Rabbi For A Day
Wed, 06/16/2010
 Bride and groom under the chupah, with the author (not pictured) as rabbi. Photo: Karen Tweedy-Holmes.
Bride and groom under the chupah, with the author (not pictured) as rabbi. Photo: Karen Tweedy-Holmes.

 I have suffered most of my life from a large case of rabbi envy. I was brought up surrounded by them, not only in school and shul, but at family gatherings as well. Uncles and later cousins carried the title. I eventually married the daughter of a rabbi. There was no escaping their sermonizing and officiating ways.

I chose another career path (happily) but I still often wondered what it would be like to do what rabbis do. How would it feel to be so intimately involved in people’s lives? Most of us, for example, get to stand under a chupah once in our life (or maybe twice or three times, or never), but rabbis do it all the time. What is that like?

I got my chance last year from a most unlikely source. A Sikh friend of mine from my year at Harvard Divinity School, Gurinder Singh Mann, came to visit me in my office in New York. “I would like you to marry my daughter, Mana,” he said after taking a seat opposite my desk. I was explaining to Gurinder that I am already married (happily) when I realized that he wanted me to officiate at Mana’s wedding.

“First of all, I am no rabbi,” I gently explained to Gurinder, “and second of all, I cannot perform a Sikh wedding.”

Gurinder explained that his daughter was marrying a young Jewish man from Poughkeepsie that she met at medical school, Josh Stern.

My next task was to explain to Gurinder that even if I were a rabbi, I would not perform an interfaith marriage. I’m against them. Gurinder said he respected my feelings about intermarriage, but then he added: “Not a problem. You see, Ari, my wife Rita is Jewish.”

It all began to sink in: my Sikh friend’s daughter was halachically Jewish and she was marrying a Jew. Maybe this was my chance.

Could I? I consulted with several rabbi friends who told me that there was no halachic impediment to my performing a wedding ceremony. For Catholics, marriage is a sacrament, something that can only be performed by a priest. For Jews, marriage is a contract between a man and a woman. The rabbi officiates, witnesses and blesses, but the bride and groom are the actors.

While I had Judaism on my side, however, I didn’t have the State of New York. It requires that an ordained clergy person—or a judge—and sign the marriage license. One rabbi friend said he would be the official celebrant—he signed and witnessed—but he left the religious ceremony up to me.

I wanted to get it right. It was time to rely on more experienced friends. One rabbi friend gave me a copy of “Moreh Derech,” the rabbis’ manual of the Rabbinical Assembly. She said that it would be a good guide, but encouraged me to shape the ceremony to meet the needs of the couple. She instructed me to ask for their Hebrew names and explore their meanings; always good material for remarks under the chupah, she added.

Another friend who has done many weddings encouraged me to sit down with Mana and Josh, something I was intending to do, but he gave me an agenda. “Ask them three things,” he said. How did you meet? What do you like best about each other? How do you envision your Jewish future?

Josh and Mana’s wedding was held at a swanky club on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, just south of the Mid-Hudson Bridge. It was a beautiful but windy day in May and the crowd that assembled was an international one. Many of the men in Mana’s family wore brightly colored turbans and the women wore long festive saris. Many of the Jewish men donned yarmulkes for the outdoor ceremony, although some had trouble keeping them on in the wind.

I stood under the chupah and spoke and sang and recited all the requisite formulas and blessings. I reminded Josh of his biblical namesake who, together with the rest of the Israelites in the desert, was sustained by a magical substance called manna. I reminded Mana that her name has significance in both Hebrew and in Punjabi, the language of her Sikh ancestors.

“In Punjabi, mana can mean either mind or soul,” I said. “So let’s get this straight: Joshua was sustained by heavenly Mana, which gave him sustenance for mind and soul. It’s all there in your names.”

As I spoke, I realized that there is something odd about facing a couple under a chupah. It was a new perspective for me. While Josh and Mana saw only me—and the Hudson River behind me—I saw the two of them and all the wedding guests behind them.

I took note of this under the chupah and drew a thought from my own 26 years of married life.

“At times,” I told them, “the two of you might feel alone. But you need to know that there are many, many people who love you and support you. Many of them are here today and they’ve come to cheer you on.”

A rabbi might not be important, I realized, but a community of friends and relatives is essential. I decided not to tell the assembled of my lack of rabbinical bona fides. (What did they know? I was a middle-aged man in a yarmulke.) But I did want them to know that I was not doing this wedding alone.

“All of you,” I told the wedding guests, “are co-officiating at this ceremony. So help me in this happy work. I need you to shout ‘Amen!’ when I say a blessing. Without you, I am nothing.”

Before I read the ketubah, I invited my friend Gurinder, the father of the bride, to stand with me under the chupah. He read a traditional Sikh prayer that in some ways continued my message. The prayer noted the role of community in supporting a marriage but it also said that the couple had an obligation to serve the community “and in the process serve the divine.”

For Sikhs, as for Jews, marriage is about community, not about clergy. I was beginning to understand why Gurinder had invited me to officiate.

Then came time for me to wrap up the ceremony with the seven Hebrew blessings known as the sheva brachot. The first one is easy; it’s the one over wine. The blessings get progressively longer and more melodic. When I got to the final one, embedded with the wedding song of Od Yishama, a long freight train came rumbling down the tracks on the other side of the Hudson. I found myself competing with the train. I sang but feared that the noise would drown out the rest of the ceremony, including the breaking of the glass. On the spot, I decided to filibuster. I sang Od Yishama again and again and again until I could hear that the train passed. As the noise faded, I finished the blessing, passed the wine goblet to the groom and then to the bride to drink.

Finally, I said, “I hope you will all join me in shouting mazel tov as Josh breaks the glass.”

Ari L. Goldman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of “The Search for God at Harvard” and other books.