As a part of our Rabbi Roundtable series, we brought together leading rabbis from all corners of the Jewish world to offer their thoughts on the big questions. This week, we asked our rabbis, “Is intermarriage a problem? Or an opportunity?” Here are their responses:
Asher Lopatin, Orthodox, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School: Intermarriage is a great challenge to both the integrity of Judaism and the continuity of Jewry in America. With intermarriage outside the Orthodox Community exceeding 70%, we need a new approach. Expressing our fear and screaming “oy vey” just isn’t working. Instead, we need to find ways to bring intermarried families into Jewish communal life. We need to make conversion to Judaism more accessible to both the non-Jewish partner and the children, and in general, we need to show the beautiful, meaningful, and welcoming side of Judaism. Orthodoxy must remain against intermarriage, but we must be loving and welcoming to intermarrieds.
Adina Lewittes, Conservative, Sha’ar Communities: Intermarriage is. Period. Let’s focus less on whom you’re marrying and more on the Jewish life you and your family are living. How can Jewish holidays become a meaningful part of your life? What Jewish values guide your relationship to food and the environment? Where do you turn for spiritual inspiration, moral education, intellectual stimulation? When’s the last time you visited Israel? The polaroid of the Jewish family with only white, straight Jewish relatives is heading to the archives. Our angles are wider, our colors more varied, our music more harmonic, our food more seasoned. We may live in the marketplace of identities, but it can still be closed on Shabbat.
Gil Student, Orthodox, Editor of TorahMusings.com: We need to reclaim our terminology. Intermarriage is neither a problem nor an opportunity — it is a sin, a violation of a biblical prohibition. It is the most important decision of a person’s life, made contrary to Jewish tradition. The most effective preventive action is not guilt, but education. If someone finds Judaism exciting and central to his daily life, he will not consider a spouse who does not similarly place Judaism at the center of her life. This requires immersive, deep education both intellectually and experientially. If you want to dramatically reduce intermarriage, make yeshiva education a birthright for all Jewish children.
Jill Jacobs , Conservative, T’ruah: If we are concerned about the long-term sustainability of Judaism and of the Jewish community, the most important thing we can do is to build vibrant Jewish communities filled with meaningful prayer and serious learning, deep and loving relationships among individuals, and a commitment to live our Judaism in pubic through acting on our ethical and legal obligations to create a more just world. Such communities naturally inspire their members to build Jewish homes, whether with partners or without. The focus on in-marriage as the ultimate goal distracts us from the real work of creating the Jewish community and the Judaism that we and future generations will be proud to sustain.
Shmuly Yanklowitz, Orthodox, Author of “Torah of the Street, Torah of the Heart”: As we know from authoritative studies (like Pew), intermarriage generally has an effect of decreasing commitment to Jewish life. But this may partially be self-fulfilling: we are taught that interfaith families have no place in the greater conversation about Jewish continuity. Yet, pushing away interfaith families inevitably leads to alienation from the greater Jewish community and makes us weaker. With the proper inclusive programming and outreach opportunities, there are ways to make interfaith families feel welcome in the community, which will, in turn, spark interest in creating and perpetuating loving Jewish households.
Denise Eger, Reform, Former President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis: I hate the term intermarriage. We need to get rid of it. Some Jews marry other Jews. We hope that they will have a Jewish wedding ceremony and live a Jewish life. But even in these cases, there are no guarantees these days. We should be making more efforts to encourage connection to the Jewish community. Some Jews marry those who aren’t Jewish. Many of those who aren’t Jewish also aren’t any faith at all. This is an opportunity to encourage Judaism as the spiritual and religious practice of this new family. It is an opportunity to invite conversion at some point, to speak about the prospect of Jewish children in their lives. Occasionally (in my experience very rarely), some Jews marry those who are actively involved in another faith. This kind of marriage presents lots of issues, pitfalls and potential conflicts. It demands sensitivity and deep discussion of values and conversations about the future of the children. But the American Jewish community must learn to respond in a more welcoming and open way. I officiate at marriages between a Jew and someone who isn’t yet Jewish but only after careful discussions and a sense that they are moving toward a Jewish home life and a Jewish future.
Aaron Potek, Pluralist, Gather DC: We need to stop acting like all intermarriages are indistinguishable. A Jewish atheist who marries a non-Jewish atheist is not doing the same thing as an Orthodox Jew marrying a practicing Catholic. We also need to stop focusing on the act of intermarriage. Marrying Jewish cannot be a value when Judaism itself isn’t a value. Finally, we need to stop ascribing so much meaning to the act of intermarriage. Yes, sometimes it’s a rejection of Judaism. But more often, it’s not. Many intermarried couples are open to and even interested in raising Jewish children. Let’s not push them away.
