Embracing Intermarriage?

Noam Shpancer, the always controversial columnist for The (Columbus, Ohio) New Standard, an undiscovered gem of a Jewish newspaper, has written a new essay sure to stir up the paper’s more traditional readers. It’s titled Nu’ Ma? Let’s embrace intermarriage.

He is for welcoming interfaith families, but for a slightly different, and more radical, reason than typical outreach advocates. He notes that both sides of the intermarriage debate in the Jewish community “agree that protecting Judaism is the superseding goal.” For Shpancer, the value of that goal deserves “critical scrutiny.”

Promoting Judaism is not superior, as a value, to advancing the cause of humanity as a whole. Being a good person is more important then being a good Jew. And it’s hard to deny that intermarriages, with their tendency to foster the intimate knowledge and full humanization of the “other,” embody a more promising future strategy for humanity than the bitter historical legacy of tribal separatism and animosity.

In Shpancer’s eyes, outreach advocates’ rationale is wrong even if their tactics are right. He sees the value of the continuity of any particular culture as ultimately contingent on its serving the greater purpose of bettering humanity. In Shpancer’s view, intermarried couples should be embraced because they promote humanity, not just Judaism. Moreover, the very phenomenon of intermarriage itself–not just already intermarried couples–should be promoted as a way to improve humanity.

If you accept Shpancer’s assumption that the ever-greater intermingling of races, religions and cultures will lead to greater peace and harmony, then his argument is rock-solid. But his universalist humanistic ethics are an ideal, not a reality.

While every religion or ideology may start out innocently as a system of universalist ethics, ultimately that belief system must gain cultural trappings to maintain group cohesion. And group cohesion is not merely a way of sustaining power and excluding the “other” to make insiders feel safe; group cohesion and discipline can help enforce sound moral codes. For all the faults of Islamist regimes, a widespread sense of moral responsibility (both self-enforced and state-enforced) keeps crime low. For whatever reason, humans have yet to be able to embrace a non-exclusive universalist system of ethics. We need cultural specificity and defined boundaries. To promote behaviors that don’t recognize this reality is naive at best and irresponsible at worst.

The Emerging Consensus

Shmuel Rosner, Ha’aretz‘s intrepid American correspondent, has started an ambitious series on American Judaism. The first article, Reaching Out to Interfaith Families, focuses on intermarriage through the microcosm of Boston. It’s an appropriate starting point. We are based just outside Boston, in Newton, and the 2005 demographic study of Jewish Boston released last year showed that 60% of interfaith couples were raising their children Jewish. More recently, Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, rankled traditional Jews everywhere with his critique of Modern Orthodox attitudes toward intermarriage, The Orthodox Paradox.

While in Boston, Ed Case and I met with Rosner and we had a very interesting debate. Rosner argues that there is an “emerging consensus” on intermarriage in the American Jewish community. While many leaders remain uncomfortable with intermarriage, there is a widespread acceptance that “intermarriage must be accepted and interfaith couples embraced,” according to Rosner. Ed didn’t completely agree. I argued that the statement should be amended: in non-Orthodox Jewish communities (synagogues, JCCs, etc.), there is a near-unanimous acceptance and embrace of interfaith families, but the leadership is much more ambivalent. That ambivalence can be measured by the paltry sums given to outreach to interfaith families.

I think Rosner’s new series is particularly significant for non-American, particularly Israeli, readers. Israelis often are willfully ignorant about the contours of the American Jewish community. They have a triumphalist attitude about the prevalence of assimilation and intermarriage in the States–without acknowledging their own privileged position as the only majority-Jewish country in the world. Other international Jewish communities, such as Britain and France, are way behind the United States in being welcoming to interfaith families. The British Jewish community especially is dominated by the minority of traditional Jews, who set a standard for religious involvement that few abide by. Everyone could learn from what Rosner refers to as “the great experiment” taking place in America.

The Rabbi Formerly Known as Half-Jewish

Not much time to blog today, but I need to mention these two great articles from The Jewish Week that are now a few days old:

Rabbi Beth Nichols, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, writes about her experience as an interfaith child in the rabbinical seminary. On Christmas day 2001, she was in Jerusalem at Hebrew Union College, attending a class on intermarriage:

I found it both ironic and disconcerting to be discussing intermarriage on Christmas Day. That morning I approached my professor to express my apprehension for the day’s class: “I know we’re talking about intermarriage, and, well, this is my first Christmas away from home.” Registering his look of surprise, I explained, “My Dad’s not Jewish, and Christmas was a really important time in his childhood, so it became an important time in my family. I’m Jewish, obviously, but Christmas has a lot of wonderful family memories attached to it.”

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The “Communal Welcome Mat”

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Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation (one of our funders), has written an important essay for The Forward titled “Let’s Put Out a Communal Welcome Mat.”

Adam, grandson of Samuel, founder of the Seagram’s liquor conglomerate, considers himself both an “insider” and an “outsider” in the Jewish world:

My Jewish education was limited as a child. I did not participate in communal or institutional Jewish life. The concept that I would need to marry-in to be accepted was never discussed.

