our people, period. But what if our people is in fact evolving into new forms of identity and observance? What if we are indeed generating new models of Jewish commitment and engagement with the world? What if Rabbi Donniel Hartman is right when he observes in his book The Boundaries of Judaism that “when the intermarriage act is in fact only … an expression of one’s choice as to partner and not of one’s personal religious and collective identity, the classification of intolerability is not warranted” and that “modernity and the choices it has engendered have created complex realities which we must take into account in our boundary policies”?

I submit that it is time for Judaism to formulate a thoughtful, traditionally connected ceremony through which a Jew may enter into marriage with a non-Jew, a prescribed way or ways by which a rabbi may officiate or co-officiate at such a wedding. I believe we are the ever-evolving people and that there will always be among us those who are rigorously attached to ancient forms. I believe it is critical that there will also always be among us those who vigorously dream and search for new vessels into which to decant the sam chayyim, the living elixir of Torah. If we only look backward as we move into the future, we will surely stumble. We need scouts, envoys, chalutzim, pioneers to blaze new ways into the ancient-newness of Judaism.

Perhaps for example we might note that there may be stages of entrance into and levels of engagement with the Jewish people, which might find liturgical expression both in the wedding ceremony and at other lifecycle events going forward. After all, becoming a Jew, like becoming a person, takes a lifetime. And just as we want to be able to invite our ancestors to the weddings and brisses and bat mitvahs of the present generation, we want our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to feel drawn to the love and joy of being connected to the Jewish people. We want them to know that we have not forgotten that the Jewish people is “a covenant people, a light of nations.”

Rabbi James Ponet, the Jewish chaplain of Yale University and the director of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, officiated the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky together with Rev. William Shillady, a Methodist minister.

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Rabbi Ponet–This was very interesting and I agree with some of your points, however I am also wondering if the fact that your own children have intermarried has also influenced your thinking (Note, I’m asking this seriously, not to attack you). Shana Tova

joseph says:

I want to thank Rabbi Ponet for bringing back the cheeseburger and making it into a mitzvah. I used to feel guilty but now I know I can marry the two and enjoy them and know that I am doing a good deed. Why keep these two dishes apart because of the past. I don’t even have to convert the bacon by finding a creative way to make it parve. Now I embrace the complex realities that I like how it tastes and recognise that bounderies only work if we can define them anew every day. I want to wish you a and your readers a merry merry Rosh Hashanah and a happy Yom kippur.

Is Joseph’s post satire? If so, it’s brilliant.

Reform “Judaism” is not a Judaism. I cannot understand why the followers of that religion cannot figure out another name for it to avoid different kinds of confusions and misunderstandings, like questions regarding giyur and marriage? It is not a shame for a Jew to adhere to some other religion: there are Jews-Buddhists, there are Jews-communists, there are Jews for Jesus… The claim that Reform Judaism represents “progress” by adopting old customs to the new reality is nothing else but a lie. For if it would be true Reform Judaism would long ago abandon the use of Torah scrolls, which came into being because printing was not invented then. The main characteristic of Reform Judaism is convenience. Every time it has a dilemma regarding Jewish law it asks only one question: how convenient it is? Why the followers of “Reform Judaism” cannot call their religion – “The religion of convenience”? Does religion always need to be hypocritical?

Mr. Ponet wants to give an impression of being a deep and probing thinker… a firebrand who embraced Israel and plain Jews while disavowing the absurd and fatal policies of the bankrupt reform movement. Actually, he act of officiating at the Clinton wedding has mightily contributed to the premise that “I can do this and remain ‘in the fold’.”
All I need to do is find a clergyperson like Ponet to provide the fig leaf.

irwin kula says:

Credit to Rabbi Ponet for a serious explanation of his thinking…I especially appreciate his ability to integrate his personal evolution and his deep love for and knowledge of the Jewish people and Torah. His metaphor of “scouts” is particularly appropriate given than the sin of the spies is so central in the Yom Kippur liturgy – the sin of not having confidence in ourselves to compete against the “giants”. Rabbi Ponet has the confidence that Judaism – its wisdom and practices – can indeed compete in our unprecedented context of freedom and permeability of boundaries. Yes, definitions and understanding of “jewish peoplehood” will change but then who could have imagined less than two hundred years ago that nation state would be a central category of Jewishness. Kol Hakavod to Rabbi Ponet for offering the Jewish marriage ritual in its richness -from ketubah to sheva brachot to chuppah to breaking the glass – to actually get a job done: help make sacred/alive with meaning/oriented toward God/ the love two people committed to each other.
For this interested in a what this means in the American religious landscape check this out…http://tinyurl.com/23upa75

The ceremony was a ceremony.
One question that to which I must have missed the answer:
Did the couple make a commitment to have an exclusively Jewish home and raise their exclusively as Jews or (as the presence of the Methodist minister seems to infer) is their home going to be based on an approach to religion that is syncretistic and “cafeteria style”?

