Sunday, January 29, 2023

Forged a Wonderful Partnership

Saturday afternoon (1/28), I officiated Amanda and Carl’s wedding ceremony at the Barr Mansion in Austin, Texas. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

Amanda describes how she and Carl first met: “Carl and I met through a social kickball league. When I moved to Austin for graduate school, I really did not know anyone, so I decided to join the league to try and expand my social circle. We talked briefly at the first game and then again for a bit longer at the bar after the game. Personally, I thought we had hit it off that night, but when it was time to go our separate ways, Carl just waved goodbye and walked away without so much as a second glance.” Oh, boy… 

Now, if you guessed that that was not the end of the story, congratulations, Sherlock. We are, after all, here at their wedding. Perhaps, being in graduate school, Amanda was inclined towards allowing make-up work if submitted within a reasonable time. Amanda continues, “A couple of weeks later… we had our next game and spent some more time talking and getting to know each other, and I was introduced to Carl’s cat, Ellie (who is now one of my two fur babies). After that was when things officially came together…” 

Now, I assume most of you grew up in this country, so unlike me, reading that your first question was not, what on earth is kickball? Americans may have too many sports. I grew up in Israel, where we mostly kick a ball around for 90 minutes and occasionally into a goal, but that’s about it. For some reason, someone in America decided that that is all fine and good, but what if we made that more complicated and more like baseball? I don’t know why.

Having also lived in King Charles III's realm, I discovered a fascinating sports factoid. When His Majesty’s subjects gather to compete, they call what they do not a game but a test. That seems more appropriate because if you have seen how they treat their sports, they are not playing around.

The idea of a test is one of the oldest ideas known to humans, showing up several times in the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance. The Ancient Rabbis contend that God tested Abraham ten times and that he passed every one of them. Then they proceed to endlessly argue what those ten tests were, of course, because, as they say, two Jews, three opinions. 

Now, you might ask, why does God, who knows the future, need to test Abraham? However, this fundamentally misconstrues the Rabbis’ idea. Tests are meant not to show the deity if we can pass them, but to discover for ourselves if we can withstand them. They are a vehicle through which we can prove our character not to the deity but to ourselves. And these tests make us better and stronger as individuals and as couples.  

We have all experienced this in a fashion so intense that, pre-March 2020 none of us could have imagined. Our relationships have been tested, even forged by our collective experience. As Carl succinctly puts it, “If we could live together successfully through all the nonsense that occurred through the past years, I’m confident it will be a successful partnership.”

Amanda elaborates on how these experiences have forged a wonderful partnership of learning and personal development: “Carl makes me better, or want to be better, in almost every area of my life… I do the same for him. He… challenges me and encourages me to think critically and explore ideas and different avenues I wouldn’t have otherwise given a second thought… We have both grown… both individually and as a couple… We know what we want and what we need and are ready for those next steps of building a life and a family together.”

Monday, January 2, 2023

Energy, Peace, and Healing

The evening of December 30, 2022, I officiated Alicia and Jonnie’s wedding ceremony at Rancho Shibumi, in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

Alicia and Jonnie, in old-school fashion, did not meet through an app. Alicia says: “I was with friends at a bar. Jonnie and I spotted each other across the room and kept making eye contact throughout the night. A girlfriend of mine asked me if there was anyone I had my eye on. I pointed to Jonnie, and she immediately said, ‘I know him,’ and ran over to say hello. I followed her over, Jonnie and I met, and the rest was history.” Jonnie describes the moment in cinematic terms: “Alicia and I spotted each other across the bar, and I think we both immediately just knew.” 

Jonnie elaborates on how this moment was more than a moment: “From the day I met Alicia it was clear that she was special – she had the biggest heart and the most radiant smile… We’ve been through a ton together… and I truly don’t know what I would do without her…” 

Alicia describes the moment they cemented their relationship. A relationship that began with a cinematic moment could only be cemented with another such moment. Naturally, for their engagement, they traveled to the south of France. 

Here is the fascinating thing about the south of France, and I do not know if Alicia and Jonnie were aware of this, but with their religious heritages, I am not sure there could be a more appropriate place for their engagement. 

Though, we, as Americans may not realize this, France is home to the third-largest Jewish population in the world. And Jews the world over interact with the French rabbis of old, daily, in the study of the Torah and Talmud.

Though Alicia and Jonnie identify as Jews and look forward to raising a Jewish family, they also have meaningful connections to Catholicism. Jonnie’s mother grew up Hindu but attended Catholic schools, and Alicia, herself, grew up Catholic.

