Chelsea’s Wedding and the Third Mesorah

When the Clinton-Mezvinsky nuptials were announced, I played the role of Grinch, and opined that there was little cause for celebration. Nothing could change my mind. All of us certainly wish Chelsea Clinton all the happiness in the world. In any intermarriage, our bone of contention is with the Jewish participant, who becomes (at least in the case of Jewish males) the tragic terminal point of a Jewish lineage nurtured in by centuries of steadfastness and mesiras nefesh.

Mezvinsky, like so many others who intermarry, had to real possiblity to make the decision we would have preferred, so we can hardly assign blame there. Nothing but a rich and authentic Jewish upbringing can counter the attraction of romantic involvement, and Mezvinsky never had it. He proudly displayed his heritage – one insufficient to prevent him from doing what all Jews for millennia regarded as breaking with it – by wearing a talis in front of a watching world, and having a Reform rabbi co-officiate with Chelsea’s Methodist minister. That may be an accomplishment for him, but it can hardly be a source of comfort or pride to the rest of us. To the contrary, the melding of Judaism with Methodism should give neither Jews nor serious Methodists much to cheer about.

A different point of view appeared in a blog piece that was picked up by multiple outlets. An advocate of “Open Orthodoxy” claims that there is a silver lining to the cloud. The Clinton wedding, he argues, shows that Jews have fully arrived in America. For the grandson of a Jewish grocer to be accepted with open arms by one of America’s First Families shows that the gentlemanly antipathy to Jews common and accepted, especially with America’s upper class – has dissipated.
I received many pieces of mail about this blog piece. None were dispassionate, unlike the stream of mailings I get on any ordinary day. They were laden with emotion, running from indignation to contempt. They were not supportive of the piece. Why would this be? The rabbi neither endorsed intermarriage (he wouldn’t if his life depended on it!), nor pooh-poohed its halachic unacceptability. He simply pointed out a truth about this wedding. It said something powerful about the place of Jews in our wonderful medinah shel chesed.

Why am I not comforted?

Some would say that he missed the point. If intermarriage is the price we pay for acceptance, bring on the ghetto. Advocates of Open Orthodoxy might not concur, but lots of us would argue that the tragedy of intermarriage is not worth the temporal advantages of acceptance by our neighbors. (Or, as a variation on this theme too deliciously phrased to pass up, “If a black hat will keep you frum in America, you should wear two black hats, not just one.” That’s the way Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, quintessential Torah Umadda enthusiast and biographer par excellence of R. YD Soloveitchik zt”l put it a few days ago in the Jewish Press.)

I would say that we have still not gotten to the point.

For hundreds of years, some Jews reacted to the then-much-rarer incidence of intermarriage by sitting shiva. (No, it wasn’t always much rarer. Historians argue that before the Spanish expulsion, intermarriage rates mimicked what they are today.) We generally don’t do this today, but not because we are more enlightened, or because we are more open. We don’t because there is so much divorce today, that we still hope to reclaim the lost soul. Were it not for pragmatic reasons, the only legitimate response for an authentic Jew is to sit shiva.

Why? Because Jews have to think with more than their brains. R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, declared that there are three mesoros in Yiddishkeit. We are most familiar with the mesorah of activity, how a Jew must act. The rich and nuanced literature of halacha is our lodestar, and has never failed us.

The second mesorah is a bit more complex, and somewhat more difficult to access. We have a mesorah on how Jews must think. We access it by studying Chazal, by immersing ourselves in all parts of Torah – whether the strictly normative portions of Shas (which shape our thought processes, not just our actions as we delve into them), or the all-important guidance that comes to us from midrash, aggada, and sifrei mussar.

What’s left? Rav Soloveitchik said that the third mesorah is the hardest to properly locate and grasp. It is the mesorah of lev, of the heart, of how we emote. If we received a traditional chinuch, we saw many sources promoting the need for emotions not to run helter-skelter with a life of their own. The heart needs to be guided by the moach, by the intellect. (The most beautiful development of this theme to this author is the Meshech Chochmah on the pasuk of mishchu u-kechu lachem tzon.) We have a sense of the power of emotions to mislead us, and recognize the need to channel their power.