Because of the political views they share, Marc and Chelsea will probably raise their kids to be committed Democrats. Committed Jews…I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it.

Sorry–what I meant to write:
The ceremony was a ceremony. What about the marriage itself–Jewish?
One question that to which I must have missed the answer:
Did the couple make a commitment to have an exclusively Jewish home and raise their children exclusively as Jews or (as the presence of the Methodist minister seems to infer) is their home going to be based on an approach to religion that is syncretistic and “cafeteria style”?

Because of the political views they share, Marc and Chelsea will probably raise their kids to be committed Democrats. Committed Jews…I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it.

P. Junke says:

After reading “Rabbi” Ponet’s liberating piece, I have one question.

Since my Mother was Jewish…I guess that I am as well. I married a follower of Shinto who comes from a Quaker background.

Our son is a practicing Catholic…and his daughter, our granddaughter, was baptized in a Methodist Church.

Can our granddaughter be Bat Mitzvah on her 10th birthday? Please !!

Fartig says:

I sat in Jim Ponet’s minyan at Yale in 1989 and 1990 and he is by far the smartest, funniest and most inspiring rabbi I have met in my 52 years. We argued about many things, intermarriage being one, and the nature of observance another. He was right then, when he refused to perform intermarriages and he is right now. He maintained to me that what sustains Judaism is not blood, nor the hatred of the more traditional for the less traditional (a shande and a violation of ahavat Yisrael) but a living relationship to halacha..

As for the hateful comments above–you have one more thing to atone for. Loshon hara is a sin for anyone, no matter what his or her understanding of Judaism may be.

Shades of Grey says:

Fartig – why is Loshon Hara a sin anymore than eating prohibited foods? Especially if no one ever finds out? Our newspapers practically run on gossip and rumors, and without that we would lose half the news coverage, legitimate and not that is out there. Per Reform standards, the laws pertaining to Loshon Hara can be thrown out just as easily as the prohibition on intermarriage, observing the Shabbat, etc.

So why pick and choose? Either mitvot matter, or they don’t. Everything can be rationalized, as Reform has attempted to prove. You can’t tout one mitzvah while routing another. Be consistent.

1. Somehow, when reading about the Clinton ridiculous wedding I strongly felt that David Hartman’s teachings was behind it. The man is an Am Haaretz not worth consideration. Somehow no student of YU, no pupil of Rabbi Soloveitchik remembers him.
2. James Ponet starts with Rozensweig, that the tradition obliges, but it doesn’t take long for him to discard him, and prefer Hartman. Ponet’s choice of philosophy, of thinking is extremely poor, but as he himself says he just planned “to spend a year during which I wanted to study Talmud at a yeshiva”, but “leaped at the opportunity” on a mere phone call. He should have reversed matters, i.e. leap at opportunity to be in a Yeshiva, and slowly consider what is said in a phone call. Shana Tova!

Johnny Mardkhah says:

Kudos to Marc Mevzinsky for AT LEAST wearing a skullcap and tallit at his wedding, but couldn’t he wait for sunset, and therefore the end of Shabbat for the beginning of the ceremony? This way, it could have taken place after Shabbat but before Sunday, so not to go against Christians’ prohibition of weddings during their day of rest.

I found Rabbi Ponet’s piece very interesting, even if I can’t accept for myself. I am still left with one lingering question: Why perform the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding on Shabbat? I don’t think even reform Jews would sanction that. Would it have been so inconvenient for Chelsea & Co. to wait a day?

Fartig says:

Shades–red herring. I am talking about the self-righteous, not about myself. Ponet’s minyan attracted Jews from a number of traditions. All Jews, all at the minyan. So please, we are not talking about me. You know bubkis about me.

And, please, loshon hara is a sin against your fellow man. A cheeseburger is a sin against G-d. Certainly, even you can see the difference: the Law does. Which is supposed to come first during the Days of Awe.

Fartig says:

That last sentence should have had a question mark at the end.

And, to quote Rosenzweig, Chaim: “G-d created the world. Man created religion.”