Ari Sytner, Orthodox, Author of “The Kidney Donor’s Journey”: A young man who became engaged to a non-Jewish woman once described to me the pain he saw in his parent’s eyes. I asked him if their reaction surprised him, to which he said, “Yes, I was shocked, because for the last 27 years, they never once discussed who I should or should not marry.” Although we have moved beyond the days where parents sit shiva for children who intermarry, it is important for parents and educators to proactively emphasize the value and importance of marrying Jewish. By definition, a healthy marriage means putting the interests of others ahead of self — a value which certainly applies to a spouse, but also to one’s Peoplehood. As our society fully promotes the pursuit of one’s autonomy, children must be taught that Jewish continuity is far bigger than any one person’s desires. Nevertheless, I believe that for those who have already intermarried, it is crucial to find pathways of inclusivity for the entire family.
Joe Kolakowski, Orthodox, Lakeview Synagogue: I myself am a product of intermarriage. If I were not born Jewish, I would hope that I am being honest with myself to say that I would choose to convert to Judaism. At this point in my life, I bear no ill will to my mother, who was raised Orthodox, for marrying my father, who I love and respect just as I do my mother. I think my outlook on life is more open because of my upbringing. But to be totally honest, I understand that Judaism is not for everyone. A medieval Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac of Acre, a disciple of Nachmanides, wrote that not everyone born Jewish has a Jewish soul. More often than not, intermarriage, or general assimilation, are ways for Jews who are not interested in Judaism to leave. And I am not motivated to discriminate against people who were not born Jewish to share this faith. Sometimes, the Jewish spouse is the one holding back the non-Jewish born spouse from embracing Judaism, while other times the spouse who is Jewish-by-choice, or who remains non-Jewish, is the one who brings the Jewish spouse closer to Judaism. I don’t see any reason for a non-religious Jew to avoid intermarriage, other than tribalistic ethnocentrism that borders on racism. To the religious Jew, marriage is a sacrament. For the non-religious Jew, there is no such concern, so why would it be an issue to them? If such a Jew later decides to embrace a religious life, it should be easy for their life-partner to join them on this journey.
Scott Perlo, Conservative, Sixth & I Congregation: It’s not possible to ask the problem/opportunity question anymore, even in theory. The numbers are overwhelming; interfaith marriage is the reality of the Jewish people in the United States. Those demographics will change the way we think about being Jewish from something that a person is to something that a person chooses to be. When people come from dual heritage families, they are, largely, both those heritages, but people tend to select one as their personal path for the future. Because it requires choice, being Jewish will take more effort than it did in the past, and that’s where the opportunities and challenges lie. More effort means that those who choose it will be more devoted, and will feel more personal meaning. But those who don’t choose the Jewish part of their heritage will feel further away.
Shmuly Boteach, Orthodox, Author of “Judaism For Everyone”: Intermarriage is a problem because it leads to the erosion of Jewish identity. It can present an opportunity for those non-Jews who sincerely wish to embrace the Jewish faith, whether or not the catalyst is meeting a Jewish mate.
Rachel Barenblat, Renewal, Author of “The Velveteen Rabbi”: Intermarriage is an opportunity to welcome people who weren’t born Jewish into the delicious richness of Jewish life, Jewish time, Jewish learning, Jewish celebration and Jewish mourning: in short, Jewish rhythms and Jewish ways of being. There’s so much to learn and so much to love about our tradition — for the non-Jew who marries into a Jewish family, and often, for the Jew who intermarries, too. And non-Jews bring important spiritual “vitamins” into our tradition, too. The doctrine of deep ecumenism teaches that our shared journey is nourished and enriched when we recognize that other spiritual paths aren’t a threat to our own. Our job is to welcome, to teach and to learn.
Mitchell Wohlberg, Orthodox, Beth Tfiloh Congregation: Some years ago, a group of Native Americans sued in federal court to have the rights to a parcel of land they claimed had been part of their ancestral tribe, which would now make it eligible for a casino. The court ruled that because there was so much intermarriage over the years by members of the tribe, this could no longer be considered part of the original tribe. That is what happens through intermarriage — and that’s what could happen to the Jewish people if the rate keeps going the way it is. True, we no longer sit shiva, but equally true is that we cannot offer our blessings for an intermarriage. We must work harder to combat it now while engaging and encouraging conversion to those who do it.
Avram Mlotek, Orthodox, Co-Founder of Base Hillel: Wherever a question is posed with two options as answers, the truest answer is usually both. While intermarried couples have statistically shown to have lower Jewish affiliations, the focus on intermarriage as a “Holocaust” is grossly mischaracterized. If our Jewish communities seek to be relevant religious centers for the 70% of American Jews who choose to intermarry, it is incumbent upon us to welcome these families unabashedly and work with them as they strive to build Jewish homes. I am less interested in dictating decisions for others and more invested in modeling joyous Jewish living. My work at Base and Honeymoon Israel has only reaffirmed that the more we engage couples that have intermarried, the stronger our Jewish community will be.