The south of France has a unique Jewish-Catholic story. As French Jewish life succumbed to ongoing persecution, in one area of France, though not fully spared of prejudice, they were able to persist, under the protection of a unique ruler, the head of the Catholic Church. 

We often forget that the smallest country in the world, today, Vatican City, is a remnant of a much larger territory, which was ruled by the Pope, and which for hundreds of years included the south of France. Even when the Jews were hounded out of France’s other regions, the “Pope’s Jews” as they were nicknamed, remained in that area. 

Under the Pontiff’s protection, they developed a unique dialect and unique religious practices, until they, with the Jews of the rest of France, were fully liberated by Napoleon and began to enjoy Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.”

And so, part of me imagines that when Alicia says that that trip was one she will never forget, it is not just the romance of a proposal that made her and Jonnie feel that way. Perhaps, with their unique background, their subconscious sensed some of the same “energy, peace, and healing” that Alicia found standing in Jerusalem.

Regardless, without that moment in the former realm of the Pontiff, we would not be standing here today. As Alicia says, “It was the happiest moment of my life. I know the love that we have for each other will only grow more every day.” And Jonnie agrees, “She’s my best friend and I can’t wait for all the new exciting things in store for us together.”

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Better Than We Found It

On Saturday afternoon, December 10th, I officiated Lauren and Parker’s wedding ceremony at the Barr Mansion in Austin, Texas. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

The funny thing about how Lauren and Parker explain why they want to get married is that they each preface their answer telling you how deficient their answer is going to be.

Lauren says: “I could probably write about this forever. However, engineers aren’t the best writers.” Parker says, “I am a man of many words, but I often find myself speechless when I reflect on Lauren.” Fortunately, and I hate to criticize a bride and groom on their wedding day, they are both wrong. Their answers are very instructive. 

I wanted to zero in on a specific common aspect of their answers, which were each written without consulting the other, incidentally. Parker says about Lauren, “She is deeply motivated to understand and improve the lives of everyone around her.” Lauren says about Parker, “He’s the most thoughtful, sweet, loving person I’ve ever met, and he always leaves a place better than he found it.”

This might sound simple to you, but I would contend that it is the most important message for life. As modern Stoic philosopher, Ryan Holiday writes, “This should be the standard by which we judge all our endeavors, professions, relationships and indeed our lives themselves. Did we add value or extract it? Did we improve things or muddle them? Did we kick the can down the road on problems or did we solve them? Did we leave things in a better place than we found them?”

You might protest this message of Lauren and Parker. It might even make you uncomfortable. It does sound like a lot of pressure. You might try to discount it, thinking what can tiny me do that will really influence the world.

Our forefathers had a ready answer. Rabbi Tarfon in the Ethics of Fathers, the only part of the Mishnah, the 200 C.E. compendium of Jewish Law devoted solely to ethics, says: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

And more than 1800 years later, in 2020, a fellow Texan, Maren Morris, similarly implored us, “Who's gonna care if I don't? Who's gonna change if I won't? … Will we sit on our hands, do nothing about it, or will we leave this world better than we found it?”

Lauren and Parker, what we hope for you is that you continue to carry this important message into your married life, that you continue to positively influence each other, improve the lives of everyone around you, and leave every place you encounter in this world better than you found it.

Friday, November 25, 2022

God Rolled Out the Red Carpet

On Friday, November 18th, Minister Joseph Devlin and I co-officiated Janelle and Chris’ wedding ceremony at The Club at Garden Ridge in Garden Ridge, Texas. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

Janelle’s first thoughts about Chris, before she actually met him are, um, interesting: “I initially thought I don’t know, this dude looks like a major hippie, but it says he’s a therapist so he must be a pretty good person. I guess I’ll give him a shot, haha.” Low bar, but OK!

Chris describes what she didn’t know at that point but would bring them together: “Janelle and I have both taken our knocks from life to this point. We can both attest to profound experiences of hurt and isolation and a disappointing experience of trying to find love and connection… I feel that God wrote a hell of a harrowing story for us both and that we were meant to find each other now when we did.” Wow, pretty deep major hippie!

I always ask couples to tell me about themselves as individuals and as a couple and to tell me about their spirituality. With Janelle and Chris, the subjects are intertwined. When I asked Janelle why she wanted to marry Chris and why now, she answered in spiritual terms:

“Chris is the sweetest, most caring, thoughtful, funny, smart goofball I’ve ever met. He is my twin soul and completes me in every way. He’s the Yin to my Yang. His philosophical approach to everything balances my hard science approach… He brought me back to God and made me believe again. Because only God could have created a soul so perfect for me and influenced the random sequence of events that allowed us to meet at the time, I was finally ready for him. It took 32 years and a lot of tears and tough times, but I would go through it all again to find Chris.”