Jim,
I’ve been pondering the issue you have described for quite a while. There is a possible way for me to feel comfortsble as a Rsabbi joinnig A Jew and non-Jew together and that is thrtough a ben/bat Noah ceremony. This could not entail a ben/bat noah who is committed tro another faith tradition. It would be allowing and advocating the ancient practice of “ger toshav” (yireh Hashem)- a “green card” member of the Jewish commuinty. citizenship would involve conversation and the covenanat of sinai.
The huppah would be a rainbow tallit- the ritual would be up front about the ben/bat Noah entering into a relationship of of support for raising Jewsih children and being part of the rubric of the Jewish holiday cycle and shabbat. There is no need for a non-Jew to be a Jew- to be a ben/bat noah is an ideal that I believe is the underlying aim of the coveneant of Sinai -to create the Jews as a mamlechet kohanim who will serve to bring the whole world to the elemental civilizational sheva mitzvot (akin the the Buddhist’s 8 fold path).
This will obviate the discomfort manny feel when a traditional jewish wedding ceremony is used in cases of intemarriage.
Moshe

That was a clear and honest essay.
You state a bold and original theology.
Best of luck to you and your new religion.
Please do not be indignant when Orthodox Jews recognize neither your conversions nor your marriages.

Convenience? What is an eruv, but a legal fiction created by Orthodox for convenience? It strikes me that what is convenient is to study in a yeshiva while secular Israelis die in the Army. What is convenient is to ignore some imperatives while criticizing those who ignore others as apostates. What is convenient is to criticize Reform and Conservative Jews, while gobbling up the community services their members provide. I’m no fan of intermarriage, but it is awfully convenient for those who live in a self-made ghetto to criticize the marriage choices made by people who live in the world. If Marc Mezvinsky cares enough to wear a tallas and yarmulke despite the barbs thrown by the zealots who post here, I give him credit for that. I don’t know whether the rabbi should have officiated or not, but I do know that the kind of hatred shown by the zealots will do nothing to encourage non-Jewish spouses to convert or give their children Jewish educations. There is nothing convenient about facing hard choices. What is convenient is to hide behind a wall and pretend they are not there.

Rodger Kamenetz says:

Jim Ponet: anyone who knows you, as I do, knows what a mensch you are. Anyone who doesn’t.. is really missing something. I don’t know about all the ins & outs of this & I don’t care really. I think that young couple who have both been exposed to so much pain.. was lucky to have you as a loving presence that day.

Right.
It was all about your philosophical journey.
And your desire to strengthen teh Jewish People.
And your desire to strengthen our commitment to halacha.

And the temptation to rub elbows with America’s elite played no part.
Nor did the vision of seeing your name in newspapers across the world.

Yes, it was more about your personal journey.

Right.

David S says:

To Rodger Kamenetz:

Fine, he’s a mentch.

And that automatically makes what he did Jewishly valid?
And that means that no one can question his judgment?

Rodger Kamenetz says:

@David S Yes he’s a mensch.

Rabbi Ponet tried very hard to justify this marriage. I’m not sure I’m convinced. I am a practicing Jew (will I ever get it right?) married to a practicing Catholic. Our children are Jews. I have made compromises but they are Jews, they know it, their father acknowledges it, my rabbi acknowledges it…but I had a civil wedding. I couldn’t even ask a rabbi to be present for the sanctification of…what? How can a rabbi be present when the words “consecrated unto me according to the law of Moses, etc.” I don’t see how the law of Moses, or Jewish law, could bind a nonmember, nonparticipant, nonbeliever. But we should certainly take Rabbi Ponet’s words to heart, particularly at this time of year, to avoid groundless hatred, to avoid lashon hara, to remember k’lal yisrael. I don’t know how to build the bridges myself, and I honor Rabbi Ponet for his attempts to do so. I myself would not daven in a shul in which I could not read Torah, which I do regularly. I do object to the Orthodox rejection of our theology but not our money. I do object to the Haredi refusal to serve in the IDF, yet their acceptance of its protection. I do object to my fellow Conservative Jews’ scoffing at the theology and practice of my erstwhile spiritual home, Reform Judaism. All Israel is responsible one for the other, right? Shanah tovah to all; may we all be inscribed for a good and sweet year.

Carlos says:

David–

are you aware that orthodox Jews are greatly OVERrepresented based on their percentage of the population in elite combat units and the officer corps of the Israeli military? It seems that you are unaware. You ought to visit Israel and find out.

I’m sure the couple is quite lovely, and the officiating clergy both menches. People of all religions can be of wonderful character, inspiring and intelligent. That does not necessarily make their beliefs “Judaism”. By the way: why “Into the Jewish People” and not “Exiting the Jewish People”? Is it not fairly obvious in which direction this is moving? There was not, admittedly, any sort of conversion into Judaism here.