Shalom Lewis, Conservative, Congregation Etz Chaim: I am not comfortable calling intermarriage an “opportunity.” To do so is foolish and trivializing. Intermarriage is the consequence to the Jewish community for promoting tolerance and equality and living in a free and open society. We have taught our children that they may love and marry whoever they wish, that we want them to be happy. I have suggested repeatedly as a rabbi that our generation is no different than earlier generations. When we lived in Brooklyn, South Philly, etc., our neighbors, friends, classmates were all Jewish. That’s who we met, that’s who we dated and that’s who we married. Those generations were no more committed than today’s, but the sociology of isolation then and anti-Semitism kept us apart. Today, we are paying a high price for acceptance and our demographic sprawl. Our dwindling numbers prove that we don’t have a universal discipline to live committed Jewish lives in a tolerant place. We are being hugged and kissed to death.
Benjamin Sendrow, Conservative, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla: Intermarriage is a reality. It is a logical result of Jews no longer being seen as Christ-killers, but as the older brother of Christianity. This is not to say that intermarriage does not present problems, the most obvious being how children will be raised. The worst option is showing them both religions and letting them decide for themselves. Among many other reasons, it is the worst option because it is saying that this issue was too hard for the parents to decide, so they put it on the children. Our biggest problem is the low rate of synagogue affiliation among non-Orthodox Jews. It is far too low even when both partners are Jewish, and lower still when only one partner is. That is a problem.
Adam Chalom, Humanistic, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism: Intermarriage is, has always been, and always will be in both Diaspora and in Israel. Its recent increase stems from increasing tolerance, acceptance and personal freedom – all positive developments. Of course, every advance challenges Judaism to remain relevant. If we reject reality, intermarriage becomes a problem. If we celebrate loving partnerships, intermarriage becomes an opportunity to expand the Jewish family. If the community, inspiration and sense of roots we provide are meaningful, we have little to fear from love and freedom. Is our family tree one trunk in a straight line, with errant branches pruned away? Or are there many branches, grafts and cross pollinations, bearing fruit in all directions? The choice is ours.
Adam Jacobs, Orthodox, Aish Center: Judaism views Jews and non-Jews alike as having been created “in the image of God” and are as such holy and of infinite value. Nonetheless, history has shown time and again that when Judaism is not significant enough of a value to find in one’s spouse, the very great likelihood is that Judaism will quickly disappear from that line. That would certainly seem to be a problem for Jewish continuity. It’s conceptually beautiful to be open and embracing of all people, but if preserving Judaism is the goal, it simply doesn’t work that way.
Uri Pilichowski, Orthodox, Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah: When addressing the issue of intermarriage, Maimonides quoted Exodus 34:16, and wrote, “The reason for the prohibition of inter-marriage with other nations is stated in the Torah by God: ‘You take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters will cause you to stray after their gods, and make your sons worship their gods.’” It seems ludicrous to have the audacity to change what God wrote for any reason. Did God not foresee our generations’ challenges? Of course God did.
Rachel Timoner, Reform, Congregation Beth Elohim: Intermarriage is a problem if we fail to perform the weddings and embrace the families who have intermarried and seek Jewish community. Intermarriage is an opportunity if we grow the Jewish people through conversion, raising all-Jewish kids with a non-Jewish parent, and celebrating the ever-expanding and evolving definition of what Judaism and the Jewish people look like.
Yitzchok Adlerstein, Orthodox, Cross-Currents: Nothing in contemporary Jewish life is more tragic for the community than intermarriage. Every intermarried male represents the end of a line that survived millennia; every intermarried Jewish female represents the near-certainty of the end of a line within a generation or two. (Sure, it is not a certainty, but you couldn’t get Lloyds of London to sell you a policy at almost any price ensuring a Jewish grandchild who identifies strongly with Judaism.) In the Orthodox community, we’ve been saying this for decades, and no one listened. After the last Pew report, it is incomprehensible that people still think that life can be breathed into moribund denominations, and that a combination of Jewish camps, culture, food and outreach to intermarrieds is going to delay the coming shrinking and irrelevance of Jewish communities outside of Orthodoxy. To think otherwise is more delusional than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; it is like worrying about reupholstering their cushions.
Rebecca W. Sirbu, Post-Denominational, Rabbis Without Borders: Intermarriage is an opportunity for the Jewish community on several levels. One, the more people who meet Jews, and have Jews as part of their families, the less Jews will be seen as “other” and be the focus of anti-Semitism and discrimination. Second, many people who marry Jews are interested in learning about Judaism. Some convert themselves and others commit to raising their children as Jews. In every case, there is an opportunity to grow the Jewish community and educate people about Jewish traditions, wisdom and ritual. Third, Judaism has always learned from and assimilated parts of the culture of its time. In the long run, Judaism as a tradition and peoplehood will grow stronger by welcoming new people and ideas into the community.