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Chelsea’s Smorgasbord

Chelsea’s Smorgasbord

I know. It’s been almost two weeks since Chelsea Clinton-Mezvinsky’s wedding. Why bring it up now?

Because people are still talking about it. My 14-year-old daughter’s mouth dropped open when I showed her the cover of People magazine which, possibly for the first time in its history, featured a man in a yarmulke. Details are leaking out now about the affair, and Jonathan Mark does an excellent job deconstructing the officiating rabbi, James Ponet, who is almost in a league by himself. Or is he? At a time when there are almost as many denominations within the denominations as there are Jews who care about denominations, how hard can it be to find a rabbi with no qualms about officiating at a mixed marriage on a Saturday alongside a Methodist minister?

It’s a bissele difficult, it seems. Julie Wiener reported last week that while the number of rabbis willing to preside at an interfaith wedding appears to be growing even the most liberal denominations, Reform and Reconstructionist, still draw the line at co-officiating and reject such practices by their member rabbis. But that taboo may fall, Julie says, post-Chelsea. Already, 40 percent of the 400 rabbis and cantors in a database compiled by an interfaith Web site are willing to co-officiate. Some are in defiance of their movements, others are independently ordained.

About a year ago I wrote about smorgasbord Judaism in response to a letter writer who complained about people who "pick and choose" their observance, something that, apart from the strictest haredim and chasidim, is done by the vast majority of Jews who observe any tradition at all. The Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding was a textbook smorgasboard affair, with a rabbi and, reportedly, kosher food; the groom wore a tallit and yarmulke and so, lax attitude toward Shabbat notwithstanding, there was clearly a desire by Mark Mezvinsky and his family to feel they were loyal to Judaism. It doesn’t take two wealthy families to find a rabbi’s blessing for that anymore. Just a large directory and some time to spend on the phone. We know there are at least 160 of them.

My point here is not to make judgments (I pick and choose quite a bit myself), but to observe that, other than strict Orthodox Judaism, where women will never be rabbis or divorce without a get and no word of any prayer will ever be updated or deleted, denominational life in America is doomed, because this is anything but a one-size fits all society. Probably more than any other organized faith on the planet Jews, particularly in America, have the luxury of being able to reject almost anything that was once central to that faith and still find an institutional way to feel embraced in their practice.

But for how long? Already Conservative congregations are being torn apart over egalitarian splits and many Reform congregations can’t hold their members. The day can’t be far off when non-Orthodox rabbinical schools will close their doors. In a society where everyone is their own rabbi, who will need them?

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