David S says:

@Rodger Kamenetz

You’re saying that because someone’s “a mentsch,” it follows that his line of reasoning must necessarily be sound?

Is that what they teach at Yale?

I want to remind Jim who states that “Orthodox Jews recognize neither your conversions nor your marriages” that Rabbi Ponet cannot convert anybody to a Jew. He does not have such authority. As the matter of fact no human being has it. Jew is a person chosen by God. There is no Rabbi who can tell God who to choose. Giyur is a process which may (or may not) transform a gentile to a Jew. “Reform Judaism” degraded this process to a such extent that the possibility of becoming a Jew in Reform congregation became almost a zero.

David S says:

@Ellen

I’m sorry to hear that your sentiments about avoiding lashon hara and groundless hatred don’t extend to those who are Orthodox.

Oh, I forgot.
It’s not “groundless.”

They won’t you lead from the Torah and reject your theology.

I guess that makes it OK to hate them (even if they don’t hate you personally and are inordinately represented in Israeli combat units and prepared to die for you.)

Oh, i forgot.
It’s the “Charedim” you hate.
And you consider that OK.

Please know that I am charedi and do not hate you, nor do I know anyone else in my charedi circle of contacts who would hate you. In fact, we would help you just as we would any other Jew.

Yes, I’m sure that it’s disappointing for you that we do not accept your theology, nor your rabbis’ interpretations of jewish Law and practice.

However, please don’t consider that a justification for hating us.

Best Wishes

Rabbi Ponet’s article was very interesting for me. Being a Israeli Reform Jew, intermarriage is not a very relevant issue for my present-day life, but the discussion touched on very relevant and thought provoking issues.
Some of the Comments made me very sad: de-legitimising your fellow Jews, who deal with serious issues differently than you, will not lead any of you to a better resolved Jewish life.
We need to confront our comlicated questions, and each others attempts of answers, with much more respect & compassion. Sanna Tova to us all!

Steve Kane says:

My issue is less with the intermarriage and more with the fact it was on shabbat (there ought to be some standard here-easy enough to have found a non-shabbat time-even an hour later!) and co-officiating with a Methodist Minister. I am curious to know what the minister actually did. While I thought adding so many important Jewish rituals to the ceremony was improtant and impressive, combining Jewish and Christian ritual is quite problematic. Does anyone know the role of the minister?

Joseph: your post was genius.

To all of those that continually repeat the mantra about “de-legitimization”: no one is de-legitimizing their fellow Jews. They are being critical of a movement(s) that seems to pick and choose what it considers relevant and worth practicing as though Judaism is some sort of a menu in which ancient rituals and practices, are discarded based on pragmatism, convenience or emotion (I would love to know if the fact that one of the participants at this wedding happened to be the daughter of a man beloved by many in the more liberal “streams” of Judaism had anything to do with the decision to officiate?). A Jew is a Jew (if your mother was Jewish or you had a sincere conversion) and no one can take that away from you or question your “legitimacy.” But criticizing a movement is a different matter. That should be obvious.

I also get a kick out of the fact that some of the people who reject kashrut, Shabbos observance and the entire Talmud suddenly become “religious” when the opportunity to accuse someone else of lashon hara comes up. Unbelievable.

I find it amusing that all the pro comments were solely concerned with the tone of the anti comments, whereas all the anti comments were solely concerned with the content of the piece and Ponet’s character.

I have never met this Rabbi, so I cannot speak about what his motives where, I can only speak based on what he wrote about. The fact of the matter is, is that every sect of Judaism, that has some how, decided to part with all or part of the Torah, whether written or oral, has eventually died out and effectively vanished from the annals of history. The Sadducees, Essenes, Karaites, Shabbateans, etc. All have gone off the derech and all are now gone. I predict the same thing for both reform and conservative Judaism. Here is why: For the reform Jews, it won’t be their blatant disregard for Halacha that kills them off, since some are starting to come back to more traditional things like a kippah etc, it will be the intermarriage that does it, sanctioned by Rabbis like our author. For conservative Judaism, they see the blaring hypocrisy of their parents, and they either slide to the left and secularism/reform, of they find the spirituality that they were missing growing up in Orthodoxy (For full disclosure that is me.). At the end of the day, in my eyes, all Rabbi Ponet has done, is murdered future generations of Jews, that will not be, because the Torah says that since they are not born of a Jewish mother, they are not Jews.