Chris speaks in similar terms: “I feel it’s the right connection every time we laugh together or build a new goofy inside joke (our lives are already filled with these), or in moments where it feels like we’re really able to understand each other, or in moments where we’re able to be doing mundane stuff but feel enhanced by the mere presence of the other person.

We both feel like this marriage is an invitation to a bigger and better layer of life, where we have a renewed focus on giving and sharing love… It feels like God has rolled out the red carpet for both of us to be living the lives we’re meant for, and that that path for me is named Janelle.” 

Wow, I really can’t add to that.

Revealed In a Dream

On Sunday, November 13th, I officiated Rebekah and Kaya’s wedding ceremony at the Texas Renaissance Festival in Todd Mission, Texas. Every wedding I officiate is special. This one was rather unique. The bride and groom dressed as king and queen, most guests were in costume, and I was dressed as a wizard.

For the opening remarks, I shared these words:

Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today

To get through this thing called life

Electric word life it means forever and that's a mighty long time

But I'm here to tell you there's something else…

Now, at this point, you might be wondering a number of things, in no particular order: (a) Why did they circle each other before the wizard started talking? (b) Is it legal in Texas to have a wizard marry you? (c) Isn’t it illegal, outside of his native state of Minnesota, to begin a wedding ceremony with Prince lyrics?

Allow me to ignore b and c and explain a. As Oren, known by most as Kaya, and Rebekah, known by most as Rebekah, came forth, they followed an ancient Jewish tradition and circled each other seven times. This rather theatrical custom was originally designed to ward off evil spirits. Good thing, too, because some of you definitely scare me. It also symbolizes the mutual commitment of Rebekah and Kaya to make each one the center of the other’s world. Indeed, the scholars of Jewish mysticism write that this circling helps the lovers enter the many spheres of each other’s souls.

Friends, the bond and covenant of marriage is an ancient one. It is so old that often the relationship between God and Israel is analogized to the union of lovers. 

Now, this covenant is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly but reverently. That reverence is only enhanced by having your ceremony officiated by a powerful wizard.

Now, I hate interruptions once I really get wound up, so just to ensure there are no shenanigans if any of you can show just cause why they may not be lawfully married, speak now, or else forever hold your peace. (Pause)

Speaking of shenanigans, Rebekah and Kaya, I require and charge you both, if you know any reason why you may not be united in marriage lawfully, you do now confess it. (Pause)

OK, great, I didn’t travel all this way from Dallas in my wizard costume only to return empty-handed. Let’s keep going. Considering that I am not just a powerful wizard but a very wise rabbi, too, I should probably chant something in Hebrew before we move on.

Here are the personal remarks I shared with them and their guests. I modified my standard intro a little:

Friends, our shared traditions embrace lifelong learning and learning from everyone. Now, I know what you are wondering: Is there anything a powerful wizard like me does not already know? No, there isn’t. I’m not talking about me. I’m talking about you. You still have much to learn. So, whenever I officiate a wedding, I ask myself, this couple being unique individuals, what can normal mortals like you learn from them, so listen up. I don’t want to have to repeat myself.

Growing up in an academic household, I attended academic conferences and even read academic papers from a very young age, so I assumed that, naturally, everyone reads footnotes. I was well into my mid-forties when I discovered this was not the case. 

Now, there is little doubt as to the very best footnote ever written. No one comes close to Nicholas Berdyaev in his 1949 essay, The Divine and the Human. Often footnotes will include sources for the ideas the scholar is sharing with their readers. However, rather than citing a specific work, this footnote reads, and yes, it does sound better in the original German: “This was once revealed to me in a dream.” 

Now, you might be wondering why, standing here in a wizard costume, I chose to speak about the absolutely riveting subject of footnotes. It’s a fair question. And, no, the idea to do this was not revealed to me in a dream. It’s totally Rebekah’s fault.

