Just over five years ago, a well-intentioned rebbetzin presented me with a gift. I thought it might be a book on Jewish feminism or ritual, the things I am most passionate about academically. Instead, I found an orange book that boldly displayed its title: “Dear Rabbi, Why Can’t I Marry Her?”
At the time, I was in love with a boy who had a cross tattooed on his chest. Needless to say, I was more than a bit put off by her implied condemnation. Still, much to the chagrin of my younger self, I did eventually leave my partner and decide I could never again date somebody who wasn’t a Jew. There were too many things I had to explain, too many traditions they wouldn’t “get,” and, most of all, too much pushback from the Jewish communities in which I feel at home.
Last year, I found myself in a graduate seminar in race theory in my university’s philosophy department. There I learned early on that nearly every modern discipline — sociology, genetics, medical pathology, anthropology and history, just to name a few — would include Judaism as a race. And that’s when I began to wonder about the implications of our cultural push against intermarriage.
I spent the semester researching this question, but also questioning myself. Why did I feel so strongly that I had to be with a Jew? Would being part of a Jew-only couple somehow make me more Jewish? Was this, in some way, declaring those who aren’t in my race to be unworthy of me? Was it immoral?
Within Jewish culture, attitudes prioritizing endogamous marriage -– that which is only between two Jews –- are the norm. Stemming from biblical text and bolstered by both tradition and oppression, there is a prevalent idea that Jews naturally belong only with other Jews, and that intermarrying is a slight against the tribe. It is true that children with only one Jewish parent have historically been less likely to retain a Jewish identity. But that historical trend is changing, with more milleninal children of intermarriage identifying as Jews than ever before. I started to wonder if we ought to consider where the line is between practice and prejudice.
Furthermore, there is a big difference between wanting to marry someone who shares your religion and wanting to marry someone who shares your race. I believe that if you’re a religious Jew and you believe your partner should be one as well, this stems from a religious source. However, if these calls for universal in-marriage allow for either party to be a Jew of no religion, some amount of that conviction is based on ideas of racial purity.
Just ask Chabad: “If a man finds himself with a choice between two women, one Jewish and one non-Jewish, should he marry the Jewish woman just because she is Jewish? The answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’” Try replacing that with “white” for a second, and you see where I’m coming from.
Of course, there’s a difference between Jews preferring to marry each other and whites doing the same. Jews are historically victims of majority-group racism, and the encouraged endogamy is often based on self-preservation more than on a disapproval of others. Communal memory of trauma is powerful and important, and reinforcing a community is a tool of defense against emotional harm and a foundation for solidarity. We focus on this, and our belief that Jews should marry Jews is about the perpetuation of a religious culture and group, and not about keeping others out. It’s about sharing beliefs, history, values.
At least that’s what we say.
But that’s an extremely fine line — and it’s time to admit that.
Marry a Jew: Even if they aren’t religious, at least you’ll continue your pure family tree. Marry a Jew: Even if they’re totally secular, they’re somehow better for your religion than a supportive Other could be. Marry a Jew: No matter how you lead your household, having a Christian in it will threaten our people. Their actual practice doesn’t really matter. Just marry a Jew. Do it, and it will validate you in our eyes.
It should be noted that conversion, of course, takes away the DNA link. Judaism is unique in its being a race one can opt into, and I’d argue those who’ve made the commitment to convert are more likely to be marrying Jewish for religious values over racial perpetuation. All the same, conversion making a marriage with a formerly non-Jewish person kosher still points to the forced importance of a solely Jewish-identifying lineage.
It’s not a religious argument. It’s a racial one. It’s about keeping a people undiluted and preventing the adoption of other cultural traditions, which are clearly evil and out to usurp us. It’s a belief that it’s our duty to keep everyone else away, rather than to strengthen our own traditions so that they can stand equally and simultaneously with others. In my mind, it’s the easy way out.
Everyone’s worried about a loss of culture and a declining people. Me too — but the problem isn’t intermarriage. In fact, in a world where the definition of Judaism is constantly changing, intermarriage allows for a greater number of children to identify with Jewish culture and values than ever before, even as a “Jew of no religion.” Yes, it’s true that the statistics show a stark difference in practice between children of two Jewish parents and children of intermarriage, but a recent study has proved that by encouraging engagement with the community, we can near even this out. For example, only 36% of children of intermarriage with no college Jewish involvement say they go to services “a few times a year” (compared with 65% of children with two Jewish parents in the same position) — but add in a Jewish college group, Birthright and one course in religion or Israel, those numbers jump to 75% and 81%, respectively.
It’s exponential. It means that a child of intermarriage exposed to the right experiences could end up more involved. When we commit to encouraging education and providing opportunity, intermarriage just isn’t a threat.
This idea that intermarriage is dangerous is a judgment, pure and simple. It implies that other lifestyles are inferior, and that we ourselves aren’t strong enough to uphold our own. And at the end of the day, it’s racist to insist on marrying within your own race for no other reason than they are the same as you. Sure, if you’re religious, seek out a religious partner who shares your beliefs and practices — but if you’re nonreligious, or think that it’s better to marry a nonreligious Jew than a gentile open to your lifestyle, maybe it’s time to consider what your intentions really are.