Thursday, July 29, 2010

the groom's tuxedo

What I want to know is, will the groom wear shatnez?

I was not planning on writing about The Wedding. I wish them all the best, of course, but having said that, what’s left? To my surprise, though, it’s become a kind of McGuffin among some of the more interesting Jewish voices I read; by which I mean a narrative device that doesn’t matter that much in itself, but it provides an excuse for the real work.

The pieces I’ve read point to, indeed celebrate, the wedding as representative of a new era in which traditional boundaries are breaking down – boundaries between tribe and tribe, culture and culture, even religion and religion. Take a look at this, by Rabbi Irwin Kula, for one of the best presentations of the point. Irwin, and others like him, suggests that we are entering a new era, in which people will pick and choose the best pieces of wisdom from their traditions and bring them together in a new, compelling syncretism.

And so I wonder, would the traditional prohibition of shatnez, a mixture of wool and linen, be one of those pieces of wisdom that Chelsea and Marc bring into their new life, or might such a blend be absolutely perfect for summer formal wear?

Shatnez as one of the great examples of Jewish wisdom? It’s hard to imagine. In fact, it seems like a perfect example of that kind of picky, detail-obsessed, rule-bound Judaism that we’d like to escape. How could fretting about a fabric add any kind of holiness to your life?

Though if you know just a little bit of history it is kind of interesting to note that wool, which comes from sheep, and linen, w.c.f. flax, represent the two main forms of human society in antiquity – herdsmen and farmers, nomads and settlers – and that the two have always been in tension (thus the plot of Oklahoma). And you might even remember that the very first fight was between a shepherd and a farmer over whether flesh or grain was the better sacrifice.

If you know a little more you might be aware that both those cultures are brought together in early Judaism; Passover, for example, is tied to both the newborn lambs and the ripening of the first grain. You might be struck by how the prohibition on mixing wool and linen acknowledges the legitimacy of the two modes of life and their distinctiveness – and the fact that they are brought together in the garments of the priests, and even in the Tallit (when techeilet is used) points to the Sacred as the one space in which they come together; a union that is only meaningful because of the normal separation.

And you might go on to make a connection between the boundary-marking work of shatnez and the way a mezuzah marks the boundaries between inside and outside, and the way kiddush and havdalah function in time, etc., etc. You could, if you were of the mind, feel in these different practices the pulse of the very first story, in which God creates not by shaping or forming or hatching, but by establishing borders – making is out of chaos by establishing order, differentiating between light and dark, water and water, sea and land. And that pulse could call to you, if you paid attention to it, reminding you though each of these practices, that you are a partner in the work of creation.

What I’m suggesting is that Judaism is, or at least can be looked at as, a system, and the pieces and practices and teachings may gain their meaning in the context of that system. In doing so, I’m trying to avoid the dualistic way of thinking that offers a choice between a reactionary traditionalism and a progressive syncretism. The “whole” (and I don’t mean particularly an Orthodox whole) can be seen as having value because that’s where the parts have meaning; wrenched out of context they become incoherent, like Kachina dolls on the bookshelf or dreamcatchers above the bed.

I don’t think syncretism is evil; but I think it does threaten to turn expressions of wisdom into dreamcatchers, and they don’t really work for Anglos.


Rabbi Jason Miller said...

I'm glad you brought up the shatnez of Chelsea Clinton's groom Marc Mevzinsky's tuxedo. I was wondering when someone would. I was surprised that Entertainment Weekly or the National Enquirer didn't scoop you on this subject.

From what I understand, Bill Clinton had the Secret Service detail take the groom's wedding tux to the Shatnez laboratory for testing and it's fine. So, rest assured this will be an intermarriage during Shabbat with treif food officiated by a minister and rabbi, but totally Shatnez free! Thank God!

Rabbi Jason Miller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Here's my take on the wedding.