Rebekah says, “I met Kaya in probably the most spiritual way possible. I had a dream about them. Yes, a dream. About two months before I moved to L.A., I had a dream about this bearded tattooed guy, and we instantly connected, and it gave me a lot of insight into where he was in life… 

Right after moving to L.A. I got this message from a circus company, asking if I would be interested in doing a performance… I agreed to meet with them, and I was expecting a girl or a couple, but then in walks the literal man of my dreams…” 

Kaya picks up the story from there, “I recall her face turning white. She seemed stunned. I assumed it [was] because I mentioned via texts jokingly that I was wearing a purple dress so she could [easily] spot me. We had not yet spoken by phone, and apparently, she assumed Kaya was a girl. My joke and her assumption together were a perfect setup for when a bearded and tattooed man introduced himself as Kaya.” Only later did Rebekah reveal to Kaya that he didn’t know the half of it. As you already know by now, like Nicholas Berdyaev, this was, in fact, revealed to her in a dream…

Kaya elaborates on even more magic and wonder that was involved in that first encounter: “One way in which… magic… has manifested in my life is the gift of having met my angel and queen, Rebekah… I [had] reached out to her asking if she would like to play the role of Cleopatra in an upcoming immersive theater project I was directing. What she didn’t reveal to me at the time was that she had an affinity for Cleopatra growing up, and her grandmother even handmade her a beautiful Cleopatra costume as a child…”

I believe that these phenomena are what we call foreshadowing. Here is another bit of foreshadowing for you. Close your eyes (yes, now) and think of what Cleopatra looked like. Now, Kaya simply pictured Rebekah, but you probably pictured Elizabeth Taylor. 

Here is a fascinating fact about the famous actress. She, like Rebekah, fell in love with Judaism. In fact, the classic 1964 movie was banned in Egypt because Gamel Abdel Nasser’s government was outraged that Cleopatra would be played by a Jew and a fierce advocate of Israel like Taylor, no less. 

The Ancient Rabbis believed that foreshadowing played a huge role in love and marriage. They also had a real knack for theatrics. The Talmud is constantly mentioning incidents in which, it claims, a heavenly voice makes a dramatic proclamation. And they maintained that forty days before the conception of every fetus, a heavenly voice proclaims who that individual will eventually marry. 

(As an aside, this is somewhat surprising because contrary to the view held by some that a fetus should be considered viable from the moment of conception, we, Jews, believe that a fetus becomes viable only after it graduates from medical school.)

Seriously, though, at the same time that we value foreshadowing, we are not naïve. We recognize the truth of these words written by a great playwright, in his native German, "Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen" which we usually translate, “If you will it, it is no dream.” 

These words, written by one Theodor Herzl, who we refer to as the Seer of the State of Israel, convey a great truth not only about the life of nations but about the life of individuals in love. It is vital but not sufficient to have a dream. You must will it into existence, in word and deed, and never stop willing it. Just like Rebekah and Kaya.    

Finally, I altered my pronouncement a little for this wedding:

Rebekah and Kaya, all of us here rejoice in your happiness, and we pray that this marks only one of many more blessings you will share in the days and years ahead. Now that you have spoken the words and performed the rites that unite your lives, I do hereby, with all my wizardly powers granted to me by the Great State of Texas, declare you husband and wife. Kaya, you may kiss your queen!

The Golden Rule

On Friday, November 11th, I officiated Tori and Gabe’s wedding ceremony at The Vintage Rail in Fort Worth, Texas. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

I have officiated over 530 weddings, but Tori and Gabe’s wedding is a first in a very special way. One of Tori’s relatives was gifted a prayer book on her wedding day by her groom. That custom is quite common. It is the inscription, however, on the prayer book that is special. 

It was written in 1938 in then Palestine, which was under the rule of the King of England, by a great rabbi named Rabbi Abraham Samuel Finkel. Now, that last name, Finkel, is a dead giveaway in the world of Jewish scholarship, for this man’s father was a founder of a prominent school of the Mussar movement, whose goal was to “foster peace of mind, humility, tolerance, thoughtful consideration of others, self-examination, and purity of mind.”

Tori and Gabe’s relationship origin story exhibits Gabe’s thoughtful consideration of others, as there can be no greater consideration than saving a damsel in distress. Gabe says, “How we met was definitely out of a romantic comedy. The owner of the company I was with had a housewarming party, and Victoria's best friend got hired to work the bar.” 

Tori explains that since the company was mostly made up of men, everyone was asked to bring a girl or a houseplant. Fortunately, Tori’s friend brought her and not a houseplant, or we might not be here today. 

Gabe continues, “I was walking around the party and saw Victoria talking with this goober, and I felt the need to interject. I put my arm around her.” The guy asked then asked Tori, “Is this your boyfriend?” Tori started to correct him and say, “Friend.” Gabe interrupted and said, “Fiancée.” Though Tori insists she was in no need of saving, the rest is clearly history.

