If we have arrived in a post-racial world, why is intermarriage still apparently a big deal for many people?
By Rabbi Mark B Greenspan
The prohibition against intermarriage in Judaism has never been an issue of ‘race.’ I would suggest that it has been a strategy for passing Judaism on from generation to generation. This is best accomplished in a home where people share common values, ideals as well as history. Having said that, our attitude to intermarriage today is different than in the past and we must deal with it differently than past generations.
Judaism is often described as “a way of life.” What we mean by this expression is that Judaism is not simply a matter of beliefs or even moral values but a comprehensive way of living in the world that includes beliefs, practices, worship, ethical values, culture, language and even food. Jews also share a common history and similar hopes for the future. And while we believe that Judaism has the power to heal and teach the world, we also believe that we can only accomplish this task by maintaining our own unique way of life.
The Bible suggests that the people of Israel were to become “a nation of priests and a holy people.” The word kadosh, holy, has a connotation of being separate and standing apart from others. Just as the priests in ancient Israel were a separate group from the other tribes in ancient Israel, so Israel is envisioned as a separate people. Of course, we are a surprisingly diverse group. We are not defined by race or even by ethnicity. So what does it mean to speak about Judaism in a world where the boundaries between race and ethnicity are become less and less important? Has Judaism become irrelevant or even a somewhat primitive tribal religion?
The best way to pass on the Jewish way of life and all that it entails is from parents to children in a Jewish home and within the context of a community of shared faith and practice. The doors of that community are open to anyone who wishes to join that community and make a commitment to that way of life. But ‘shared values’ make a big difference on the impact a way of life has on others. While it is not impossible to pass Judaism on within a family in which the members do not share the same faith; it’s just a lot harder. And it is for that reason that we encourage in-marriage.
We are living at a time when the boundaries between people have become much more fluid and the choices we can make are diverse than ever before. We no longer live in a ghetto surrounded by a hostile world. We also understand that marrying out of one’s faith does not mean that one has rejected one’s faith tradition or heritage. There are many families of mixed faiths in which children are being raised as Jews (or as Christians). The important thing is that families must make choices about how they wish to raise their children and what type of home they wish to have. At a time when many people do not necessarily have a religious heritage which they have embraced, it is important for Jewish leaders to welcome all people into our community. We have a unique opportunity to share the beauty of Judaism with others. The issue of intermarriage is not racial or national or even ethnic: it is all about communicating a clear message about religious beliefs, ideals and community to one’s children. It is for that reason that we need to encourage in-marriage, or at least to encourage intermarried couples to think about what their shared values should be.
The premise of this question assumes that Judaism’s rules governing marrying only those who share one’s Jewish religion is somehow a manifestation of racial discrimination. That is certainly contrary to how the pertinent verses in the Torah explain such a perspective:
Neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter
shalt thou take unto thy son. For he will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods…
When the verse stresses the concern that marrying someone who practices a different religion will possibly result in the Jewish individual renouncing his traditions in favor of someone else’s, it becomes clear that the issue under consideration is how best to assure the continuity of one’s religious heritage. If significant value is assigned to preserving a particular set of religious commitments and practices, then such beliefs and activities are obviously best reinforced within a family setting, where parents, children, grandchildren, etc. adhere to rituals and beliefs that have been passed down by the family and the community through the generations. When, however, religion is privatized and individualized rather than carried forward within a familial context, i.e., each person on his own is expected to attempt to support and pass on his/her own religious traditions independent of the practices and beliefs of his/her spouse and extended family, research has supported the conclusion that the odds against such a religion’s cultural and historical survival increase dramatically. Judaism is a social, communal religion, wherein what an individual considers to be his/her rights and privileges are sometimes subsumed to the needs, priorities and values of the greater group. The extent to which someone is prepared to comply with these requirements and make the requisite sacrifices is a function of how devoted s/he is to the preservation and vitality of the religious tradition in question. Consequently, an observant Jew can be very accepting and respectful of all racial and ethnic groups, even as s/he will consider only other Jews as potential spouses.
Your question is one of the most ticklish ones to answer and every rabbi, especially progressive rabbis, have struggled with it.
However, I want to clarify something about your questions. We have not arrived at a ‘post-racial world.’ And, even if we had, Judaism cannot be defined as a race in the customary use of the word. I think what you were asking is that since our world – especially the Western world – is so integrated, why should intermarriage be such a big deal.
Indeed, for many people it isn’t a big deal at all. You can see this in every Jewish community – yes, even Orthodox ones, where a Jew is married to a non-Jew. However, in the Conservative and Reform communities, the intermarriage rate is high. This is especially true in different parts of the country where, for various reason of demography and culture, intermarriage rates can approach 70%.
But, to get back to your question. Why is intermarriage such a big deal? It is a question of covenant.
It is relatively easy for a child to be educated in a Jewish manner as to the meaning of covenant and being a part of the Jewish people if the parents are Jewish. Even if there are no children, where the religio-cultural bonds are unquestioned, connection to the Jewish world is easy. And that connection to the Jewish family and to the covenant between God and the Jewish people is what being Jewish is all about. Our faith is a brit – a promise to God that our Jewish family is bound to Him (pardon the gender specificity but grammar dictates it).
When Jews marry out of the faith, let me be clear that I do not believe they have committed a sin. But it takes much more work to create a Jewish home when one partner is not Jewish. I have seen many families succeed beautifully in this regard and their children are knowledgeable and good Jews dedicated to the Jewish people and to Jewish life. But the parents in these cases decided to raise their children Jewishly, have an exclusively Jewish home and live in a Jewish environment which they actively created.
On the other hand, there are many families that choose to live in at least two religious traditions. The children are raised with two traditions. I know of no rabbi who sanctions this. As well, we have seen families where the parents may be afraid to choose for the child and so decide to leave the issue on the table until the child can decide what religion s/he wants to be. Sometimes this works, often it does not for a variety of reasons.
The issue of interfaith marriages matters because marriage matters. Jewish families that want to identify as Jewish families and live as Jewish families actively bind themselves to Judaism and the Jewish people. Being a part of the covenant is an active step, not merely something you are born into. Diminishing its importance or value is a diminution of the Jewish people.