Is Your Opposition to Intermarriage About Fearing the Other?

Recently I gave a presentation at a JCC, the marketing of which included the statement, “Intermarriage is good, period.” One of the newly intermarried couples in attendance came up to me afterwards to confide the difficulty of their situation. One half of the couple was not Jewish, while the other half hailed from a disapproving modern-Orthodox family. The event at the JCC was the first offering they’d seen from the Jewish community that presented intermarriage as positive. And my first thought was, “Still?”

Growing up in the early 1980s, the rabbi at my Conservative synagogue took every opportunity to sermonize against intermarriage as the destruction of American Jewry. His efforts did not prevent my own intermarriage, but they did guarantee that I wasn’t coming back to that synagogue once I was intermarried.

Today, the explicit demonizing of the intermarried has mostly subsided in liberal Jewish communities, but the institutional privileging of in-marriage over intermarriage remains. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are prohibited from officiating at intermarriages under any conditions; Reform rabbis can choose to officiate but only about half will do so. The Reform seminary will not accept intermarried applicants and the Reconstructionist movement encountered significant pushback last year when it made the morally correct decision to accept intermarried rabbinic students.

Only my admittedly much smaller movement, Secular Humanistic Judaism, unabashedly celebrates intermarriage, with all our rabbis officiating at interfaith/intercultural weddings and several of our rabbis intermarried themselves.

The anti-intermarriage stance within much of the organized Jewish community (or “pro-in-marriage” stance as they might see it) is becoming increasingly untenable in light of the growing numbers of intermarried Jews.

And yet, changes in attitude toward it lag behind the reality of most Jews. Why? Jewish religious prohibition against intermarrying can’t be the full explanation, when so few Jews are religious. Nor can a loss of Jewish identity explain this mystery. Despite the fact that a handful of Jewish sociologists have been worrying for decades that intermarriage leads to assimilation, a 2013 Pew survey found more Jews in America today than at any time in U.S. history, in part because so many intermarried households are raising their children with a Jewish identity. “In this sense,” the authors of the Pew survey later wrote, “intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans.”

What this suggests is that the second justification for fearing intermarriage also fails to hold water. For the past half-century, as more Americans of other backgrounds have fallen in love with and married Jews, the arguments against intermarriage — whether “because God” or “because sociology” — seem increasingly tribal and insular. Indeed, it’s time to recognize that xenophobia is a part of the objection to intermarriage, and to open up an honest conversation about it.

Xenophobia is the fear of that which is foreign or strange, usually expressed by an ingroup towards an outgroup. It stems from the fear of loss of identity, and the belief that mixing with others will dilute that which is uniquely ours. And it’s simply undeniable that the fight against intermarriage can be so categorized.

For decades, the fight has focused on “strengthening Jewish identity,” presuming Jews intermarry because they don’t have a solid connection to the beauty of their heritage. But it’s not Judaism per se that’s being rejected when Jews intermarry. Pew found that almost all intermarried Jews are still proud to be Jewish, and a majority incorporate aspects of Jewish life into their children’s upbringing. Interfaith dating and intermarriage are a rejection of tribalism and xenophobia, and should be celebrated as such.

That’s not the purpose of anyone’s marriage, of course. The whole business of measuring marriage as either good or bad for the Jews is morally corrupt. Marriage is an expression of love and commitment between two people, not a statement about their Jewish identity one way or the other.

The privileging of one type of marriage over another continues to cause great pain. When Jews come back to the rabbis who bar or bat mitzvahed them requesting wedding officiation and are turned away because of their non-Jewish partner, no matter how kindly the rejection, it makes a statement on behalf of the Jewish community: the desire to marry this person is wrong and the Jewish spouse is less deserving because of it.

I’m told that the recent increased pushback against their anti-intermarriage stance is leaving some rabbis feeling “besieged,” as if it is they who are the marginalized population, and not the ones doing the marginalizing. Rabbis are still the voices of power in the Jewish community, and they should try to better understand what the pushback is about. On this subject, the laity is out ahead of much of the rabbinate morally.

Still, I see an emerging recognition from some of our community’s most innovative thinkers that “strengthening Jewish identity” is an outmoded approach. It presumes an inherent Jewishness by birth and blood. Instead, placing the focus on how Judaism works to make people’s lives better or to make the world a better place may be both a more effective and more ethical approach. Rather than trying to police Jewish behavior, including marriage decisions, we should be focusing on how Judaism can provide meaning and open doors at any point people might encounter it, and for anyone who might benefit — including non-Jewish family members.

I’m one of the few intermarried executive directors of a Jewish organization. My board president at the Society for Humanistic Judaism is Jewish through his adoption of Humanistic Judaism, and Humanistic Judaism’s adopting him into our community and family. He is as Jewish and Jewishly knowledgeable as any lay leader I’ve met in my two decades of Jewish communal service—and more importantly, he’s a mensch. That he would not be accepted as Jewish by the other denominations is, as I see it, their loss.

Likewise my children are not accepted as Jewish by the Orthodox and Conservative branches of Judaism. They will inevitably have to endure hurtful jabs like, “funny, you don’t look Jewish” or worse, that have turned away so many Jews of color and mixed-race/mixed-ethnicity children of intermarriage.

Unless there is a major initiative begun for engaging with and countering the xenophobia within our own community, most of the Jews leading the fight for a more diverse and inclusive future won’t be doing it within or on behalf of the organized Jewish community. And that would be a shame.

Paul Golin is executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism (www.SHJ.org).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Is Your Opposition to Intermarriage About Fearing the Other?

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