Jonathan Silverman says:

Reform Judaism is the ideological heir to Shabbatai Tzvi’s heretics. Really it is, you can connect the dots on like a family tree.

I rather be a Godless ignoramus of a Jew, than a Reform Jew.

Jacob Emden says:

I think all of this discussion about theology is besides the point.

Any honest deeply held belief of any denomination would be preferable to this nonsense, which falls far short of Tablet’s usual high quality

Rabbi Ponet’s primary belief has always been in his own self-aggrandizement,and every moment he has spent at Yale was devoted to this goal

Hence it was inevitable that he would leap at this opportunity for unprecedented-for-him publicity, and engage in whatever mental gymnastics were necessary for him to justify this role at these nuptials that he so coveted

Of course, given what our politics have become and how blogs work, what could and should be creative dialogue is always being shoved into a polarized debate with orthodoxy that may invoke Buber and Rosenzweig but sometimes barely transcends (forgive me) Fiddler on the Roof.

So I offer to you all a burnt offering of my life in intermarriage, the major lesson I have learned in life, in the hope that it adds a little.

James Hillman, a Jungian psychologist I used to read when I was very young, has much more respect for halachah, commandment, symbol and ritual than any reformist moral philosophers, but he gave an answer I recognized as my watchword some years ago, in response to a question about the best hope for humanity. He said that hope lies in “mongrelization,” certainly a humble, self-critical, mongrel word, but an opportunity we have in this country and at this time that transcends the age-old debate between orthodoxy and assimilation.

Think for a moment of what your life could become if you were no longer afraid to listen to the best insights of those whose intermarriages offered them glimpses of new and perhaps even better ways of living that bear no relationships to the wasteland you imagine. They might even begin to talk with you, and learn from you as well. Or, of course, you could just cut them off, cut yourself off. L’Shanah Tovah.

To those who follow every commandment, and all the commentaries of your favorite rabbi, congrats. To the rest, enough with the accusation about picking and choosing. And, by the way, while you are looking through the rulebook, give some thought as to whether God cares more about taking a bus on Shabbat or about treating fellow Jews with respect. And don’t forget to check on the price you can get for the daughter of a farmer whose slaves plant different crops in the same field if the daughter wears garments made of different threads.

Rabbi David Hartman is not an “Am Haaretz” he is a great rabbi. You have to be careful throwing such terms around. From what I know of Rabbi Hartman’s writings he says nothing about accepting intermarriage.

David S. says:

JD101:
What matters about rabbi Hartman is not his writings, but that rabbi Ponet considers him his inspiration for leaping at the chance to do this intermarriage.

Now, why would that be?
Could Ponet, obviously a very smart man and a “mentsch” gotten it so wrong?

stanley schweiger says:

This will no doubt ‘annoy’ many, but, in my eyes, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “A Jew Is A Jew Is A Jew.” What you observe, how you observe, where you observe — is only YOUR personel business, no one else’s. Whether it’s marrying ultra-Chassidic,ultra-Reformed, Methodist, or ‘G-d forbid,’ a Roman Catholic–whomever you wish to share your home with is YOUR business! I commend Rabbit Ponet for his sincere & compassionate outlook. He and I might not be popular in some parts of Jerusalem, but ‘such is life!’

A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, only if your mother was/is Jewish or you went underwent an Orthodox conversion, otherwise you are not really a Jew. You are right, how and what you observe is your business, although if your wife isn’t Jewish, then your kids wouldn’t be Jewish, and isn’t that the real tragedy?

“THE EMPEROR’S NEW TALLIS”

…It was the social event of the year.

The mother-of-the-bride is a Secretary of State and former Senator. The father-of-the-bride is the former leader of the free world. They are probably the second-most powerful couple in America, possibly in the world. It’s about as close to American royalty as you can get (without being a Kennedy!)

There was, of course, a Chuppah. How do you have a Simcha without one? And a framed Ketubah. And a Yarmulke. And a Tallis. And a broken glass.
Oh, there was also a Jewish young man who wanted to get married.
Unfortunately, as far as Torah Law is concerned, he didn’t…
Read the rest of the article here:

http://torahtalk.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/re%e2%80%99eh-deuteronomy-1126-1617-%e2%80%9cthe-emperor%e2%80%99s-new-tallis%e2%80%9d/

I think this article is absolutely disgusting. This so-called “ancient Judaism” that the Rabbi talks about is relevant in today’s day and age more than ever, I do not agree that there needs to be a change in Judaism today in order to adapt to today’s age. An intermarriage is an intermarriage and it is and always will be a disgrace according to Jewish law. Period. No questions asked.

