Jewish World Review /Oct. 20, 1998 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759

Our intermarriage obsession

By Lawrence M. Reisman

IN ITS OCTOBER 16TH NUMBER, the Forward's Elissa Gootman reports that the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has just issued a ruling barring Jews married to non-Jews from Conservative movement leadership positions such as rabbi, cantor, teacher, youth worker and executive director. The assembly's executive vice-president, Joel Meyers is quoted in the Page One story as saying he "believe(s) that people who are serving in leadership capacities in the Jewish community ought to be people who participate in Jewish life."

Reactions to Meyers' position, of course, were predictable: Warm embracing and hostile denouncings.

In our people's long-running debate about intermarriage, there are, essentially, two camps. We have, firstly, what can be called the Outreach Lobby. They argue that intermarriage may not be so bad, if the children are raised to "be Jewish." This group promotes a community that not only welcomes the intermarried but makes special efforts to attract them. The outreach lobbyists deplored the Rabbinical Assembly's statement.

And then there is the other side, which can be dubbed the Intermarriage Hawks. These are individual who insist that not only should the Jewish community take a stronger stand but that also, we should invest heavily in "preventive measures," such as better Jewish education, summer camps, trips to Israel, etc. Needless to say, the one hawk quoted in the Forward article approved of the Assembly ruling.


Intermarriage has become a mainstay of our communal angst. Other issues come and go, but intermarriage will come back to engage us.

After World War II we had anti-Semitism. In the aftermath of the Six Day War, there was the survival of Israel. During the last year, we had religious pluralism. But like a hardy perennial, intermarriage always returns to the forefront of our communal obsessions.

The outreach lobby warns us that if we do not embrace the intermarried, we will lose them. The intermarriage hawks argue that we lose them when they intermarry. Intermarriage is presented either as the great danger or the great challenge. But always, it is the main issue. Beneath it all, we think, if Jews wouldn't intermarry, we wouldn't be worried about our survival. Jews who marry Jews are never lost to Judaism. They don't need outreach to keep them Jewish. It's so simple: Our problems would disappear with a zero intermarriage rate.

Well folks, it just ain't so. Now, I will not deny that intermarriage can have tragic results. From my viewpoint, the children of a Jewish man who intermarries are not Jewish. The children of a Jewish woman who intermarries, while Jewish, grow up with strong non-Jewish influences, not to mention names such as Murphy, Carillo, or Chang, which hide their Jewishness. Either way, children are lost. But in this day and age, intermarriage does not represent a conscious decision to reject Judaism or the Jewish people; rather, it is the end result of a 100 years or more of Jews distancing themselves from the influence of Jewish law and tradition. It is largely an accident of fate. (If you will allow a believing Jew to use such an expression).


Does intermarriage really cause a Jew to leave the community?

Usually, any Jew who'd marry a gentile would not be interested in building a household with a strong Jewish identity, even if he or she would marry another Jew. For such a person, the decision to marry a Jew is also an accident of fate; too many in-marriages do nothing more for the Jewish people than produce a new generation of marginal Jews, so devoid of any Jewish heritage that they are more at risk for intermarriage than were their parents.

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, discussing his son's marriage to a woman of Irish Catholic background, described today's reality with the following comment about his grandchildren: "I realize that their lives will probably not be very different from what they would have been had Barbara [his son's wife] been a relatively irreligious Jew rather than a relatively irreligious Catholic."

But we are obsessed with intermarriage.

Two news items from last year (before intermarriage was temporarily overshadowed by the pluralism debate) provide a good example of our obsession; one questioned if intermarriage is really so prevalent, the other addressed how we can best prevent it. Author and journalist J. J. Goldberg, in a New York Times op-ed piece, argued that the intermarriage rate isn't 52% (as the 1992 A.J.P.S. study stated) but "only 39%." Since intermarriage is not as prevalent as we feared, we are not in such deep trouble.

The reaction, printed in the Times letters column, was furious; several writers argued that the intermarriage rate is indeed high, and therefore we are in serious trouble. A similar reaction occurred when the New York Jewish Week reported on Goldberg's article and the reaction to it. Yet Goldberg and his detractors agreed that intermarriage is the index by which we judge the health of the American Jewish community.

