The term “intermarriage” is confusing, vague, archaic and, well, creepy. It’s time for Jewish communities to move away from using this language when writing or talking about families. As the child of interfaith parents, and as the parent of grown interfaith children, and as someone who works full-time on interfaith family issues, I can give you at least four reasons why we need to move on and leave the “intermarriage” language behind.
1) Associations with racism
Try searching the word “intermarriage” on Twitter or Google. These searches will plunge you into an unappetizing stew of statements about miscegenation and inbreeding, from all across the globe. In the United States, historically, intermarriage refers to opposition to black and white interracial marriage. As a result, writing about the “problem of Jewish intermarriage” links Jewish communities to undercurrents of racism, tribalism, exclusion and intolerance.
2) Contronymic confusion
The word “intermarriage” causes queasy confusion because it’s a contronym; it has two diametrically opposed meanings. Such words are also called Janus words, after the Roman god of beginnings and endings, depicted with two faces. For example, “to cleave” — which can mean “to cut in two” or “to cling” — is a common contronym.
I enjoy the poetic buzz of cognitive dissonance created by contronyms. But these inside-out, self-cancelling words become dangerous when applied to complex social concepts. In the case of intermarriage, the word can mean either marrying within a group (endogamy) or it can mean exactly the opposite: marrying out (exogamy).
In short, to intermarry can mean either marrying your first cousin, or marrying out of the tribe. We are left to glean the meaning solely from context, often based on who is writing about whom. So, the “problem of intermarriage” may refer to genetic disease among European royalty, or the Amish, or Ashkenazi Jews, or any insular group. On the other hand, the “problem of intermarriage” can also refer to the fears of assimilation when people from any minority marry into any majority.
3) Implicit bias
This brings us directly to the third problem with intermarriage, which is that the word betrays a clear bias. A writer using the word “intermarriage” takes a position and associates with a single group, admitting that they see someone marrying out and someone else marrying in. As a result of this bias, Jewish researchers supported by Jewish funders with an intermarriage perspective rarely consult the Christians or those of other religions (or of no religion) who are the partners and spouses in interfaith families. The intermarriage perspective leads directly to ignoring and erasing the Buddhist or Hindu or atheist family members, effectively “othering” them.
Instead, we should be looking at interfaith families from both sides, with balance and equity, rather than through a single religious frame. As an interfaith child, I do not see one of my parents as marrying out and the other parent as marrying in. I give equal weight to each parent. From my perspective, they are both marrying out, and they are both marrying in.
4) Shift away from marriage
Finally, the word “intermarriage” is problematic because we are in the midst of a huge shift away from marriage in the United States and Europe. When parents have never married, or when they get divorced and share custody, it’s inaccurate to call them intermarried, but they are still interfaith families. Why stumble through the awkward “intermarried-or-interpartnered-or-divorced-or-headed-by-grandparents-or-guardians” language, when we could include all these families under the rubric of interfaith families?
I understand that “intermarried” may sound more inclusive than “interfaith” to those who are disaffiliated from religious institutions, and those who claim a more cultural Jewish identity. I appreciate that argument, but for me it’s outweighed by everything that makes intermarriage a deeply problematic word. And substituting in the word “intercultural” seems overly vague and confusing.
We have a history of calling ourselves interfaith families, with pride, through three generations in my family now. Young families seeking support Google “interfaith families.” So there are very practical reasons to stick with this historical term of art. Finally, I claim interfaith as the adjective of choice for my family because it resonates with a positive set of associations: interfaith dialogue, interfaith bridge-building and interfaith peacemaking. In contrast, the word “intermarriage” alienates millennials sensitive to issues of exclusion, racial oppression, intersectionality and social justice.
I recently spoke to an audience of young interfaith couples in Chicago. The group included a young woman born into a Jewish/Christian interfaith family who has a Hindu partner, and a young man from a Jewish/Christian interfaith family who was there with his Muslim partner. They are part of what I call “Generation Interfaith.” Who is intermarrying whom here? That question itself is anachronistic. As we accelerate into the 21st century, “intermarried” no longer makes sense in describing the complexity of our families or our identities.
Susan Katz Miller, a former Newsweek reporter, is the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.” Follow her on Twitter, @susankatzmiller