This is not, however, what I believe R. Soloveitchik meant. The sur me-ra, the keeping out of trouble, is not the hard part. Where we often fail is in understanding how and where HKBH wants us to apply the rich force of emotion to get us to a better place. If, as Shlomo wrote, there is a season for all emotions, when should we react with sadness, or even anger? What should (as opposed to what does) make us happy?

A Jew will gain some appreciation of this mesorah only if he or she has wrestled with the problem, and then been fortunate enough to spend time in the company of true Torah giants. The very fortunate will have had the opportunity to have lived directly in their shadow. Others will at least have gotten a sense of their greatness and their reactions by reading and valuing the biographies of Torah luminaries.

Whatever the mind tells us is true about the Clinton wedding, there is no question about how a Torah Jew should react to an intermarriage, even of the rich and famous and secular. The lev allows no room on this one. There is no room for happiness or consolation, for whatever the reason.

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24 Responses

  1. Joshua Hess says:

    R. adlerstein: I enjoyed your article, as usual. I just need some clarification on one item. In 2008 you wrote about the silver lining stemming from the Spinka scandal in Los Angeles. Why? Without getting into great detail, I think it’s hard to argue which one affects the lev of the Jewish community internally and externally more than the other. Perhaps we shouldn’t have looked for a silver lining then?

    [Dear Reb Josh,
    If people remember what I wrote two years after, and hold me accountable for it, I may have to stop writing! 🙂 In this case, though, I think I will survive. Had I written that there was a silver lining to the actual fraud, e.g. the Feds had not caught up with all the money, and a particular institution managed to build a new structure, the comparion would be appropriate. The silver lining I discovered two years ago was that there were far more people than I had thought who were willing to repudiate the behavior. I would have had no problem if someone had argued that a silver lining to this wedding is that a hundred young Jews who witnessed the event had vowed in revulsion that they would not intermarry under any circumstances!]

  2. Bob Miller says:

    While, as claimed, a negative emotional reaction would be appropriate here, so would a negative intellectual reaction. The mind that can attempt to rationalize so toxic an event and so toxic a mass surrender to the blandishments of assimilation is no longer thinking along Jewish lines.

    As for Open Orthodoxy, it fails to grasp what Judaism uniquely is and demands. Proponents won’t admit that because they are open to pleasant delusions.

  3. mb says:

    This is not the first Jew to marry into the Clinton family with fanfare. Hilary’s brother married Barbara Boxer’s daughter in a well publicized White House ceremony. I think they are now divorced.

  4. Neil Harris says:

    Very well stated, R Adlerstein.

  5. aron feldman says:

    Great piece,well said!

  6. mycroft says:

    I essentially agree with what Rabbi Adlerstein wrote-however one can’t underestimate the importance for Jews of politicians being friends with and relatives with Jews.
    Joe Biden has a Jewish daughter-in-law, Barack Obama had a Moslem father and grandfather. If one believes that family is not important in ones actions-compare our last 2 Presidents and how thet thought of Winston Churchill. GWB had a bust of Churchill in his office to remind him of how to react to tough times. BHO immediately gave it back to the United Kingdom when he was inaugarated. Family connection-BHO’s grandfather was imprisoned and beaten in a campaign against Kenyan nationals ordered by Winston Churchill. Israel is certainly better off with politicians who are in good terms with Jewish relatives than it is with politicians who have Islamic relatives-that is just reality.
    Pragmaticism should pervade how we treat the intermarried-one can’t forget thatthe Sreidei Eish believed that a father should attend his childs wedding to a non Jew in order not to push the child away completely. I am not saying that R Weinberg was correct but just to show how the whole area is not so obvious as it seems at first.

  7. Joshua Hess says:

    Understood. So if I told you that hundreds of Jews will now feel comfortable to proudly and happily show that they are Jewish, which could have a positive effect on other Jews, their children and friends, and perhaps bring people closer to yiddishkeit as a result, would you be able to call that “a silver lining?”. ( data notwithstanding) Whether you would or not, my guess is that the author of that blog post believes that it is. That being the case, I don’t think the two of you are very far off from each other.

