Why Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding Matters & the Celebrity Double-Standard

I’m hesitant to write about Chelsea Clinton’s upcoming wedding to Marc Mezvinsky, who was raised in Conservative Judaism, because I want to respect the private lives of the bride and groom. However, when the bride is the daughter of the 40th President of the United States, I suppose she is classified as a celebrity and her wedding is fair game as a topic for discussion.

This marriage will spark conversation in the Jewish world about two main issues: How intermarriage affects the Jewish community; and, whether there is a double-standard in the Jewish community when it comes to the intermarrying ways of celebrities.

David Gibson, in his article in Politics Daily, brings to light the key points surrounding this wedding. The question of whether Chelsea Clinton will convert to Judaism is something that Jews wonder (from Jews who are vehemently against intermarriage and those who are accepting of it). This high-profile wedding will bring many of the implications of intermarriage to a more public forum, forcing the conversation about, among other things:

  1. whether a rabbi should officiate at an interfaith wedding;
  2. whether intermarriage really erodes Jewish continuity;
  3. whether a non-Jewish mother can raise Jewish children;
  4. whether conversion for the sake of marriage is genuine enough to count; and,
  5. whether there’s a double-standard in the Jewish community when a high profile person marries outside of the faith.

Gibson quotes my colleague, Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe, who claims it’s his dream that Chelsea Clinton will convert to Judaism. Gibson also read the ongoing conversation at the InterfaithFamily.com website about Chelsea’s upcoming wedding.

In a lively discussion at the InterfaithFamily.com website, one commenter said that even if Chelsea does not convert, a rabbi should take part in the wedding “if the couple agrees to raise the children Jewish.” Another, however, cautioned that “this cannot be a Jewish wedding — a Jewish wedding is one where both people are Jewish, either by birth or by choice.” And yet another commenter gave what is perhaps a more characteristic answer: “I believe that Chelsea and her fiancé should do whatever will make them happiest.”

In real life, of course, questions about the role of religion often animate wedding planning, given that so many young people feel freed from old prohibitions against marrying outside the faith, if indeed they adhere to the religion of their parents or any religion at all.

Last month I was quoted in a Detroit Free Press article about interfaith marriage (“Do Interfaith Marriages Threaten Jewish Identity?”) and then took part as a panelist in a Free Press online chat on the subject.

After taking part in the online chat with Edmund Case, the CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, and an intermarried couple, I can only conclude that this is a very challenging issue because people’s lives, and children, and feelings of love and affection are in conflict with thousands of years of tribal law. It’s really about clubs and who can join and who can’t and who decides the rules.

Regarding the Gibson article in Politics Daily, my teacher Rabbi Irwin Kula comments, “This is great article for studying just about every pathology in American Jewish life… an entire article on intermarriage and Jewish weddings all about its threat and not one sentence on the possible meaning of the ritual that might actually create meaning and value. It’s chuppah/Jewish wedding as tribal marker and intermarriage as either threat to the tribe or grudging opportunity to increase numbers. Why should Chelsea convert? To make sure we don’t lose her kids to our tribe so worried about our size!”

Some interesting questions surrounding the Chelsea Clinton wedding should make this even more interesting:

  • The wedding will take place on Shabbat (July 31, 2010), so how will this affect whether observant Jewish (shomer Shabbat) guests will attend. Even if they stay within walking distance of the Astor mansion, according to Jewish law weddings are not to take place on the Jewish Sabbath.
  • If Chelsea does convert before the wedding, will her conversion be disputed publicly by the Orthodox who will claim that a Conservative (or Reform) conversion isn’t “kosher.” And, many will question her commitment to Judaism — didn’t she do this only for the sake of marriage and how much preparation and deliberation did she put into this?
  • If Chelsea doesn’t convert, how many of the Bill and Hillary’s Orthodox friends will attend the wedding anyway? Will their attendance at an interfaith wedding (and on Shabbat to boot) signify an endorsement? And what about Conservative rabbis who are technically not supposed to attend interfaith weddings? Will some make an exception for such notable nuptials?
  • Finally, might this high-profile interfaith wedding turn the tides and lead to greater acceptance and sensitivity toward interfaith marriage? After all, as Gibson writes, “The main body of Conservative Judaism [CJLS] voted to allow interfaith families to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, and in March, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America hosted a two-day workshop “sensitizing” students to “issues of intermarriage and changing demographics.” There is even talk of allowing Conservative rabbis to attend the interfaith weddings of friends — and this just four years after the movement adopted an official policy emphasizing the importance of converting a non-Jewish spouse.

Chelsea Clinton’s wedding is sure to grab headlines because of the main actors and the supporting cast, but in the Jewish world this wedding might just be an interfaith “game changer” in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller