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Our site is full of stories of people who encountered resistance to their interfaith relationships from Jewish family. But their problems pale in comparison to the rejection and ostracization experienced by Jews from the Orthodox community who are dating or married to non-Jews.
In her latest “In the Mix” column, Julie Wiener tells the story of “Ilana,” an intermarried Orthodox woman who “was urged to hide her children from her grandfather and tell him she was still single, for fear the news of her intermarriage would trigger a heart attack.” In the Orthodox world, intermarriage is one of the great taboos–perhaps akin to declaring yourself a racist in the secular world.
In the sciences all experiments require controls as well as subjects. Controls allow scientists to see if the expected results from an altered environment are any different than what would occur in an unaltered environment.
Typically, research on intermarriage in the Jewish community has looked at the effect of intermarriage on Jewish behavior as a binary proposition. If you’re intermarried, you act this way. If you’re inmarried, you act another way. But in recent years, more researchers have used controls in their research, controlling for variables such as level of Jewish education as a child and size of one’s personal Jewish network. Revealingly, when you control for level of Jewish “capital” when comparing the inmarried and the intermarried, gaps in Jewish behavior and participation shrink dramatically.
The latest study to add to this body of research comes from Leonard Saxe, Fern Chertok and Benjamin Phillips of the Cohen Center for Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Titled “It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah: Jewish Identity and Intermarriage,” the study controls for factors such as the Jewish partner’s pre-existing Jewish education and home religious practice.
As Sue Fishkoff of JTA reports, the study is muddying the waters of the intermarriage debate. Meanwhile, however, Steven Cohen, author of several of his own studies on or related to intermarriage, disagrees with the study’s conclusions, arguing that intermarriage is a deterministic factor in decreased Jewish involvement independent of other factors.
Further complicating the debate is another study soon to be released by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston which shows that the children of intermarried families being raised Jewish behave remarkably similarly to the children of non-Orthodox inmarried families.
When I get my hand on the actual studies, I will have more to add to the conversation.
A recent story in The Forward reported that Portland, Maine, has the highest rate of intermarriage in the country.
While true, the number cited in the story–61%–is a little different than the number typically used when citing intermarriage rates. The most commonly cited intermarriage rate is the percentage of married Jews who are married to non-Jews (the individual intermarriage rate). The 61%, however, is the household (or couples) intermarriage rate, which is the percentage of households with Jews that are intermarriages. The household rate is always higher than the individual rate. In Portland, the individual rate is 44%–which is not quite as shocking as 61%.
To understand why the household rate is always higher than the individual rate, one need only realize that it takes two Jews to form an inmarried household and only one Jew to form an intermarried household. Therefore, when you are calculating the household rate, one intermarried Jew counts as much as two inmarried Jews. If you had 12 Jews in a community, and six were intermarried, the individual intermarriage rate would be 50%. However, because the six inmarried Jews all have to be married to other Jews, there are only three inmarried couples (because six people make three couples). But there are still six intermarried households. So the household intermarriage rate in this 12-person community would be 66%.
During the maelstrom over intermarriage that occurred after the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, people were astonished that the reported intermarriage rate for the years 1995-2000 was 52% (a number which was since revised downward to 43%). But that was the individual intermarriage rate. Translated to a household rate, the national intermarriage rate for 1995-2000 would be an astonishing 68%!
Reform Judaism Magazine’s winter 2007 issue looks at the so-called “outreach revolution” through the eyes of children of interfaith households and their parents. The term “outreach revolution” is never precisely defined but I assume it is referring to the gradual change in the atmosphere, programming, outreach and membership of Reform synagogues that has changed the movement to the point that a near-majority of its members are from interfaith families. Given that the change did not happen abruptly, and significant outreach programming didn’t start until the early ’80s, it hardly qualifies as a “revolution”–more of an “evolution” really–but what’s an extra r between friends?