    [YA – Let’s hope you are right! I would suspect that a more likely result will be that hundreds of Jews will now be more likely to use Jewish symbols and appurtenances at their intermarriages. In any event, the piece did have a life of its own – and it was quoted in the vein of “…at least one Orthodox rabbi didn’t think that the wedding was entirely bad…” That needs responding to – if not in the general press, then at least for our own talmidim and congregants.]

  8. Phil says:

    A beautifully written “Open Letter to Chelsea” has been written at

  9. rachel w says:

    When a Torah Jew says the Blessing of Shelo Asani Goi, he should feel grateful to have been created a member of the Chosen People-as compared to The Queen of England or the President of the US, not opposed to an alcoholic or drug addict sleeping on the city streets. Intermarriage with the dregs is no greater a tragedy than with the upper echelon of non-Jewish society.

  10. dr. bill says:

    While Jews do have as the Rav ztl noted an intellectual and emotional mesorah, it is our halakhic one that is clearly dominant. The other two often reflect important elements but ones that also deserve greater suspicion.

    I too am suspicious of any positive that might come from a groom attired in talit and yarmulkah as he marries outside the faith. That suspicion of what is at best a double-edged sword need not prevent one from acknowledging the small element of positive impact that may follow from the event. We might agree that we want neither the honey nor the sting. That is a judgment with which I concur. Nonetheless, acknowledging the honey, tainted as it might be, is nothing more than factual.

  11. L. Oberstein says:

    After thinking about it for a long time, I think that the Jewish aspects of the Clinton wedding are a way of showing pride in ones heritage. This is like being proud you are Polish or Ukrainian and dressing in their clothing and dancing their folk dances and eating ethnic foods at a festival. It is not necessarily a religious thing as much as an ethnic thing and one is proud of who he is but that does not mean he lives by the rules of that ethnic background . Thus putting Bill and Hilary on chairs and dancing the hora is not threatening in a religious sense. It is like an Ashkenazi eating chumus or a Sephardi eating ptcha.
    We frummies like to read religion into it but I think Mark Mezvinski is just acknowleging his heriage and the Clintons are happy to go along, I do not know if they ever discussed her converting or how they would raise the kids. They aren’t talkng about it and we really have no idea. I do not know if the Christian minister was there to please the parents and that in their minds, it is jsut being considerate of the parents’ sensitivities. As far as the rabbi who performed the ceremony, he isn’t talking, but this was not your typical Reform wedding. They don’t do all this ethnic stuff, have a calligraphied ketuva,sheva brochos,etc. This was obviously more in keeping with Mark’s Conservative upbringing. Who knows, maybe they will be spotted in shul on the Yomim Tovim. This is how American youth think in 2010, it is a different world and we can’t think in our terms if we want to understand them.

  12. Bob Miller says:

    To acknowledge and trash one’s heritage in the same event requires a total lack of logic, the triumph of feelings over anything else.

  13. michoel halberstam says:

    While your sentiments are clearly appropriate if the issue is whtether or not the Torah, or the Am Hatorah can ever acknowledge that there is a benefit to intermarriage, it really is not what this situation is about. We live in a world in which being Jewish for most Americans has lost its real meaning. They intermarry because there is, in their minds, no good reason not to. The fact that they take the time to acknowledge their Jewishness under these circumstances is nothing more than proof that either the pintele yid, or societal prejudice forces us all to remeber that we are Jerish. Let us be thankful for that, if only because in two more generations it will also not be there.

  14. Moe says:

    R’ Oberstein – you hit the nail on the head. I agree that nothing should be held against Mark and the other organizers of the wedding. That’s the society we live in. And in fact, as you said, we should appreciate the efforts Mark made to connect with his heritage. He chose to connect with Judaism and not some other ‘ism and that’s likely a significant step in the right direction. The only tragedy that Judaism has been diminished to the level of cultural rituals and the finger of blame for that is pointed at ourselves. We allowed Judaism to be diluted and failed to represent a Judaism that’s meaningful and real.

  15. rachel w says:

    Rabbi Oberstein-I really think you hit the nail on the head. How depressing.

  16. rachel w says:

    BTW, it’s the conclusion you reached that depresses me, not the fact that you hit the nail so precisely on the head :).

