Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Things I Learned from Teresa and Ben

Here is an excerpt of what I said at the wedding of Teresa and Ben in Houston this last Saturday:

Now, as we are talking about two teachers here, there seems to be an abundance of lessons that this couple teaches us. The first lesson is one about how we need to be more exact with language, and how common terms do not always fit, especially when they aim to put people in a certain “box”. You see, since the first time I first spoke with Teresa and Ben, I was struck by a very interesting fact. The phrase “interfaith couple” did not fit the bill with regards to this couple, just as it does not fit many of the couples I work with. “Intercultural couple” may be a more apt term. Certainly Teresa and Ben come from different backgrounds, and have had different life stories. That said they have more in common in terms of faith and belief, than many other couples out there. This is not due to coincidence, rather this is due to the fact that they have chosen to really think about these issues of faith and belief. They have chosen together to carefully examine their lives spiritually, figure out who they are, and what they want as individuals and as a couple. They also recognize that they need to continue to grow together in this sense and to focus on the joy, happiness and meaning that such growth can bring to a couple’s life.

There is, however, a deeper, more significant reason that the phrase “interfaith couple” does not fit Teresa and Ben, and that is that they understand Mark Twain’s old adage, “Faith is believing what you know ain't so”. This couple, as Humanists, choose to live their lives, as individuals and as a couple, guided by the clear light of reason. And keep in mind, that they do this not in San Francisco or Soho; they live their lives this way in Houston, Texas. They, in turn, respectfully, by their very example, challenge us to live our lives in such a way.

A third and last thing they teach us is to live in harmony with the rest of this world. There are many people who recognize that there is a better way to treat nature, and particularly our closest relatives on the evolutionary tree, the members of the animal kingdom. It makes sense, after all. That said, most of us, aspire to this as an ideal, but fall short in their day to day lives, myself included. Teresa and Ben, you show us that living a purer life, when it comes to our consumption, namely veganism, is not just an ideal, but is an attainable way of life.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Hail to the Chiefs - How I Officiated at a Wedding in the Presence of Two Presidents

I recently officiated at a ceremony, where both Presidents Bush and their First Ladies were in attendance. They hardly ever attend private events, so this was very special for everyone who was in attendance. My wife, Liat, and I wondered if we would get to meet them or not. We ended up not only meeting them, but having some very pleasant one-on-one time with the forty-third president.

During the ceremony I recited the customary Seven Wedding Blessings in English, after which I chanted the sixty-seventh Psalm in Hebrew (in the tune specially reserved for Saturday nights), and recited it in English. I talked about how on Saturday evenings many Jews chant this Psalm, and how it contains many of the same themes and actual words found in the most ancient copy of scripture that archeologists have found in the Holy Land, the priestly blessing.

After the ceremony, President George W. Bush congratulated me for a job well done from about 12 feet away, and I thanked him. He then smiled and motioned with his finger that he wanted me to come over to him. I then had the privilege of shaking hands with the two presidents and their first ladies, who all congratulated me on doing a great job. That would have been an experience in and of itself.

Then the elder Bushes went to take pictures and talk to other guests, and I introduced Liat to President George W. and Mrs. Laura Bush. The former first lady then went to join the others, and the former president spent the next ten minutes talking to us! He asked how long we had lived in Dallas, where we were from, and about our children. He was specifically curious about Liat’s ancestry. (Due to the fact that she is of both North African and Eastern European extraction, many people find her hard to “place”.) He was tickled by the fact that our youngest son shared a birthday with him, and playfully referred to him later in the conversation as “George”. (His siblings are already giving him a hard time over that one…)

Since we mentioned that Liat was born in Israel, and I grew up there, we talked about the Jewish State. He confirmed a story I had once read about Sharon in 1998 taking him on a helicopter tour of the 1967 borders, and specifically pointing out the area where Israel within these borders was the narrowest, only about 8 kilometers wide. To this the then Texas Governor had remarked that, “we have driveways in Texas that are longer than that.” He was explicit about how there was a real mutual affection between himself, and the man he now referred to as “the old tank driver”.

Our discussion ended with Mrs. Laura Bush calling him over to join her for some photos. (That just goes to show you that even in that family there is a well defined hierarchy...) With that, he shook our hands, and thanked me once again for a job well done. We thanked him for his kindness, and went to join the wedding party.

The popular notion has always been that, politics aside, the forty-third president is a mentsch, and a very genuine and down to earth fellow. Liat and I found that to be very true indeed. Yet, without going too grandiose here, I could not help reflecting on a deeper aspect of this brief personal experience.

Many years ago, the first President of our republic, George Washington, proclaimed a notion that was entirely new and unpracticed in the world of that time: equality and freedom regardless of one’s religious faith. He wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, that “happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.” He added still, at a time when my ancestors in Eastern Europe could only dream of freedom, “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

No one knew how long this new idea of freedom and equality would survive. Many scholars contend that the Founding Fathers probably would be surprised that we still live under the same Constitution, much less one amended to provide freedom to more and more people. Over these same years the Jewish people have seen their share of friendly regimes turn against them, with succession and the turning over of governments frequently not boding well for them. I dare say very few of those Newport Jews would have imagined the ideas of President Washington not only surviving, but two successors of that famous letter writer attending a wedding, where Jewish blessings were chanted, after which one of those successors would leisurely chat with the chanting rabbi and his wife. Yet here we were all the same.

© Copyright 2010 – Rabbi David S. Gruber – All Rights Reserved - This article originally appeared on www.InterfaithFamily.com.