Sarah Beck, Yale '99 says:

Rabbi Ponet is my rebbe muvhak, the one from whom I learned the majority of my Torah. I am certain that if he had not been the first Jewish personality I met when I arrived in New Haven (fifteen years ago this month, Jim–I remember that afternoon like yesterday), I would not have made the rigorous Orthodox conversion that I did, and without the foundation he helped me build in those difficult times, I would likely not still be frum today. For those who say Mevinsky is lost to us, well, R’ Ponet gained me for the Jewish people, and for those who speak of thousands like Mevinsky, there are also thousands like me, both converts and baalei teshuvah, on our college campuses.

I am hardly his spokesman, but R’ Ponet does not belong to a denomination, so comments about what the Reform does, or what students of R’ David Hartman do, are not even so much as beside the point.

He writes: “conversion…is a highly personal decision that should be presented as an option, never as a precondition.” As a convert, I find half-hearted conversions far more troubling even than intermarriage. Intermarriage is extremely problematic, but it is an obvious, undisguised consequence of life in an open society. In a half-hearted conversion, one lies to both the in-laws and the heavenly court, and only the latter body can say whether children of such an immersion are any more Jewish than those of an intermarriage.

Without commenting on “a thoughtful, traditionally connected ceremony,” I remark that just as the halachic problems of lesbians are different from those facing gay men, so, too, the concerns of Jewish women marrying out are different from those of Jewish men marrying out.

[continued below]

Sarah Beck, Yale '99 says:

[continued from above]

In his essay, R’ Ponet does not directly invoke the ger toshav, the outsider who joins us by living in our midst, but he refers to “stages of entrance into and levels of engagement with the Jewish people,” and says that “becoming a Jew, like becoming a person, takes a lifetime.” The Jewish people today includes thousands of de facto gerei toshav, however we may feel about it. But I would also caution, from personal experience, that there are at least as many intermarried spouses who see themselves as autonomous agents in a free society, as more than sentimentally connected to their own faiths and families of origin, and who have no desire to place themselves, or their children, into any of our categories new or old, however wholeheartedly they may participate in Jewish life as a guest at the table. An honest approach to intermarriage must welcome gerei toshav without delusions that every non-Jewish spouse, or non-Jewish child of intermarriage, will become one.

Finally, for those who say, with law and tradition on their side, that every intermarriage is a tragedy, that all who intermarry should be cut off, that the only way to welcome non-Jews is sincere conversion–for those admirably committed and consistent people, I pray that none of their own children, grandchildren, siblings, or loved ones ever chooses a non-Jew as a life partner, because then they will have some very painful steps to take.

–Sarah Beck
Washington Heights, New York, NY

Sarah Beck, Yale '99 says:

One postscript only, because I’ve already spoken enough:

One might say that the so-called “ger toshav” is nothing but a stumbling block, a construct to make the intermarried feel better or give a kosher-style imprimatur to their unpardonable choices.

But not all of our would-be gerei toshav are intermarried. Look, for example, at the non-Jewish Russians (and others) in the Israeli army, who are fighting and dying to protect Israeli citizens, whether born Jewish or not, while many (if not most) American Zionists sit in safety and relative luxury in the West. If these brave men and women are not gerei toshav, I am hard-pressed to think of a better designation for them. It may not be a nice category, it may not be a living halachic category, but the notion of a ger toshav sure does fit the facts on the ground.

–SB

Sarah,
This is not satire nor tongue in cheek.

I think you are on the right track and it is happening already. The average convert to the non orthodox denominations is not converting to Judaism he is converting to Noachidism. He or she is becoming a Ger Toshav-a Noachide- a righteous gentile. They reject idolatry and embrace the ethical imperatives of the Torah also known as the seven laws of the Children of Noach. They heed the voice of the prophets regarding morality.

What is called by the non orthodox denominations “converting to Judaism” is closer to the Talmudic and rabbinic conception of the righteous gentile i.e. is the role for all humanity. They are embracing a world of ethical monotheism with veneer of Jewish customs. The Ger Toshav would also come up to the temple in Jerusalem he did not have to keep the incredibly detailed laws of Shabbat, kosher and (family) purity.

Most of the converts in the non orthodox world are not accepting of the binding obligation of family purity, kosher and Shabbat. Why should they? Most of the Rabbis who are converting them and the overwhelming majority of their peers are not keeping these anachronistic things! What percentage of female converts goes to mikva regularly? What percentage of male converts put on teffilin every day? What percentage keep Shabbat by not carrying, igniting a combustion engine or any other forms of prohibited behavior? What percentage of their rabbis keeps these things?