  17. Raymond says:

    I am not sure if I completely understand what Rabbi Adlerstein is saying here in this article, but let me say this about the situation. I have found that my reaction to Chelsea Clinton marrying a Jewish man, is similar to how I felt when our current Occupant in the White House chose the Jewish Elena Kagan to be our newest Supreme Court Justice. There was a part of me that felt proud that my fellow Jews are so highly regarded by the gentile world.

    But then upon further reflection, I questioned my need to feel accepted by the gentile world in the first place. Is such acceptance a sign that we have somehow arrived? Arrived where? I much prefer a much different way of thinking, namely the mindset that says that we Jews have been chosen by G-d to be a moral beacon to the world. We are the ones who are supposed to lead on all matters involving morally decent behavior, not begging and hoping for approval from the gentile world. With doing the right thing being the most important thing, I do think that it would have been better to have a strict constructionist gentile judge chosen over the radical leftist Elena Kagan to serve on our Supreme Court, and it would have been better for the Jewish man who married Chelsea Clinton, to have married a Jewish woman instead.

  18. Bob Miller says:

    If we get any sense of pride when a Jew “makes it” in golus society through views or actions antithetical to Torah, it just shows how much golus is in us.

  19. mb says:

    And the paradigm for all of this is in the Torah of course!
    It was Lot. He moved to a gentile city and “made ” it. The locals elevated him to be a judge! He had status. His children intermarried. He was accepted as one of “them”. Or so he thought.
    His sons’-in-law mock and laugh at him.The locals deride him when they want to get the guests he is harbouring and accuse him of being an arriviste, uppity “Jew”. And still he lingered!

  20. One Christian's perspective says:

    The paradigm in the Torah that touches my soul and heart is the story of Abram who grew up in Ur, a place were false gods were worshiped. It was God Himself who drew Abram to His side and told him to leave his country, his people and his father’s household and go to a place God Himself would show him. Later, in Genesis, Abram had his name changed to Abraham – the father of many nations. Abraham lived surrounded by gentiles but remained true to his faith in God in gentleness and in humility. Lot chose to leave Ur and Haran and go with his uncle; he could have stayed in Ur or Haran. Lot’s faith was weaker than Abraham’s faith, yet, God sent his angels to deliver Lot from the coming judgment. It is not who one lives next to but rather who one lives to glory. If it is anything other than God, then, it is an idol and a false god.

  21. Esther says:

    (No, it wasn’t always much rarer. Historians argue that before the Spanish expulsion, intermarriage rates mimicked what they are today.)

    Not in Ashkenazic lands. Please don’t paint all of Middle-Ages Jewery with a negative broad brush just because it’s PC.

  22. Tuvia says:

    I am a Jewish guy, who keeps more halachah now than in years past, and comes from a family that is entirely secular.

    I like keeping more halachah. I find the ineffable parts of Judaism — shabbos, kosher, tefillin and other parts to inherently feel Jewish and make sense to me. I think it is because they don’t require lengthy rabbinic explanation. Wrapping tefillin is wrapping tefillin — we all understand it is a fundamentally “irrational” act. More perfect, if you ask me, because of it.

    I do think that intermarriage is interesting, in that kiruv rabbis (I know a few, and have one in my extended family) will speak at length and continuously about it as a tragedy.

    What I am afraid of though are the basic arguments they bring for marrying Jewish: a “better” marriage, a less confusing situation for children, a way for Jewish continuity, Jewish pride, and also the argument that marrying “the Jewish way” (i.e. the shidduch system) will spare young singles pain and the chaos of a “no rules” modern approach to dating.

    I don’t think I am the only person who sees that these arguments are very weak.

    I know very solid mixed marriages, and have seen very rocky orthodox ones (particuarly I speak about b’al t’chuvah marriages, but I know that rocky marriages and unhappiness are roughly as much a part of the orthodox world as the non-orthodox world — at least as I see and hear about it).

    I see many children of mixed marriages who are not confused about religion: while they may be spiritual, many young people today are not seriously religiously observant, so it is not a serious issue for them.

    Jewish continuity and Jewish pride feel to many non-orthodox young people like some throw-back ethnic identity concern. Today, we see people of different races marrying very frequently (maybe more here in NYC), and dating quite a bit. We certainly see people of various faith backgrounds dating and marrying a lot.