To be sure, the intermarriage rate reflects the weakened state of the American Jewish community in a most dramatic way. But other statistics also point to a community in trouble:

If our intermarriage rate were zero, these other statistics would give us to worry about. Why should intermarriage get all the attention?

The Forward reported the results of a new study on how to prevent intermarriage by Hebrew Union College professor Bruce Phillips; this questioned whether day schools were effective preventing intermarriage and suggested that summer camps, teenage social groups and trips to Israel would be more effective. The reaction was again furious; the Forward quoted several authorities as saying that day schools are indeed the most effective way to prevent intermarriage. Several letters to the editor made the same point. Still, Phillips and most (not all) of his detractors agreed that the raison d'etre of Jewish day schools is to prevent intermarriage.

This illustrates the manner in which intermarriage has distorted our communal priorities. We now judge synagogues, community centers, schools, camps, teenage and college programs, etc., by one standard alone: Do they prevent intermarriage? And here, I agree with the outreach lobby; preventive measures per se don't work. This does not mean we should not invest in day schools, summer camps, trips to Israel, youth groups, all of which have been sold to the public as preventive measures. However, we should stop expecting them to prevent intermarriage and focus on what they are really supposed to accomplish, which may be much more important.

Bruce Phillips and his study provide a good example of the wrong focus. The Forward reported that Phillips, convinced that day schools will not protect his children against intermarriage, "pulled his children out of Jewish day school and plans to spend the money he saved to bring the kids with him on trips to Israel and to send them to Jewish summer camps."

An important fact was lost, which was pointed out by several of the Forward's letter writers. The purpose of a day school education is not to prevent intermarriage; it is rather to give a thorough and comprehensive Jewish education in an environment conducive to inculcating a Jewish lifestyle. One should judge its efficacy by how it fulfills that purpose and no other. In using intermarriage as his standard, Mr. Phillips betrays some very misguided priorities. But he is not alone. Those quoted by the Forward, as well as several letter writers, accepted the premise, disagreeing only with the conclusions.

But Jewish education is not the only thing the intermarriage obsession has obscured. In the recent Forward article, the chairman of the committee who drafted the statement was quoted as saying that intermarriage is a more fundamental issue than whether an employee observes Shabbes or Kashrus. He is not alone; in an address to the 1991 convention of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Jack Moline listed ten things Jewish parents do not say enough to their children. Stated in order of importance, they are:

If the Conservative movement believes in the observance of Halacha, there's something wrong with a list which places marriage above such things as Kashrus, Shabbes, Jewish learning, prayer, and tzedakah, any one of which is mentioned in our religious literature far more often. Marriage to another Jew doesn't assure observance of the other mitzvos, but observance of the other mitzvos almost always assures marriage to another Jew.

A person who observes Shabbes, Yom Tov and Kashrus, who engages in Jewish learning and prayer, and who makes these his or her core values will look to marry someone who does the same. Invariably, that person will be Jewish. Teach a child to make them his or her core values, that child will carry those values into adulthood, and will look for a marriage partner who does the same.

(On a purely psychological level, Rabbi Moline's ranking also fails. To a child or adolescent, marriage is an abstract concept with no relevance to his or her immediate life. As one college student told a Moment writer, "Nobody I know seriously thinks about marriage ... In college, you're not looking to get married." On the other hand, mitzvos such as Shabbes, Kashrus, and learning if taught properly, are immediately relevant, be it to a child, a teenager, or a college student.)

And yet, I see some hope for the future in Rabbi Moline's list; he lists ten things parents should say to their children. That's nine more than most parents have said in the past fifty years. Even better is his comment, "Personal observance and commitment to Jewish tradition is crucial for one's Jewish life and is not just a series of steps and inoculations against intermarriage."

In other words, Jewish is as Jewish does. If the Conservative movement really wants to hire role models for leadership positions, it should look to far more factors than just marriage. If the Jews are to survive as a people, there has to be a better reason than to restrict the choice of who to marry.

New JWR contributor Lawrence M. Reisman is an attorney and certified public accountant practicing in New York City.


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