Let’s get the formalities out of the way. We wish the happy couple siman tov u’mazel tov. A good sign and good fortune. Those sentiments translate in any religion, true?
After that, the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky gets a little complicated. Even though the bride is not Jewish and appears to have no intention of converting, there is an undeniable dose of tribal pride walking down the aisle here. The fact that the well-respected, well-protected daughter of one of America’s most powerful political couples chose to marry the grandson of a Jewish immigrant peddler is a milestone of sorts, a measure of social acceptance, a sign that we’ve arrived. What Jewish mother wouldn’t want her son to marry a princess? This is as close to aristocracy as it gets, at least until Malia and Sasha reach marriageable age.
But this nuptial is also representative of an increasingly vexing challenge within American Jewish life because we know that — apart from the celebrity and Secret Service — the Clinton-Mezvinsky union is fast becoming the new normal. The sorry statistic that almost half of American Jews are intermarrying points to an even more troubling reality: Two Jews marrying each other creates one in-married household. Two Jews marrying out creates two intermarried households — double the number.
And countless studies show that the children of those intermarriages are less likely to live Jewishly than the children raised by two Jews. Plainly put, this is not a recipe for future Jewish growth, or even stability.
Outside of strictly Orthodox communities, however, these worries over identity and continuity clash with other deeply held values. We want our children to lead happy and satisfying lives, with whomever they choose to partner. We want to be inclusive and egalitarian, to look beyond loyalties and labels, to shed the insularity of traditional Jewish life and the implicit arrogance that too often accompanies it. We are reluctant to privilege one fixed characteristic above all others. What, even Chelsea Clinton isn’t good enough for him?
Beyond these emotional tropes is a sociological trend: Young Americans of all faiths are increasingly viewing religion as a personal attribute and behavior choice, not a communal obligation. Jews are no different in believing that it’s possible to maintain one’s own faith and traditions while partnering with a Baptist or a Hindu or, for that matter, an atheist.
Focusing so intently on in-marriage in a society where relationships across racial, religious and ethnic lines are accepted and often celebrated can simply backfire, making fidelity to Judaism alone seem increasingly irrelevant. Tolerance of others is not a sign of weakness, but a value worth teaching and upholding.
Yet as a community, we do ourselves a grave disservice to deny the real consequences of intermarriage. True, in many intermarriages the non-Jewish partner either converts to Judaism or, without converting, creates a family in which children are educated Jewishly and rituals are observed. Unfortunately, this occurs in only a minority of instances.
Those who are ambiguous or conflicted about their Jewish attachment are likely to pass along those attitudes instead, leaving their children without the skills, understanding and passion to participate meaningfully in Jewish life. The real challenge today is to find ways to make the present Jewish conversation so intrinsically valuable that young Jews will want to participate, and those already intermarried will be drawn in. If we can do that, maybe she’ll convert, after all.