The issue has a nice symmetrical feel to it. It includes perspectives from three children of interfaith marriages as well as essays from the non-Jewish parent of each child. Lucas McMahon, a 17-year-old from Marblehead, Mass., talks about what it’s like to have red hair, green eyes and be Jewish and how his mother initially didn’t invite his Catholic grandmother to his bar mitzvah–only to be rebuked by grandma, who said, “Of course I am going to come… I would not miss this for the world.” Meanwhile, Lucas’ father Tim recounts his and his wife’s decision to raise their children Jewish:
Ed Siegel, the Jewish intermarried former theater critic for The Boston Globe, has written an amusing piece for the Globe about interfaith couples. It begins:
It’s a funny essay, but its point is less about the distinction between Jews and gentiles–his portraits strike me as a little tongue-in-cheek–than about the way that partners in a couple should complement each others’ strengths. In that way, intermarried partners can be a positive influence on each other because of their different cultural and religious backgrounds.
Interestingly, I think his theory is bogus. I’ve never noticed Jews having an exceptionally poor, or exceptionally good, sense of direction. But that’s why I also think his essay is notable. Even when the stereotypes have no connection to reality, I don’t mind seeing somebody put them in print. We should all be able to laugh out our foibles, whether real or imagined.
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.
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.
As I was reading the latest batch of think-pieces on Noah Feldman’s essay on intermarriage and Modern Orthodoxy in the New York Times, I couldn’t help but think of a book I’m reading, Rabbi Arthur Blecher’s The New American Judaism, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press in October.
Blecher’s central premise is that modern mainstream American Judaism relies on a set of myths and misguided motives to justify its current form. One of the myths is that intermarriage is decreasing the size of the American Jewish population. One of the misguided motives is that the most important reason to be Jewish is so that Judaism continues to survive. The former, Blecher argues, is factually incorrect; the latter is simply uninspiring, playing on Jews’ fears rather than their hopes.
Norman Lamm, the highly respected former president of Yeshiva University–the flagship of the Modern Orthodox movement–stoops to a surprising low in his critique of Noah Feldman’s essay on intermarriage and Modern Orthodoxy, on the Forward‘s website. He says that Feldman “succeeded in supplying via the New York Times article enough anti-Jewish material to last a few good years.” It’s the oldest trick in the book, and it’s been used to quell honest criticism of Israeli policies for years: don’t air our dirty laundry because it just gives the anti-Semites fodder for their hate.
But this argument rests on a false and cowardly premise. The “dirty laundry” argument assumes, ridiculously, that if only there weren’t negative information about Jews, Judaism or Israel, anti-Semites would realize that Jews really aren’t so bad. It also assumes that authentic critiques of Judaism are any more valuable to anti-Semites than the stuff they make up, like the Jewish blood libel and the Elders of Zion. But worse, crying anti-Semitism prioritizes the prejudices of idiots over the value of honest dialogue between intelligent Jews. And effectively, it doesn’t really matter. Anti-Semites are some of the most active and savviest users of the Internet. Don’t you think, Rabbi Lamm, that they can find all the anti-Jewish material they need (whether from Jews or non-Jews) on the World Wide Web?
To blame Noah Feldman for the fact that non-Jews are asking Orthodox Jews critical questions about their faith is a cheap shot. And, due to their substantial Jewish education, aren’t Orthodox Jews the best-equipped to respond to these questions in an intelligent and informed way? Indeed, one of the premises of Modern Orthodoxy is that one can be Orthodox and involved in the secular world; inevitably, this means responding to non-Jews’ ignorance about the faith. Feldman’s essay didn’t start this phenomenon any more than Michael Lerner gave birth to anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semites hate Jews, regardless of the facts. Non-Jews who encounter Modern Orthodox Jews know little about Judaism, and will continue to do so. Rabbi Lamm should rethink who we should spend more time educating.
The “Orthodox Paradox” continues to provide fodder for bloggers and Jewish thinkers.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has written another insightful column on the issue, in response to the vociferous criticism he received for his first stab at defending Noah Feldman. The central problem, says Boteach, is that Jews must distinguish between “an immoral sin and an irreligious act”: