Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column
My fiancée and I are both Jewish, but not at all religious. We are planning to get married this coming summer. We planned the wedding for a Saturday afternoon at a nice catering venue. And we want to have a Jewish wedding with a chuppah and with a rabbi to officiate at the wedding. Much to our surprise, we found out now that rabbis will not conduct the ceremony because Jewish weddings cannot take place on Shabbat. We don’t understand this. We don’t want to change the time and date. What should we do?
Engaged in Englewood
I understand your consternation. For secular Jews and their non-Jewish friends, Saturday is a convenient and perhaps an ideal day for a wedding. But you found out that Jewish custom and law does not permit a Sabbath wedding. This holds true for nearly all the varieties of Jewish observance, from Orthodox through Reform. I’m going to guess that the history of the ritual is not of much concern for you.
You might have imagined that a wedding is a religious ritual and the Sabbath is a religious day, so why should there be a problem? Indeed! But that is not the case.
You may argue that weddings are symbolic moments in a rite of passage for a new bride and groom. You may even suggest that some of the symbolism in the marriage ritual is beautifully suited to be carried out on the Sabbath. The bride and groom are imagined to be like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. And no matter where the wedding takes place, we imagine the sounds of a wedding celebration and its song are taking place in the streets of Jerusalem and are like foretastes of the joy of the messianic age of the redemption of the world. And the chuppah canopy has been likened to a cosmic symbol of the heavens.
So why not have a wedding on Shabbat? Primarily this is because Jewish law and custom treat a wedding as a contractual transaction between husband and wife. The ketubbah is a marriage contract that has to be executed and signed and given over by the husband to the wife, all actions that cannot be allowed on Shabbat.
So I am sorry, but I have no ready solution to your problem. I assume you don’t want to change the time of your party. Of course, you could hold a smaller Jewish ceremony in a rabbi’s study during the previous week and then have your larger public wedding feast on Saturday. But I’ll bet you don’t want even to hear about any such workaround.
Since I suppose that your event will be in New Jersey, you may be able to find a liberal unaffiliated rabbi who will conduct a Jewish wedding on Shabbat. But I cannot advise you to do that.
Perhaps you can step back and consider that your wedding is a single event, not an ongoing lifestyle choice. As such, I do encourage you to honor the age-old Jewish customs, to be flexible, and to reconsider the day of the week you selected for your wedding.
I went to see a critically acclaimed musical comedy on Broadway called “The Book of Mormon.” I did not know before going that the play was so sacrilegious! It was way over the border of blasphemy toward Mormonism in particular, and toward all religions in general. The show mocks the teachings of the Mormon church and ridicules its ecclesiastical history and scriptures. It derides the church’s founders, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. It makes fun of Jesus and the Mormon angel named Moroni.
Using language that is vulgar, crude, and offensive, the play rips into all religious mythology and ritual and portrays them as absurd inventions derived by foolish leaders out of desperation, and presented to desperate consumers. To do all of this and get away with it, the play uses the cheerful entertainment style of the Broadway musical to relentlessly deride God, and all teachers and preachers of religion.
Please explain to me how such a play can be tolerated at all in our society, let alone lauded as a smash hit, running for years on Broadway and delighting sold-out audiences.
Aghast in Alpine
At their core, our American ideals promote the freedom of expression, without any boundaries. In its social essences American society is secular, mainly a-religious, but in some ways anti-religious. Some say that our powerful value, promising the freedom of religion, is in effect a means of affording us the freedom from religion.
Many social critics extol all of our freedoms as great strengths in the fibers of our culture. They see religions as restrictive of creativity and divisive to our communal lives. They say that American life is strong, vibrant, and healthy precisely because religion is tangential to our guiding values. The best and the brightest minds in the world come to our shores exactly because we do not allow religion to stifle or imprison our thoughts or actions.
You clearly do not share that view of the benefit of limiting the roles of religions in society. And you are horrified at the antagonism that a Broadway play directs at Mormonism, which to you is an obvious metaphor for all religions.
Surely, if you suppose that religion is a means to prescribe an ethical and moral life, to lend meaning to our existence and a way to worship a divine entity who created our universe, then you ought to be insulted by that comedic musical take down of religion and of God.
Now, on the other hand, you would be equally correct to be horrified that violence can be committed in the name of God and religion. Reading the news about such violence in recent morning papers, even the simplest unreflective person will conclude there are more facets to religion than just positive preaching and teaching of a wholly moral life.
Your reaction to “The Book of Mormon” makes me stop to think about how we were all “aghast” at the Islamic religious terrorists who killed secular cartoonists. The terrorists targeted their victims, whom they accused of heresy, saying they insulted their religion. And we were further horrified during these recent events by the wanton Islamic terrorist killings of Jews and by other acts of barbarity against non-Muslims.
And it’s troubling that all religions at one time or another sustain terrorism and preach and practice that violence be directed to the enemy, who often is labeled by religious leaders as a “heretic” or “infidel.” It’s disturbing that all religions in some way are guilty of inciting heresy hunters and of fostering barbaric acts of violence against those whom they deem heretics.
It seems so wrong to me that evil is committed in the name of God against people whose only sin is to hold unapproved opinions about this or that. Yet in the world at large, nearly all religions have held or now hold the idea that heresy is a crime that must be countered by violence.
It’s further disconcerting that there’s enough evidence to conclude that war and violence are not accidental byproducts of religion. They appear to be essential activities that derive from the core of a faith community. And yes, perpetrators of religious violence justify their aims and means in the name of a great and mighty and jealous God.
Evolutionary social biologists have explanations for this. They say that religion’s aspects of preaching violence against heresy is a social strength or a form of fitness that evolved over time into an innate trait of the group dynamic. It promotes solidarity in conflict and battle and hence it bolsters the survival of the group.
A vibrant secular democracy, like ours in the United States, however, will foster patriotism and social solidarity without seeking out religious reasons to wreak violence on dissenters.
The play you saw, the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” is a perfect example of how a free and open society will tolerate dissent and criticism of religion at no cost to its essential societal strength.
It’s urgent that you think this over and even try to embrace the notion that criticism of religions is healthy. And finally, you do realize that the play you saw presented many of the positive aspects of Mormonism in particular and of religion in general?
And so, to conclude I offer you this simple unexpected suggestion. Go back and see the play again. And this time seek out and enjoy the constructive elements in the production. Have yourself a gleeful evening and a bunch of hearty laughs. It’s an uproariously rude and satirical show about the positive and negative functions and dynamics of religions on many levels.
And if you do go back, then afterward you can be confident that you can go home and continue to practice your piety and believe as you wish. That’s how we live in our great, free and democratic land, in America.
Rabbi Tzvee Zahavy earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author many books, including these Kindle Edition books available at Amazon.com: “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.