RFRA & My Wedding Ring

It has been some time since I gave thought to the day my soon-to-be husband and I bought our wedding rings. But the spectacle over RFRA—all the panting hysteria of a predatory media and toadying politicians aided by timorous clergy—brings it back with great clarity. And even greater poignancy.

wedding ring posterOur wedding date was set. It was time to pick a ring. But where to look for one? How to shop? The two of us were young, broke, and scrappy. It would be some years yet before we could afford to pay retail. Besides, my intended was a combative shopper, born to hondel. He did not believe in fixed prices. There were only asking prices begging to be negotiated.

We started in Manhattan’s diamond district in the west Forties. No diamonds were on our shopping list. But 47th Street was a place to haggle, draw swords, dicker away until the doomed asking price dropped in exhaustion. His ring was easy. A plain gold band was all. It was mine that took hunting for. I wanted something chaste and spare, low keyed but rich with symbolism. No glitz. Modest but not severe. It had to be unembellished but eloquent—a sort of Grail for my ring finger.

I had no idea what my adjectives might look like in the concrete. So we trooped from stall to stall in the Exchange scouting for . . . what, exactly? Then, finally, there it was. In the showcase of an older jeweler, forearm tattooed with his identification number from a concentration camp, were simple gold bands embossed with phrases from the Tanakh. They were cut in the identical ancient block script familiar to Jesus of Nazareth, who grew in wisdom and study of Torah.

James Tissot. Jesus Teaching in the Synagogue (c. 1897). Ann Ronan Picture Library, London.
James Tissot. Jesus Teaching in the Synagogue (c. 1897). Ann Ronan Picture Library, London.

The graphic beauty of the Hebrew characters—heightened by our inability to read them—seemed a visible link to Him in Whom we would marry. One square letter followed another, spacing calculated to encircle the band with no marked beginning or end. The indissolubility of marriage seemed imprinted in the very design. Add the romance of indecipherability. This was my ring!

Next came the contest over cost. The groom-to-be went into gladiatorial mode. The seller was good at the game. It was a lengthy, spirited match. Eventually the two settled on a price. All that was left was to decide on the phrase from a sheet of suggested lines. My heart set on a passage from the Book of Ruth that reads in full:

Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest I will go, where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.

Only the central portion (“whither thou goest . . .”) could fit around the ring but the entire antiphon is implicit in the fragment. Ruth’s pledge to Naomi is the purest and most stirring statement of friendship I have ever known. I ached to claim it for myself and wear it for the rest of my life.

Marriage. Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible (13th C). Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City.
Marriage. Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible (13th C). Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City.

Was one of us Jewish? The jeweler wanted to know. Was either of us leaving another religion to become Jewish? No, we were not. Well then, he was sorry but he would not give us that particular quotation. The point was non-negotiable.

The rebuff was a sore let-down but we did not press. We deferred to his prohibition because, in some unspoken way, we understood. The story of Ruth is one of conversion that affirms the Jewish nation. It testifies to peoplehood. The intensity of this man’s concern to honor the sacred core of the text moved us. Here was a man who had suffered the unspeakable for no other reason than he was part of the people Ruth pledged herself to.

There was grace in his refusal. Had he granted me the words I craved, he would, in conscience, have violated the grandeur of them. Ruth’s commitment was not simply to another person but to a covenanted community bound together since the call of Abraham. Her words were his inheritance; he was not free to extend them to us.

Disappointed, I settled for words from the Song of Songs: “I found him whom my soul loveth.” Over the years, my second choice proved to be the better one. The ring is dearer to me than anything else I possess. But I did not feel that then.

•     •     •     •

What innocents we were. It never entered our minds to challenge the denial. We took for granted the man’s moral right to refuse us; any legal issue, then, was irrelevant. But by today’s lights, we gave in too readily. We could have raised a stink. Demanded our rights as consumers. Bullied the vendor with accusations of anti-Christian bigotry. We did not have to submit to the discomfort of being told we were ineligible for what we desired.

“Something there is that does not love a wall, / That wants it down.” Pace Frost, not every barrier should be cleared away. Not everything is permeable. A nation cannot survive without borders; no culture endures without limits. Walls provide a bulwark against chaos and dissolution. That day in the Diamond Exchange, we stumbled against the very wall a man had clung to in the camps. It was the same one that had kept Jewry from disappearing centuries before modern nation states existed.

Had we been noisy enough, I might have gotten the thing I wanted at the time. But at what price to the commonweal?

Anonymous engraving. Riot in Saint-Omer, 1780s (Incitement over a lightening rod placed atop a house.)
Anonymous engraving. Riot in Saint-Omer, 1780s (Incitement over a lightening rod placed atop a house.)

How to discern which walls, like dikes, have to be maintained, and which left to crumble? Aggressive shows of grievance are meant to deflect discernment, not advance it. The nervous response of the five Roman Catholic bishops of Indiana cooperated with the machinery of deflection by rushing forward with anodyne assertions of the dignity of all people, all genders, as if that were in the balance. It was not. The bishops were anxious to appease malcontents whose agenda trumped conscience and the rule of law. If the bishops could not attend to the specific content of the bill—which provided standing in court for anyone substantially burdened by demands counter to their religious beliefs —better to have kept quiet.

The way to protect religious liberty is not to bleat for it but to expose the distortions, conjectural ploys, and rabble-rousing used against it. It requires tooth. By contrast, the bishops’ bridge-over-troubled-waters approach signaled to RFRA antagonists that self-serving outbursts really do work. It cooperated with bootlicking politicians in ceding ground that was never in play. Reassurance misapplied is a sentimental concession to demagoguery.

Enough.