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Progressive Jews Need Torah in Intermarriage Fight

Steven Cohen’s statistics about the demographic decline of the non-Orthodox are at once sobering and depressing. On one level, this is a period of genuine ferment and creativity in parts of the liberal Jewish world. Yet on another, more basic level, the liberal movements are in demographic free-fall, and they show no signs of turning the tide.

Cohen rightly insists that “demography does matter.” He maintains that a plausible future for the non-Orthodox will depend, in part, on addressing “long-term demographic objectives, like inducing Jews to marry… Jews.” But here is where things get complicated. You do not convince Jews to marry other Jews by ringing alarm bells about intermarriage rates; you convince them to marry other Jews by engaging them in a Judaism that is meaningful, a Judaism that challenges and inspires them, a Judaism that penetrates, ennobles and enriches every aspect of their lives.

I share the view that for a robust Jewish future to be possible, an enhanced commitment to endogamy is vital. But I do not think that American Jews have an intermarriage problem; what we have, instead, is an intermarriage symptom. No amount of fretting about the symptom is going to make it go away. You deal with a symptom by identifying and attempting to heal the underlying malady. Now, obviously, there are many (many) exceptions to this rule, but many Jews marry non-Jews because Judaism is no longer the primary — or, even a significant — animating narrative of their life. Judaism no longer provides the vocabulary that gives shape and expression to their commitments; it is not their first, second, or even third language.

The key to demographic change is Judaic thickness or, if I may be permitted more traditional language, the key to demographic change is deeper commitment to Torah and mitzvot.

We can debate what Torah means and disagree about what it demands of us in this day and age. We can take different approaches to the role of academic scholarship in shedding light on Jewish texts; we can argue about the possibility — or necessity — of moral critique of tradition. We can disagree about the centrality of Jewish law for Jewish religious life, and we can struggle with precisely what Jewish law does and does not require (or permit). More concretely, we can disagree about the role of women in positions of pastoral, educational, and religious leadership and about how Jewish communities ought to respond to questions of gender fluidity. But in order for these conversations to have substance and significance, we have to know something about the texts and ideas we are discussing.

Practically speaking, that means a commitment to education. As Jonathan Sarna has observed, “Orthodoxy bet the house on education… and won.” If the non-Orthodox movements want to thrive, they too will need to bet the house on education —not on paper-thin slogans and catchwords, but on real, deep, substantive engagement with the texts and traditions of the Jewish people.

The best way to confront intermarriage, in other words, is to talk about intermarriage less, and about Torah more.

Shai Held is the co-founder and dean of Mechon Hadar and the author of “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence.” (Indiana UP, 2013)


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