The role of the Jew to be the priests of the nations by serving God with the minutia of Jewish law in all areas of daily life from the kitchen to the bedroom and the boardroom is not for everyone.

We do righteous converts to Judaism such as yourself a disservice by pretending that all these people are converting to Judaism. We do the converts a disservice by fooling them into thinking they have converted to Judaism. These people are sincere and deserve to know the truth.

Rabbi Meir was able to reject the chaff and embrace the grain of his teacher Elisha ben Avuya/ Acher the Heretic. This was a merit for Acher. You do not do yourself nor Rabbi Ponet a justice by defending the indefensible. Intermarriage is not halachic. It may be humane, realistic and compassionate but it is not halachic. Halacha is called the word of God. Halacha has a common language that one can use that bridges theological differences. Rabbi Ponet did not use that language or those arguments. I do not believe He went straight for the emotions. That is not halacha that is the rejection of halacha. It would give Rabbi Ponet merit if you focused on the good he gave you and so many others and he should not be remembered like this.

oops..it should have been

Rabbi Meir was able to reject the chaff and embrace the grain of his teacher Elisha ben Avuya/ Acher the Heretic. This was a merit for Acher. You do not do yourself nor Rabbi Ponet a justice by defending the indefensible.
Intermarriage is not halachic. It may be humane, realistic and compassionate but it is not halachic. Halacha is called the word of God. Halacha has a common language that one can use that bridges theological differences. Rabbi Ponet did not use that language or those arguments. He went straight for the emotions. That is not halacha that is the rejection of halacha. It would give Rabbi Ponet merit if you focused on the good he gave you and so many others and he should not be remembered like this.

Sarah Beck, Yale '99 says:

If you read what I said carefully, I am not defending any of it. I am simply remarking that gerei toshav are a fact on the ground.

Jonathan Perlman says:

As a fellow Yalie and disciple of Jim Ponet, I marvel at how flamboyant and boundary pushing he has been in his career. Thanks Jim for broadening the perspective. The New York Times article did not do him justice. There needs to be a part two to the Tablet article however. There are questions that remain answered.

1. What exactly did Rabbi Ponet do at the wedding that made it a “thoughtful, traditionally connected ceremony?”

2. At what “stage of entry” was Chelsea brought into the Jewish people as Rabbi Ponet seems to suggest? Did she express a personal willingness to be a part of our people or was this only a desire to partner with one individual who is bound to our people?

3. How did the language of the sheva brachot or ketuba reflect the “not yet” quality of the couple’s decision to create a Jewish home? Where was the “ancient-newness” within the ceremony?

4. Egalitarianism and music on Shabbat has been addressed within the parameters of non-orthodox halacha. They were collective decisions that serious rabbis abide by within their personal practice. I am not aware of a Jewish movement that has collectively agreed on co-officiants at weddings or weddings held on Shabbat. Is Jewish practice for Rabbi Ponet independent of halacha? Is Judaism tailored for each individual? If so, does the Judaism of the future exist as a centrifugal force sent outward away from community?

5. I appreciate that it takes a lifetime to become a Jew and I subscribe to this process of conversion. If the wedding is one part of the process, how does the rabbi track the progress of potential convert.

6. Where is the theology of the officiant in the ceremony? If he uses traditional language, how does he act as a vessel of God in bringing blessings to a new hatan and kallah?

Fundamentalism is fundamentalism. It’s really a shame the the only option to be a Jew, based on so many of comments, is Orthodoxy. Judaism has been an evolving religion for thousands of years. There has never been one, homogeneous form of Judaism. It was invented by learned men when the temple fell in an attempt to save the Tribe. It’s evolved everywhere we have gone.

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

Somehow, the idea that Judaism is an evolving religion reminds me of those that say that of the Constitution.

Not an Orthodox Jew, somehow it seems to have evolved with the wants of the people who disliked the tenants of the original religion. So. they looked at the original restaurant and it became a cafeteria and put in what they chose which was acceptable and made it conservative.

Then, Jews were not happy and had different ideas that went against the conservative Jewish religion so they took out what they didn’t want and made it Reformed.

Now we have intermarriages and the children are brought up with both religions. Do they know which is the correct one or what religion they are?

As I said, I am not an Orthodox Jew but am confused what my real religion is sometimes. What next?

David S. says:

It’s interesting to note that while many of the commentators here have left serious, sincere, and substantive questions for rabbi Ponet, he has not responded to any of them.

