Saturday, January 31, 2015

What Does a Ketubah Mean to a Catholic?

Not a ketubah, alas.
The New York Times has an article about a lesbian couple in Boston who are surprised that they were turned down by a rabbi when they sought to marry. The couple, Julia Spiegelman and Erina Donnelly seem to be the last people to find out that many rabbis won’t perform interfaith ceremonies.

For those of you who are late to this party, the Reconstructionist movement was the first to call for equal treatment and the full integration of gay people into synagogue life. That mean, even if without a marriage license, celebrating same-sex unions. They were followed in this by the Reform movement and finally the Conservative movement. So, about 90 percent of American Jews belong to movements that permit same-sex weddings.

Likewise, 90 percent of American Jews belong to movements that view homosexuality as morally neutral. If you’re a conservative writer like Rod Dreher, you’re going to have problem wrapping your head around the idea that for most Jews in the United States, gay sex in the context of a committed relationship isn’t a sin but a simcha (blessing). That’s my pull quote:
Gay sex is a simcha.
And that’s going to include same-sex couples in interfaith relationships.

But it isn’t as the New York Times implies solely a matter of concern about interfaith relationships. After all, the article quotes Spiegelman saying that
We’d understood that she perceived our relationship as legitimate and would see our marriage as legitimate. And it really hurt us to be rejected for that reason.
But it isn’t a question of seeing an interfaith marriage as illegitimate. Their synagogue is unaffiliated, but let’s take the Reconstructionist movement as an example. In a Reconstructionist synagogue, non-Jewish spouses are also included in the full life of the synagogue, and that is supposed to include such things as the ability to run for the board and continued membership in the synagogue after the death of the Jewish spouse. So synagogues certainly make accommodation with and treat interfaith couples with respect. Then there’s that ketubah.

A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract; it marries the couple under Jewish law. The traditional text lays out the couple’s obligations to each other. Even the most Orthodox of ketubot is not going to mention God; it’s a contract between the two members of the couple as members of the Jewish community. And that brings me back to the question of what does a ketubah mean to a Catholic?

Before I get to that, the New York Times article raises the question of “what does Communion mean to a Jew?” Spieglman takes Communion when she attends Mass at Dignity/Boston, which makes me think that their lack of understanding isn’t confined to Judaism. It’s been a long time since I was a practicing Catholic, but I do remember that you have to be one to take Communion. Also, Spiegelman and Donnelly keep kosher for Passover (by which I take to mean they don’t eat leavened bread).
“I mentioned something about not being able to take Communion because it is leavened, and they consecrated matzo for us,” Ms. Spiegelman said. “They had two little pieces in the pillbox so it didn’t touch any of the wheat, any of the leaven.”
First, western-rite Catholics (i.e.: not the Orthodox, but the standard Roman Catholics easily found in Massachusetts) use unleavened bread as Communion wafers. If you punched out circles of blank newspaper, no one could tell the difference. Second, what is a Jewish woman doing taking Communion? Is she claiming to be part of the community of Christian believers? Oy! Communion wafers may not be chometz, but they’re still not appropriate snacks for Jews at Passover or any other time of the year. (Technically, they probably are chometz, since though they are unleavened, they are not made under appropriate supervision.)

One frequent question in the Reconstruction movement is “what does this mean to you?” My rabbi has joked that if fasting just makes you cranky and unable to focus on what you need to do to be a better person in year ahead, “go out and get a ham sandwich!” If keeping kosher makes you feel attached to Jewish people, be kosher, but it it just makes you think, “why can’t I have bacon?” then go and have bacon. (I’ve seen it said by non-Jews on various sites that Jews view eating pork as a sin for Jews, but not for non-Jews. It’s an inaccurate term: it’s a ritual violation, not a sin.)

Should religion be filled with practices that mean nothing to the people doing them? That, unfortunately, is what’s going on with Ms. Donnelley. A ketubah doesn’t mean anything to her; it’s just a pretty document to hang on the way (says the man with the really pretty ketubah hanging on a wall). That’s why the unnamed rabbi won’t officiate at the ceremony.

Honestly, I could suggest a Humanist Jewish practitioner (not a rabbi) who would give them a legal ceremony with Jewish elements but not a religious ceremony. I think that’s deep down what they’re looking for.
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  1. Man religion is weird. Amiko, uf la religio estas stranga. Ofte mi ne komprenas tute.

  2. Wow! Thank you so much, man I've never met, for publicly declaring that you know more about my life, theology, and relationship, than I do, or than my partner does, based on a few paragraphs of newspaper article. Your assumptions about my religious practice and community are as clumsy as they are wrong. Especially offensive is your assumption that our ketubah would mean nothing to my wife, and would be a "pretty document to hang on the way" (by which I am assuming you meant "wall"). It is clear that you are looking to pass judgment, not to understand. Perhaps next time you decide to post online about someone else's life, marriage, or religious beliefs, you could do a little research. You might find out, for example, that Dignity Boston uses leavened bread for communion, and explicitly invites members of all religious traditions to partake in the Eucharist. Since the subject seems to interest you, you could have contacted us to ask questions or come to better understand our perspective on our religious practice. It is an uncommon one, but it is well thought-out, justified, cohesive, and loving, and like any set of beliefs or any family, will continue to grow and gain perspective as our marriage does. Above all, it is ours to decide, and it is not yours to judge.

    1. I did nothing of the sort. I do, however, have some knowledge of both Catholicism and Judaism (raised Catholic, converted to Judaism).

      In a Catholic context, what is a ketubah, but a pretty document? How might a Roman Catholic priest describe a ketubah in the context of Catholicism?

      I was most certainly not looking to pass judgment, though perhaps I have (and you seem to have passed judgement on me). I was merely making my comments on this now months-old article in the New York Times (you did get some media attention in January, 2015; it's taken you seven months to get to my blog).

      In the end, it was your rabbi's right to decline to perform an interfaith marriage ceremony. The thought of contacting you never crossed my mind, because honestly it could only come off as "hey, I'm some asshole blogger with intrusive questions about your life." I'm not a journalist, and I've largely stopped making comment on current news items in my blog.

      Finally, when you took your story to the news, instead of simply looking for a rabbi who would perform an interfaith ceremony, yes, you invited public comment and even judgement. If my rabbi had refused to perform a marriage ceremony (and on what grounds would he refuse a marriage between two Jews?), we wouldn't have been contacting the media.

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