Now, though the Mussar movement in Judaism was new, it was not introducing anything that, at its core, was not already part of all great traditions. The movement’s teachings simply elaborate on the idea taught by Hillel, Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius, Muhammad, and more, which scholars refer to as the ethic of reciprocity, and laymen refer to as the Golden Rule. As Tori wisely observes regarding all religions, “It’s hard to… take them at face value, but underneath them all, the golden rules and foundations are… so closely related.”

Here is the thing about the Golden Rule. It is really easy to abide by it in isolation, especially in its negative form, as expressed by Hillel. If you don’t interact with anyone, well, you can’t do anything to them that you would not want to be done to you. 

Living in isolation, though, is not possible, arguably, it leaves a person’s moral development stunted, and it means that you will leave this world not much better than you found it. Conversely, through a great romantic relationship, the Ancient Rabbis tell us, not only does one get to regularly practice the Golden Rule, but one also gets to fulfill the commandment to love one’s fellow as oneself in its highest form. 

Tori expresses these ideas beautifully: “I couldn’t imagine my life without this man. It would be dull and less stimulating. I would survive, of course, but it would hold so much less meaning. After six years together, life with him is home, and I’m ready to share a life together in meaning and name, to take on the world as a unit, and to be a family.”

Gabe adds, “We have been together six years now. She has made me a better man and only wants to see me succeed. It would be hard to find another woman as kind, smart and caring as her.”

And Tori speaks for both of them when she says, “I want our children to see us as a united guiding force, not just two individuals passing through time… It takes strength and love to make a relationship withstand the test of time and feel like not only do we bring out the best in each other; being together helps us bring out the best in ourselves.”

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Empower Other People

On Saturday evening, November 5, 2022, I officiated Beth and Bryon’s wedding ceremony at their home in Dallas, Texas. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

May you live in interesting times, is said to be an ancient Chinese curse, though it assuredly was invented by an Englishman, Sir Austen Chamberlain. Ironically, his better known brother who ascended to the prime ministry, assured that times got way too interesting. 

Now, most of us do not control an island nation ruling over an empire, so our decisions will not factor into the times being more or less interesting. We, are, though, each and every one of us, tasked with responding to what the times lay in our path.  

As modern Stoic philosopher, Ryan Holiday, reminds us, expounding on the words of another man who ruled over an empire, Marcus Aurelius, “We don’t control when things get hard, but we always control how we respond.”

One thing we do have in common with the ancient philosopher-king, is that we have lived through a pandemic, and not one of us has been left unaffected, nor have our relationships. I say this with no judgement; just as many individuals suffered and some individuals succumbed to the pandemic, so it has been with relationships. 

What is beautiful to see are the individuals and the relationships that have not only survived but thrived, and often these relationships strengthened the individuals. 

Bryon explicitly says, “If not for our partnership, I don’t know that I would have made it through that time. My family, the core of everything in my life, dissolved. I couldn’t see my parents, my brother, the people that I loved and respected the most… But Beth and I were there together every single day. We loved each other deeply, always knowing and understanding those dark times and what they meant. She was my rock.”

Now, as anyone who has seen The Gladiator can tell you, Marcus Aurelius had a few more challenges beyond the Antonine Plague, and all of us have challenges that extend beyond COVID-19. If we are lucky enough, we as individuals and our relationships will not only not be broken by these experiences but be strengthened through them. 

Beth says, “Bryon and I are the strongest team. When we first started dating, I [experienced some medical challenges]. He stood by my side, literally… The pandemic made us sturdy, almost impenetrable. A year ago, in a period of three months, we suffered the loss of Bryon’s father, Mike, our beloved pets, Bailey and Isabella, followed by my unbelievably amazing Nana. Through everything, I have become kinder, better, sturdier. Never weaker. I have continued to laugh, and smile. I know this strength is in me, but also very much because I have my life-long partner, Bryon, beside me.”

What is at the core of reacting this way to hardship? I believe it is rather simple. Empathy for ourselves and others, and the compassion that flows from that. 

In preparation for this ceremony, I had the opportunity to speak to one person who is very close to Beth and Bryon, Sam Mahool. She shared with me that among the things that stand out to her about this couple is that fierce compassion: “They go out of their way to make people feel special, as a team. They really care about… and empower other people.”

Beth and Bryon, may you continue to embody this mantra from fellow Texan, Dr, Kristin Neff, in your relationship with each other and with others: 

May all beings be safe and free from harm. 

May all beings be peaceful and happy. 

May all beings be healthy and strong. 

May all beings live with ease.