Almost thirty years ago, my father invited me to attend a round table discussion on intermarriage. He was a leader in the local Jewish community, a vice president of an important Jewish organization. I was a rabbinical student, with clear instructions – sit in the corner; shut up. The various machers went around the room sharing ideas about how to combat intermarriage. Mostly they came up with creative dating schemes, ways for Jews to meet and presumably marry other Jews. But my father, a Conservative rabbi, raised his hand and said, “we need to teach our children how to intermarry.”
He meant we need to imbue young Jews with enough self confidence and pride that even if (or, really when) they intermarry, they’ll insist on raising their kids as Jews. But the idea that we would sanction intermarriage, coming from a rabbi, seemed so shocking that most folks around the table assumed he was kidding. He did, in fact, have a mischievous gleam in his eye when he spoke, but I recognized it not as humor but joy in being the contrarian. He liked to shake things up.
In any case, he was clearly correct. None of the dating schemes or the refusals to officiate, or pushing away the non-Jewish spouses during bar-bat mitzvah ceremonies, or the sometimes complex conditions some rabbis put on intermarried couples — take these classes, perform these rituals, structure the ceremony in these ways, stand here during this ceremony, but not here; say this, but not this — made a dent in what we now recognize was inevitable. In a free and prosperous country, Jews are going to meet and marry non-Jews in large numbers, no matter we do. Not only was my father correct, I sometimes now think he didn’t go nearly far enough. Rather than refusing to officiate at intermarriages, we should have insisted that we were exactly who these couples needed to sanctify their union, without conditions. At least then, Jewish spirituality would have had a voice and role in the most important day in the lives of a generation of young Jews (and many non-Jews). Instead of rejecting their most important and intimate decision, we could have helped them celebrate, and kept them close. But we pushed them away.
Of course, all this is in retrospect. Few of us at the time knew that intermarriage rates would explode to 70% on the West Coast, and higher in San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area. But we should have recognized then that the issue was always larger than intermarriage. Really, the issue was non-Jews: what to do about them, what to think, how to live outside ghetto walls, in constant often intimate contact with gentiles. When I was growing up, the word assimilation was often a pejorative, especially in my Orthodox Jewish day school. “You’re assimilating” was an insult my fourth grade teacher hurled at me, when he found out I played baseball on Saturdays, and I hung my head in shame. But of course I was assimilating; I lived in America, in suburban Cleveland. We were all assimilating. He might have said that despite having a father for a rabbi, playing baseball on Shabbat with non-Jews was a slippery slope toward abandoning my Jewish identity altogether. But I suspect there were deeper fears. After all, Cleveland in the 1960’s was only a generation and an ocean removed from non-Jews trying to kill us, fiercely and systematically. Our fears of assimilation weren’t only about disappearing into the majority. They carried with them a lingering distrust of non-Jews.
There’s a famous and amazing story from Genesis that captures the attitudes that led to our wildly ineffective responses to intermarriage. After Isaac is born, Sarah, Isaac’s mother wants to expel Ishmael and his mother because she sees the older boy metzahek. The word might mean “play” or “laugh.” Rashi, the great commentator, offers three possible explanations: sexual molestation, physical violence, or idol worship. But the word itself clearly comes from the same root as Isaac’s Hebrew name Yitzhak. So the verb could also mean “Isaacing,” becoming Isaac, encroaching on Isaac’s identity, somehow merging with him.
The verse then, with Rashi’s comments, contains all of the insecurities we felt then about non-Jews. They threaten us physically. Or they engage in non-Jewish practices which tempt us. Or, more subtly, they threaten our distinctive identity. They come too close, sometimes into the very walls of our synagogue, or on the bimah. These attitudes colored all our thinking about intermarriage. But things have changed. Nowadays, non-Jews are a crucial part of our Jewish community. Probably the most impressive and effective Jewish organization in my town of San Diego is Jewish Family Services, which mostly serves non-Jews, and whose staff includes a high percentage of non-Jews, but is still an undeniably Jewish agency. The Jewish day school where I work employs many dedicated non-Jewish faculty and staff, all of whom contribute greatly and positively to the explicitly Jewish mission of the institution. AIPAC proudly proclaims how it appeals to non-Jews.
And, of course, many of the non-Jews now married to Jews take the lead in creating Jewish moments for their kids. Imagine what they would have done if, instead of rejecting them on the most important day of their lives, we embraced them. It’s probably time to start.