A Terrible Message from the “God Squad”

We got a Google alert about an April 3 “God Squad” column that appeared in the Edmond Oklahoma Sun. In the column, Rabbi Marc Gellman responds to a young Jewish woman who wrote to him in pain, seeking advice because of her parents’ rejection of her Catholic boyfriend, even though she says she intends and her boyfriend accepts that their children will have the same connection to Judaism as she had. His response is a classic example of the wrong way for Jewish parents (and leaders) to speak to young adults about their interfaith relationships:

I’ve tried to write you an equally eloquent response that could have come from sensitive parents. It may not reflect your parents’ sentiments, but they are mine. I want you to understand how they view things, not so you’ll agree with them but so you might understand them. Hopefully, reconciliation will come on the far side of understanding.

To our dearest daughter:

We will always love you, and even in the heat of this disagreement, we believe in you and are happy you’ve found love. We don’t care about the color of your boyfriend’s skin, and we don’t hate his religion. What we do care about is your life and your duty to preserve the faith and traditions of the religion in which you were raised.

Our task in life is not merely to find love for ourselves, but also to honor and preserve the spiritual legacy and traditions bequeathed to us. Hundreds of generations of Jews before you have lived as Jews and sacrificed as Jews, even in the face of terrible oppression and death. If they could preserve their faith through times of hell, why can’t you preserve your faith in times of freedom?

The idea that Judaism will end in our family with you for no other reason than that you met a nice Catholic guy is devastating to us. There’s nothing wrong with him or with his faith, but there is something right about our Jewish heritage, and this fact must be weighed, even against your own personal happiness.

Furthermore, we disagree with you because of the rights of your future children. A child needs to be able to walk into a church or a synagogue and in one of the two places be able to say, “I am home here.” Despite your protestations, your children may not be able to do that with one Jewish parent and one onlooker.

May God forgive us, but we’d be more able to accept your conversion to Catholicism than your present plan. At least then your kids would have a single religious presence in the home and full and clear support from both of you to give them firm religious identities. Of course, if your boyfriend were to convert to Judaism, we’d be more than slightly happier, but that is his choice and cannot be coerced.

You get the idea…

I wrote this letter to the editor (and to Rabbi Gellman):

Rabbi Gellman’s response, conveying his sentiments about intermarriage, is based on two wrong assumptions. First, he says that children need a single religious presence in the home in order to develop a firm religious identity; the fact is that many intermarried parents — in Boston, 60% — are raising their children as Jews. Second, he says that a non-Jew willing to raise Jewish children has no good reason not to convert; in fact, many of the thousands of non-Jewish parents who are raising Jewish children have very thoughtfully decided not to convert for important reasons such as maintaining their own religious beliefs and lack of familiarity with Judaism.

Guilting young Jews with the notions that their ancestors preserved Judaism through persecution and that they should choose their Jewish heritage over their personal happiness, as Rabbi Gellman does, will alienate young Jews today who know that is a false choice. They know they can intermarry and still maintain their connection to Judaism and raise Jewish children — but being made to feel terrible about their choice by Jewish leaders is bound to push them away for Jewish involvement.

I surely hope this column is not picked up and published anywhere else.

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4 thoughts on “A Terrible Message from the “God Squad”

  1. i read Rabbi Gellman’s column in Newsweek often, and i find his views to be informative and interesting even if i don’t always agree with them. in this instance…yes, it’s important to preserve Jewish heritage. but guilting the young generation into doing so is not the way to land these results. if parents and lay leaders wish to convey the importance of preserving Judaism, it needs to be done in a manner that won’t drive the young generation away.

    can people intermarry? yes. should they? not necessarily. they should do what they feel is right for them, not for others.

  2. I sort of agree with Rabbi Gelman. The children of intermarriage usually do not end up as Jews even if that is the intention of the parents. “Personal hpapiness?” A little overrated next to the ideal of sacrifice and the common good. We all want to be happy, especially when we are young. Later on we look back and realize that we made terrible, selfish decisions that, in the long run, hurt us. I know people who intermarried and allowed their children to be raised as non-Jews and later on came to regret that decision. They were racked by guilt, also.

  3. As an adult child of intermarriage, I understand Rabbi Gellman’s viewpoint. I know that guilt tripping someone into marrying within their tribe is problematic, but the person has to understand where their parents are coming from with their pain. I’m very tired of advocates in the interfaith movement asking people to deny their feelings. Most people aren’t going to jump up and down to accept this situation initially. It’s normal and healthy.

    I know too many people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s who intermarried who regretted it later on. