Intermarriage and Identity: Who Is Gathered Around the Seder Table?
Ha’aretz’s U.S. correspondent Shmuel Rosner uses Passover as an opportunity to explain the contentious intercommunal debate over intermarriage to readers of the online magazine Slate.
Rosner, the rare Israeli who is genuinely fascinated by American Jewish life (sort of a 21st-century Israeli de Tocqueville), seems to be more sympathetic to the beleaguered pessimists, discussing at length the views of researcher Steven Cohen, who has established himself as a leading voice of gloom when it comes to the Jewish identities of the intermarried.
Lurking behind the debate over intermarriage, of course, are different ways of understanding Jewish identity: Some see choice as central to Jewish identity. Just as one chooses a marriage partner, one chooses whether or not to identify with Judaism, whether one has two Jewish parents or one Jewish parent (or even no Jewish parent). Adherents to this strain of thought, unsurprisingly, tend to be more optimistic about the possibility of successfully engaging the intermarried. Simply make Judaism a welcoming and attractive choice, and people will opt to identify as Jews. Indeed, some argue that intermarriage, rather than being a problem, represents an opportunity to increase Jewish numbers.
For others, the Jews are primarily (though not exclusively) understood as a community of putative common descent. Jewish identity is the result of an inheritance passed down by our ancestors from time immemorial. In this understanding, a heritage that belonged to only half of one’s ancestors tends (as a general rule, though certainly not in every case) to exert less of a hold on one’s loyalties and imagination. A high rate of intermarriage, therefore, is cause for concern about Jewish continuity.
In America, with its smorgasbord of spiritual choices, and where Jews are often considered a religious group, akin to Methodists or Muslims, the former model looms large in our self-understanding. In Israel, where Jewishness is defined as an ethno-national identity — and the notion of common descent is the tie that binds (however tenuously) secular and religious alike — the latter model holds sway.
My sympathies tend more toward the second view. That’s why I think Rosner hits the nail on the head when he writes:
Passover, more than any other Jewish holy day, is the one in which Jews celebrate not their religion but this strange concept of becoming a people. This idea, of Jewish people-hood—the historic fact that Jews, for generations, didn’t see themselves as just sharing their faith, but also their national fate—will be the one most challenged by the influx of people from other religions into the Jewish community.