I married the non-Jewish woman I fell in love with as a teenager, and we have raised four wonderful children. We have enjoyed an exclusively Jewish home for the better part of the last 18 years.

If not for my status as a “Bronfman,” my connection to the Jewish world would be much more tenuous. Where do I fit in? What is my place in the Jewish world and in my Jewish community?

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Saving Your Date From Hell

I’m always fascinated by the approach of other religions and cultures to interfaith and intercultural marriage. A few have similar concerns to the Jewish community; Zoroastrians, for example, share the same sense of anxiety over dwindling numbers. Others, however, have radically different perspectives on interdating.

Take Evangelicals, for example. Unlike Jews, a shrinking or static population is not a concern. Also unlike Jews, culture has nothing to do with their connection to each other. Belief–in God, in Jesus, in the need to embrace Jesus to go to heaven–is everything.
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The Associated Press and Officiation

Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll recently wrote an article about
the difficulties interfaith couples can face trying to find a rabbi to
officiate at their wedding. She gives examples of rabbis whose status as
rabbis is questionable, who do not respect Jewish tradition in the weddings
they conduct, and who charge unreasonable fees for their services.

Rabbi Lev Baesh and I were interviewed and photographed for the article. We
told her that there is a trend for more and more legitimate and respected
rabbis who do respect Jewish tradition to officiate at intermarriages
without charging unreasonable fees.
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Rosh Hashanah Round-Up

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this evening. The High Holidays can be a challenging time for interfaith families; Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are probably the two most inaccessible major holidays on the Jewish calendar. Fasting, spending all day in synagogue, paying hundreds of dollars to pray, listening to the powerful but atonal blasts of an instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn–it’s all quite strange and sometimes off-putting for the non-Jewish members of an interfaith family. But the message of the holidays–reviewing your misdeeds and making amends for them, and considering how you will change your life in the future–is potent and necessary.

Accroding to a recent National Rabbinic Leadership Survey conducted by STAR (Synagogues: Transformation And Renewal), 92% of rabbis are concerned with the need for their synagogues to reach out more to interfaith families, gays and lesbians, single parents and singles. A plurality of these rabbis (45%) say their High Holiday sermons will focus on the need to participate in Jewish life beyond the High Holidays. Last year, this topic didn’t even make the top three of the most popular planned sermon topics. (Granted, the High Holidays did follow on the heels of the Israel-Lebanon war.)

But some people have already decided that traditional High Holiday services aren’t for them. As reported in The (New York) Jewish Week, they’re attending services at Chinese restaurants, in museums, at rented churches and on hikes through the Colorado wilderness. But as Rabbi Niles Goldstein, author of Gonzo Judaism and leader of non-traditional High Holiday services, says, “It’s very important to separate substance from shtick… The real challenge is to figure out what the right balance is.”
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The Link Sink

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I’ve been meaning to give a shout-out to our friends at Jew-ish.com for a while, but better late than never. Since February, they’ve had a blog on interfaith marriage called Half-Torah (clever title). It was originally written by a gay man named Brian who was converting to Judaism; since May, it’s been written by a Jewish woman named Becca married to a non-Jewish “Jew-ish” man. I haven’t read every post, but I believe “Jew-ish” means that he doesn’t have any Jewish roots, but he’s so involved in Jewish life that he’s essentially an honorary MOT. Check it out. Becca puts up new posts more frequently than I do, and she’s not even paid for it.

Here’s the latest update on the polls we’ve conducted since July 10, the last time I updated you on our polls. Our July 10 poll asked “Can a person be half-Jewish?” and respondents were almost evenly split: 53% said “Yes, of course” and 47% said “No, you’re either Jewish or you’re not.” The July 31 question also saw a fairly even split. In response to the question “Is divorce harder for an interfaith couple than an all-Jewish couple?”, 55% said for an interfaith couple, 45% said for an inmarried couple. However, in response to our Aug. 14 question–”Is making your partner happy a sufficient reason to convert to Judaism?”–nearly all of the respondents (90%) said No. And most of you (60%) thought that children should not be allowed to decide their religion for themselves, according to our Aug. 28 poll.

In Broward County, Fla., a large Jewish cemetery, the 52-acre Star of David Cemetery and Funeral Home, is adding 31 acres and 10,000 plots for intermarried Jews and their families.

Adam Goldberg, son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, says he is tired of being typecast as a neurotic Jew.

Interfaith, Interracial, International

In a continuation of its series on religion in black America, NPR interviewed Dara and Oded Pinchas, a black-Jewish couple who are expecting twins. Dara is an African-American Baptist while Oded is an Israeli Jew affiliated with the Secular Humanistic Movement.

They avoided the officiation issue by getting married on a beach in Hawaii. Dara says her family embraced Oded, while for his family, “It’s been a growing process… over time we’ve come to accept each other.” His parents, basing their definition of Jewishness on the widely accepted Israeli standard of Jewish maternity, are concerned that his children won’t be Jewish.
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