I wonder why that would be.

Having grown up in an orthodox community, I’d say that it’s awfully silly to criticize Ponet and other Jews for choosing to embrace some laws and reject or interpret away others. Nearly every orthodox Jew I have known picks and chooses what laws and customs they want to uphold carefully and which ones they are willing to let slide or care a little less about. And of course they all know how to argue some things away… It has definitely been my experience that the younger you are the more uncompromising people seem to be about halacha. Most of the older people I’ve met in orthodox shuls are less and less interested in some rigorously orthodox life and are the most willing to let infractions slide. Sometimes if they are very old they observe customs that are not even halachic at all from the “old country.” Everyone in every religion makes their own code of conduct; I think few people really care about following obsessively every law and custom. Some people do this, others do that and it’s all personal preference and interest. Some are rigorous about Shabbat observance, others buy the most beautiful etrogim, others are very careful about praying each day. Rarely have I met someone who cares equally for all things or who fulfills the Rabbinic “ideal” of the Jew. Halacha is there for us, I don’t think we were made by G-d for halacha. Jews throughout history have followed this or that without rhyme or reason. Communities have gone all over the place in their observance. There never was some time, evern before reform and conservative movements, where the whole Jewish world was united in what it considered correct orthodox practice. And within that world of the past, the vast majority of Jews were not uniformly and unhypocritically observant. That’s just how religions work, and unrealistic and overly unified ideals of observance are both as ridiculous, untrue, and delusional as people who think the 50s were an ideal time of social and domestic harmony.

Checking the comments here, I see that r Ponet has still not offered any response to the many serious and sincere questions that were left for him.

Given that he is so smart, so articulate, and such a “mentsch,” why would he be so silent?

I’d appreciate knowing what his supporters have to say about this.

Matan Koch says:

I am impressed anew, 12 years after our first encounter, at the compassion and insight of one of few people I have unreservedly called my Rabbi. I don’t know if I am ready to revise my long held opinion on Rabbis for interfaith weddings, but, as usual, Jim has given me much to ponder

Jeanne Young says:

I am not a Jew, I found the article very interesting, but I found the comment by Joe on Sept. 17 as interesting if not more, than what I read about Rabbi Ponet. true, true, true, about all religions! we all pick and choose!

Jeanne Young says:

I am not a Jew, I found the article very interesting, but I found the comment by Joe on Sept. 17 as interesting if not more so, than what I read about Rabbi Ponet. true, true, true, about all religions! we all pick and choose!

Galit Benasher-Yona Y93 says:

There is a Hebrew saying “ish ish beemunato ichai” or each person shall live in their own faith. One mustnt perform or observe every deed in order to be. As long as the core is there. We all pick and choose, its evolutionary. I think that if we cannot acknowledge this, than we would be missing out on one of the most important aspects of the Jewish (and other) faith- inclusion.

Rivka Yehudit says:

There would be no need to mention Orthodox conversion had the wife in this case been Jewish. However, since she is not, an Orthodox conversion is the only way to guarantee that their children will be Jewish. A Reform or Conservative conversion would NOT make them Jewish. Like it or not!

This is a very good article, but I am of two minds about it.
From a religious point, several of Judaism’s proscriptive and prescriptive laws are devoid of religious meanings but their totality serves as boundary of our religious and social community. Trifling with them, as practiced by REFORM Judaism, will engender the departure by many of their followers and children into the surrounding communities.
One generation of REFORM JEWS followed by the next one of FORM JEWS, their children becoming FORMER JEWS. (See the ‘father of Reform Judaism’, Moses Mendelssohn; it took just one generation)
We were once a significant minority in the Western world, about ten percent of the Roman empire and twenty percent in Imperial Rome. Our much diminished numbers now, are much less due to persecution in the following centuries rather than to a steady dribbling away. And that occurred at times when observance of halacha was still the sole criterion of Judaism. Now this pillar has become vague and flexible under Reform Judaism and is bound to accelerate with frequent intermarriages, especially without conversion.
We should encourage Orthodox Judaism, in spite of reservations regarding its rigidity and intolerance by many of its adherents; additionally, its spiritual strength enhances life, two benefits in one bowl.
Otherwise only a small orthodox Jewish community will be left in the West in the not too far future.

Nicole Scherzinger has explained that she’s delighted that she succeeded Cheryl Cole regarding the X-Factor USA. She feels she is simply ‘better served’ as a judge more than as a host.

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Into the Jewish People

The rabbi who co-officiated at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding on his journey to accepting intermarriage

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