The Importance of ‘Marrying In’

By Avi Shafran

Published October 03, 2003, issue of October 03, 2003.
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Is it wrong for Jews to believe that Jews should marry other Jews?

The question was raised during the national political campaign in 2000, in the context of Senator Joseph Lieberman’s vice presidential candidacy. As an observant Jew, the senator was assumed to embrace the religious tradition’s view on intermarriage, a view unarguably and unambiguously negative. After offering an arguable and ambiguous response to a radio personality who challenged him on the issue, the candidate was quickly taken to task by some of his less self-conscious co-religionists.

More recently, the intermarriage issue was invoked to question the fitness of Elliott Abrams to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council, a position to which he was appointed by President Bush. Abrams, a former Reagan administration official, has unabashedly defended traditional Judaism — including its insistence on what has come to be called “in-marriage” — and has prescribed its embrace as a means of helping preserve the American Jewish community’s identity and ensure its future. That stance, according to his detractors, disqualifies him from advising the president on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, currently the mainstay of his portfolio.

At issue, it seems, is whether a commitment to Jewish continuity is compatible with public service in today’s society. Now, there may well be prejudiced people within the religious Jewish world, as there are among all communities, whose bias may inhibit their public service. But they are most certainly not representative of our community. In fact, the Jewish religious imperative of darkei shalom — the ways of peace — mandates exemplary behavior toward all humankind.

And yet, all the same, it is certainly true: Observant Jews do not choose non-Jews as spouses and want all Jews to marry other Jews. Is such support for in-marriage really beyond comprehension?

Some people — even some Jews — feel that the world would be better off were the Jewish people to cease to exist. That is not to say that they advocate our destruction — though, as in the past, there are certainly still proponents of that approach in our day — but many would prefer that Jews assimilate into the larger population. The British scholar and science writer Jonathan Miller gave eloquent voice to that stance when he expressed his feeling “that the Jew must constantly readventure and reventure himself into assimilation. He owes it to himself and to humanity to try and try again.”

“I just think,” he continued, “it’s the nobler thing to do, unless in fact you happen to be a believer in Orthodoxy, in which case there are self-evident reasons to keep doing it. But, if it’s done for the sole purpose of making sure that in the future you’ll be able to say the prayers for the dead when the Holocaust is finally inflicted again, then I think it is a damnable device.”

His logic would appear to be unassailable: No Jews, no antisemitism. And all too many Jews, during the last century or two, have followed Miller’s course of action, truncating their Jewish names, dropping Jewish religious observance, marrying non-Jews, moving to the “right” neighborhoods, trying in every possible way to blur all distinctions — even to pass as non-Jews themselves.

But many Jews, and others, feel otherwise, as does the Torah. We consider the perseverance of the Jewish people to be a high ideal, a goal to be pursued in every way possible. That position should not offend.

Consider: Since 1996, the rate of Jews who marry outside their faith is approximately 47%; during the 1970s it was 28%. According to a survey by the American Jewish Committee, 33% of the children of marriages between Jews and non-Jews are being raised exclusively as Christians, another 25% as “Jewish and Christian” and 24% with no religious identification at all.

To ears like Miller’s, that must be sweet music indeed. But to those who consider the continuity of the Jewish people to be a worthy concern, it is a most mournful dirge. There are approximately 2 billion Christians in the world, close to 1 billion Muslims and roughly 900 million Hindus. Even the North Korean Juche belief-system — have you even heard of it? — has 19 million adherents.

The world’s Jews, on the other hand, number around 14 million — and falling.

So should a concern for the continuity of the Jewish people really be something for which a government official can be taken to task? May civilized people be concerned only about endangered animal species and not endangered religious or ethnic groups?

Abrams’s concerns with Jewish continuity, in any event, are hardly at odds with his ability to advise the president on issues pertaining to Israel. Indeed, one might reasonably suggest, considering our country’s special relationship with Israel— and commitment to its survival as a Jewish state — that if anyone is inappropriate to advise our president it is someone with a “neutral” attitude toward Jewish continuity.

And so pundits and other interested parties might do well to seek scandals elsewhere and leave Abrams to his important work, and Lieberman to his, and to his current quest for the presidency. Those men’s religious sensibilities are neither bigotry nor any hindrance to their public service. In fact, considering the import to good leadership of empathy, idealism and commitment, those gentlemen’s convictions may well constitute a significant part of their qualifications.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America.

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