Sunday, July 26, 2009

The laws of Moses and Israel

In Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian, he tells a fictional story that reflects his own journey in examining the faith he'd always known and realizing that what he'd always believed was actually blocking him from feeling the presence of God. It is a difficult journey and at one point, he is walking along a river with his friend and mentor who acts as a Socratic guide, asking leading questions and being a solid comfort to the grief the main character feels as he watches the life he knew slip away as he confronted things that used to be "needs" for being a good Christian as simply cultural requirements. While walking, the internal pressure he feels to discard his old life feels so unbearable that he picks up a giant tree branch and starts swinging it as he shouts out a catharsis.

Jacob and I have been getting pressure from a couple of different sources that we shouldn't be having a religious ceremony or that we should call our ketubah something else since ours it not really a Jewish wedding and its not really a Jewish document. These are serious requests from people we love and I will not belittle them with an angry rant. Actually, the time for that has mostly passed for me. Early in the engagement, I was much more sensitive, especially at the idea that we might have to look really hard to even find a rabbi that would be willing to perform the ceremony. I cried quite a bit because being rejected by an entire faith community brought up all sorts of other rejections that I had tucked down deep, like my own feelings of rejection from Christianity when friends and extended family alike told me that I wasn't really Christian if I believed that God lets everyone spent eternity with her, or if I believed that God was bigger than than gender, or if I believed that Bible was not a set of rules to be strictly adhered to.

The first rabbi that we talked to - who was a close acquaintance - said that he would consider officiating but that he wouldn't use the language of the traditional ring ceremony: "Behold you are consecrated unto me, with this ring, according to the Law of Moses and Israel." Again, the argument was that since it wasn't really a Jewish marriage, the traditional words shouldn't be used. Anita Diamant writes, "If one of the parties is not bound 'by the laws of Moses and Israel,' the contract is not binding; it is void."

Wow. That really hurts. Our wedding is not binding? It is void?

For a woman whose first husband believed that their marriage vows weren't binding even though it was a "Christian" marriage, I was really hoping for more this time.

I wrote in my journal at the time in protest over all of the Jewish people who do not follow the laws of Moses and Israel. They don't keep kosher. They don't go to services. They honor money and television before God. Some don't even believe in God. Yet they still get to be considered Jewish and their marriage commitment is binding and not void. I pointed out to anyone who would listen that I keep a kosher home. I go to Jewish services. I follow God as best as I can.

These are the same protests that I made to my friends and extended family when they told me that I couldn't be part of their Christian club. But as I searched, I found Christians who believed that I belonged.

Their definitions of who was really Christian were generous because they believed that humans are inherently broken and so shouldn't try to second-guess God. They believed that as humankind grows and changes, so does humanity's understanding of God, so each generation will practice their faith differently than the generation before. The important thing is to be in community, struggling together to figure out God's will, as Walt Whitman says, "re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem." This means using traditions that may have been discarded and discarding traditions that others say are necessary.

Which brings me back to Brian McLaren. I never had that moment of birthing pangs to discover that everything I had believed needed to be re-thought. I had a moment of relief when I found folks who thought the same way that I always had and who were willing to push me to think more. I've had a similar experience with Judaism.

We found another rabbi who had no problem with our interfaith plans and who invited us into their faith community that had a large population of interfaith families. We also found the Reconstructionist congregation nearby where we starting participating that explicitly states that the Judaism their children practice will be different than the Judaism that they practice. We have found online support groups and resources like Interfaith Family and the Dovetail Institute. I can make this journey to acceptance again.

However, Jacob's walking style is a little different. He is more like Brian McLaren. Although he has long had niggling doubts about aspects of his faith and began the journey long before he met me, it is much harder for him to overturn what he has always believed in favor of a new truth that is trying to push its way out of him. I love him for the work that he is doing so that we can have a life together. If he married a Jewish woman, this new truth would still push its way out of him; it might just have a little longer to do it. Marrying me speeds the whole process up and - like inducing labor with Pitocin - it becomes much more intense and painful.

