You book is based on work you did as a Leader in Ethical Culture. Explain what Ethical Culture is.
Ethical Culture was founded in 1876 by Dr. Felix Adler. He had studied to be a rabbi in Reform Judaism in America, back when Reform Judaism was quite radical intellectually. Adler had been very affected by Emerson and other Transcendalist thinkers. He read Sanskrit; he was familiar with Buddhism. In his first sermon, called "The Judaism of the Future," Adler said the prophetic tradition, this ethics-drenched tradition, thousands of years old, was too precious to save for one people. It should be available to everyone. He suggested they stop passing it along matrilineally, open it to everyone, and expand it into an ethical quest.
After delivering this sermon, he went off to Cornell to be a professor of religion, but about some of the people at his temple pursued him and said, "We really like this idea." It was clearly beyond Judaism, but it was clearly linked to its prophetic tradition.
How does Ethical Culture approach marriage?
Adler, in his most famous book, "Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal," wrote that the main purpose of marriage was to be a nest for the future. It was to be a spiritual place, where you developed your character and values. And since the basic unit of any ethical question is two--two people--Ethical Culture lends itself to the question of marriage, which begins with two people and draws all these other people in.
What are the eight commitments that you delineate in your book and how did they come out of Ethical Culture?
Centering, Choosing, Honoring, Caring, Abiding, Repairing, Listening and Celebrating.
These came out of a 14-year study, a grass-roots level conversation we conducted within Ethical Culture. We asked, what are the most basic values without which you don't have civilization at all? These were the commitments we came up with. We felt they were important for the cultivation of ethical cultures, small "e" and small "c." And after the study was confirmed by our national council, I thought, this is such wonderful stuff, it should belong to more than just us. At that point I had been wanting to write about marriage. I wanted to turn these commitments into terms that were directly related to interpersonal relationships.
Is any one commitment the most important?
I use the image of a spiral. In James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake," the last sentence comes around and becomes the first sentence, and that's how I conceive the eight commitments. But each time you come around you've been deepened.
But for a person who sees life as a spiritual journey in ethical living, there is no ethical living without the first one, choosing. You can be a good person and conform to your culture and hope that it's a good culture-that it's not Germany in 1939. You can work to a certain level. But real, full-bodied mature living doesn't begin until one becomes a conscious chooser.
If you look at it, all the goodwill religions that have come up in the last 3,000 years recognize that God wants you to choose. And the first choice is whether or not to honor ourselves and one another.
In the context of marriage, how does choice operate?
You have to re-choose your partner every day. Or at least, if you find yourself not choosing them for too long you've got to stop and say, what's the problem here? Others of us need to go back to kindergarten and learn basic choosing because we didn't learn it when growing up.
You say many of the couples in your study were from different traditions. Are there any particular pitfalls interfaith couples need to look out for?
I don't look at it as pitfalls. I think they are twice blessed. But they must get to a deeper level of the relationship right away. They can't float along, secure in their sameness. They should encounter their difference in a celebratory way and learn skills so when they run into trouble, they have a resource there.
Most couples in interfaith marriages are really intercultural, for example a Methodist marrying a Catholic. Say a child dies, and the argument comes up about where the child will be buried. The couple that has thought through that intercultural or interfaith union will be able to respond in a deeper way. They won't be struggling with that during a terrible mourning process.