On Monday, in the courtyard of Salt Lake City’s Grand America Hotel, a four-post canopy pointed heavenward as its white covering billowed gently in the early evening breeze.
For a few moments, this otherwise simple canopy transformed into something mystical — the Jewish chuppah — a sacred space where Utah-native Chaya Zippel and her husband Rabbi Mendy Cohen were to be wed. The bride’s father, Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, officiated at the ceremony.
Rich with symbolism, the chuppah offers important insights not only into Jewish life but also into the principles of religious liberty increasingly emphasized by a diverse group of religious leaders, including those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In 1787, as the Constitutional Convention was taking place, Founding Father Benjamin Rush attended a Jewish wedding in Philadelphia. He too was struck by the “beautiful canopy composed of white and red silk in the middle of the floor.” The chuppah, he wrote, “was supported by four young men (by means of four poles), who put on white gloves for the purpose.”
According to Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, director of Yeshiva University’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, the chuppah represents the home God expects each Jewish couple to build. Like the biblical tent of Abraham and Sarah — which stood open to the four corners of the earth — the chuppah is a place under which sacred rites and covenants take place yet has “no boundaries between private and public,” standing “open to the breezes on all four sides.”
This Abrahamic tent, “open to the public,” embodies the Judaic tradition that “one cannot become a fundamentally different person upon crossing a threshold. One cannot check one’s heritage at the door.”
Rush and his fellow Founders, according to Soloveichik, understood “the chuppah’s message of fidelity to faith," and they enshrined this principle in the First Amendment, "that true religious freedom means freedom to be loyal to your beliefs and customs even when they are unpopular with the neighbors and more importantly, even when one is engaging with those neighbors."
Thus, Rabbi Soloveichik contends that the presence of a devout Christian like Benjamin Rush at a Jewish wedding embodies, “the pluralistic promise of America.”
It is this promise that the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seems to be trying to preserve.
This week, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave two discourses emphasizing the importance of freedom of religion, expression and assembly. He noted a growing cohort in America that now views “the free exercise of religion as protecting no more than the privilege of worshiping in the protected space of homes, churches, synagogues or mosques.” In other words, it only protects what happens in the chuppah but not what happens when a couple steps into the public square.
Such a society eventually forces Jews and persons of devout faith to declare with German intellectual Y.L. Gordon, “I shall be a Jew in the Tent and a German in the street.”
Yet, America has been exceptional because it permits believers to live their faith both inside and outside the tent.
At the dawn of the founding, American Jews evidently felt comfortable enough to invite a devout Christian like Benjamin Rush to a wedding. In turn, Rush felt comfortable enough to attend.
Yet, with increasing political and social pressure on religious believers and institutions one wonders if believers with upopular views will eventually be forced out of the public square and back inside their tents.
Such circumstances would be tragic for those who still feel that democracy functions best when religion is allowed to flourish and carry forth its pro-social mission.
On Monday, as bride and groom stepped from their chuppah out into the world, they were embraced by a culture and political system that still allows individuals to live out their faith.
Even in Utah we must be vigilant to vouchsafe protections and foster fairness for all people.
This is the founding legacy of both the United States and Utah.
In writing to Jewish friends in Rhode Island, George Washington expressed his hope that "every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid." May this saftey continue even as religious believers venture out from under their vines, chuppahs, or figtrees to engage in America's pluralistic public square.
Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: Halrboyd