How We Averted a Wedding Disaster

“Shalom, this is Rabbi Milgram, how can I help you? Has there been a tragedy?”

“A disaster, Rabbi! My sister who is a baalat teshuvah, (newly Orthodox) says she will not attend my wedding for three reasons. One, because her husband can’t hear your voice, or any woman’s voice, leading a Jewish rite; two, because our hall’s kosher caterer is not approved by her local rabbi; and three, because there will be mixed seating and mixed dancing.

“Rabbi, Ellie was going to be my wedding prep buddy, my shomeret, the one person helping me for the twenty-four hours before the wedding. We love each other so much, we’re more than sisters, we have always been best of friends. Woe, this is awful. And you, you are our rabbi, you did my bat mitzvah! I’m not about to substitute some strange Orthodox man. Why don’t Richard and I have the right to choose our own level of Jewish observance? My sister is free to hold her baby’s bris (circumcision) her own way. And my family always has mixed dancing, we aren’t Orthodox!”

[Kelly breaks into intense weeping. I listen to her tears and reflect carefully before speaking.]

“Kelly, this is painful to you, and it must feel utterly unfair. I want you to know there are things you can do to help your family celebrate this precious time together without changing your plans or compromising on your own integrity.

“First, rabbis are not in the business of breaking up families. I’m willing to bet, from experience, that your sister’s rabbi can help her become able to participate more than she believes possible, if she calls him and discusses the situation.

“Let me explain further. First, it’s likely your sister can totally still be with you as your shomeret, as your wedding is on a Sunday night. She can start right after the Sabbath on Saturday night, there’s no real conflict with any Jewish law in her doing that. Next, her husband might not be required to miss the ceremony. He should check with the rabbi. Waivers are given by some Orthodox rabbis for the weddings of first-degree non-Orthodox family members. Rabbis care about families a lot.

“Now, think airplane food. Find out if your caterer can have a special meal brought in for the reception by a caterer whom your sister’s rabbi approves. If not, her family can bring their own wrapped food to the reception and your caterer can organize a spot in the fridge for it. Also, as long as your sister and her husband don’t engage in mixed dancing, their rabbi might allow them to attend the reception.

“And finally, family from out of town is often hosted for a Friday night dinner and a Sunday brunch. If all else fails, her family can bring their own food, miss the ceremony, and attend one or both of those events as their way of celebrating with you. Remember that they will need a place to stay in walking distance of any events occurring on the Sabbath, and they’ll need lights kept on in public rooms and bathrooms, since they probably won’t turn the electricity on or off on the Sabbath.

“Kelly, your sister has dedicated herself to living in a system where she has to first secure permission from her rabbi on such matters. As a baalat teshuvah (f.), a newly Orthodox person, she is probably using her intellect to extrapolate what she thinks are the right decisions, and as a lay person she hasn’t studied all the precedents and principles upon which her rabbi can make decisions. Most Orthodox rabbis try to be compassionate, to look for ways to hold families together. I think you will be surprised by the outcome that is often possible.”

Note: Curious about how the situation turned out? Kelly calmly suggested that her sister call her rabbi for clarification, and she did. The rabbi gave the couple permission to attend everything so long as they brought their own food, didn’t travel on the Sabbath, and didn’t engage in mixed dancing. He also instructed her husband to be careful not to focus his attention on any scantily clad guests. Other rabbis might rule more or less stringently, but most will try to find ways that are ethical within their world-view to support family ties. 

Here's a guide to getting yourself in balance before trying to deal with a religious curve ball that’s come your way.

• Anticipate that in your extended kinship and friendship system there will be at least one person who comes from a part of the spectrum of religious practice that is different from the one you have presently chosen for yourself.

• Reach out pro-actively to those who may have more difficult-to-address issues so they feel supported rather than overlooked from the get-go.

• Remember, religious-conviction-driven decisions are not about you personally; they are principles being passionately applied to a situation.

• Realize that your love for each other will have opportunities to flow whether or not you are, in the end, both able to be present at the rite of passage.

• Become clear about your own values and practices; know what accommodations to someone else’s need would have integrity for you.