    Finally, the argument that the chaos of the modern dating world leaves many hurt feelings and women feeling used, etc. This argument is actually pretty good — if you are addressing singles who are between the ages of 18 and say 26 or 27. But the argument winds up being also weak, because it does not take into account the other truth: that young folks are different at 18 than they are at 28. That a young man of 18 may have one set of desires, and the older man of 28 may be seriously looking for “Ms. Right.”

    Basically, it does not take into account the idea that all people grow up emotionally basically as they move through their twenties.

    I guess what I am saying is that, there may be some reason, from an orthodox view, that mixed marriages are a serious concern. But for those who are not real black-hat orthodox, intermarriage simply cannot rise to the level of serious concern. They have walked away from (what they consider) a radical lifestyle and (respectfully) out-dated views and they are not comfortable with what the orthodox believe, and to lesser a degree, practice. (I find most secular Jews have no problem with halachic acts — they have great doubts or troubles with the thinking and the ikkurim, the accuracy of masorah, things like that — but if I choose to keep kosher, that is totally my choice).

    What am I saying? I am saying that, because secular Jews are doubters about things like the ikkurim (they don’t accept it, as do they not accept the idea of a 6000 year old world, and Torah from Mount Sinai) kiruv rabbis trot out a number of pretty weak arguments for marrying Jewish.

    So I guess I hope that kiruv rabbis think about what the argument they really want to make is. Because the marriage of that guy to Chelsea Clinton is actually too normal, and too common to be using weak arguments to stop it. And if young Jews are not orthodox, they will need better reasons to not marry a good person from another religion. The real critics of this marriage sound empty and angry and irrational from the secular Jew’s point of view — so another kind of approach, but an authentic approach, must be employed.

    Finally: I enjoy my Judaism only through Orthodox rabbis. I genuinely come back to it and think about it. But I am surprised by the anger I hear in these comments, because — in the end, living in gulus, we are already a step away from Judaism, and a serious step closer to modern thinking. It is weird to me to hear American Orthodox Jews sniping at a secular Jew intermarrying. We live in the US — there is simply no other reason you need to understand what happened here. Anger seems hollow when there really is no surprise here with Chelsea marrying a Jew.


  23. mycroft says:

    “We generally don’t do this today, but not because we are more enlightened, or because we are more open. We don’t because there is so much divorce today, that we still hope to reclaim the lost soul. Were it not for pragmatic reasons, the only legitimate response for an authentic Jew is to sit shiva.”

    I agree-but pragmatic reasons should determine a lot more behavior. The mitzvah of milchemes mitzvah is only if one wins-its not the fight that determines what we should do but rather tradeoffs and effectiveness questions.
    BTW-sadly a lot of splits that have occurred in our machene have happened due to differences that are in essence largely tactical-but sadly with kol korehs etc become a debate that is not for heavens sake which exists decades later.

  24. Ori says:

    Tuvia: And if young Jews are not orthodox, they will need better reasons to not marry a good person from another religion. The real critics of this marriage sound empty and angry and irrational from the secular Jew’s point of view — so another kind of approach, but an authentic approach, must be employed.

    Ori: For a bit of background, I’m intermarried (anybody who believes in sitting Shiva for the intermarried, please imagine a suitably ghostly sound). I was an atheist when we got married, but I changed by mind since. My marriage is the greatest blessing in my life.

    Kiruv Rabbis have an extremely difficult job. They represent the Torah and Orthodoxy. But to do any good, they have to make sense to a secular audience whose attitudes are very divorced from the Torah. Think about Moses, telling people who spent their entire lives in Egypt worshiping idols that there is one G-d, that He is invisible, and that morality matters more to Him than worship. Moses didn’t have a very good track record either, despite stronger evidence than anybody alive today.

    One of the major differences today is the idea of inherited status vs. self determination. The Mishna, IIRC, has ten different inherited status group (from Mamzer to Cohen) with different marriage permissions for them. In the US in the early 21st century, this kind of inherited status, not dependent on the choices of the person whose status it is, is anathema. Kiruv Rabbis use weak arguments against intermarriage because they don’t have arguments that would appear strong to their audience. There is no authentically Jewish argument that would work on people, such as you and me, who aren’t authentically Jewish in outlook.

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