So, what do I say to the people who are telling us to have a civil service? Us, who say the shabbat blessings every Friday night, who keep kosher, who go to services on Saturday and church on Sunday, a civil service? To one or two, I explain that although the group that they identify with believes in a very narrow definition of Judaism, there are other groups that widen the definition. Once you acknowledge a continuum of belief, it's not hard to fathom that Jacob and I belong on that continuum somewhere as a Jewish family, even if our children go to church camp some summers. Thus we are, in fact, really Jewish and our wedding should reflect our spirituality. For other people that I am not as close to, I let Jacob do the talking. His journey is harder than mine and it would be disrespectful if I tried to speak on his behalf. It would be saying that I don't trust him to make the right arguments, which is not true. Jacob is working hard to suss out his identity as a Jewish man. This earns him the right to speak for himself.

And I love to hear him talk.


Jessica Young said...

It just makes me want to spit fire to think that you have loved ones in your midst who think it's approprite to talk to you like this, to try and dictate the spiritual observation of your love and commitment, just to help them cope with what they're more comfortable with. It seems to me that a wedding is an intensly private thing that our friends and family are blessed to be welcomed into. You and yours are creating a covenant with each other, ordained by your Maker, not by anyone else. You include others as witnesses and fellow celebrants, not as a legislative body. To have someone try and change that so they feel better, and to cloak that poison in the flimsy guise of advise is deeply wrong.
You write a lot about how this wedding is about making your friends and guests as comfortable and joyful as possible, but I hope you can remember that all of us are there to celebrate the two of you and what you are promsing with each other. Your feet are so firmly rooted to the ground, you won't turn into a shrew, so let it be okay that as much as you want to think about your guests and loved ones, that your wedding is about you and your intended. It's not really about anybody else. We're honored to be included, but it's not about us being happy or cozy, or feeling that our needs are being met. I support you and yours in this, and I know you have others who do. I'm sorry that others are trying to burden you two with their hangups, and I hope you can wag your cute little tail and shake all that shit off.

Anonymous said...

I have felt everything you wrote in this post. I moved away from Judaism when I was younger due to the hollow way in which I was educated about it and experienced it. Slowly, I have moved back to it, in my own way, in my own terms, and the mister and I are extremely proud of how we are working through Judaism's place in our family. It kills me, like it kills you, that people like us are at the fringes of the community, cast aside on technicalities while the community privileges folks for what they were born into and not what they do. A high school friend is getting married a couple of weeks after us and I have watched her plan this wedding that is so embraced by the community because she is marrying a Jew, despite their complete lack of practise.

We love the rabbi who is marrying us, but yes, even there are some limitations as to what can be said/done in an "interfaith" wedding. We are second class citizens, for sure. In many ways I think he is more progressive than this and keeps these small rules as a means of appeasing a very conservative community, but it still smarts. We have heard the "finishing Hitler's job" line too many times during our engagement. Whenever I say the words "Jewish wedding" around my parents I get a snort or a underhanded comment. It is a strange way to plan a wedding.

We are trying to turn away from the anger to more productive goals of creating a community that is more inclusive ourselves. Reading about parallel experiences like yours gives me hope that there are enough of us out there. And yeah, it is wonderful to think that the Judaism of our children will be different than ours.

Daniel Sroka said...

Your ketubah is a real ketubah. Your wedding is a real wedding. Anyone who claims otherwise is simply demonstrating the shallowness of their own beliefs.

Don't worry about what people say you should do. Do what you want - and let them come to grips with it themselves.

PrincessMax said...

Jess, I have said again and again that one of the key functions of friendship is to allow others to protect you when you cannot protect yourself because you are trying to remain open to reconciliation. Thank you for fulfilling this role.

A., I really like the idea of people like you and me being part of a movement to make this community more inclusive, which will make it a community that reflects God better, in my mind.

Daniel, thank you for your words. I meant to say this before, but we would be all sorts of giddy if you would use some of our phrasing on the ketubot of others.

wt said...

Just stumbled onto your blog while planning our interfaith wedding for November.

There must be a book or something out there debunking Diamant and these other ridiculous and arbitrary rules.

Why can't a non-Jew marry a Jew according to the laws of Israel and Moses? Just asserting it doesn't make it so. Also, how could a non-Jew ever convert to Judaism if they are banned from taking up commitments like these.

Ultimately, you need to continue doing what you're doing. If someone doesn't approve of your combined-faith marriage, it causes them to suffer, not you two.

I think a little more outspoken outrage on our part is justified. If someone says that interfaith marriage is like finishing the Holocaust, the appropriate response is to say that all contact is being cut off until a sincere apology is made. Zero tolerance for these people.