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Into the Jewish People

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

James Ponet
September 07, 2010
Genevieve de Manio via Getty Images
Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton at their wedding, July 31, 2010.Genevieve de Manio via Getty Images
Genevieve de Manio via Getty Images
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.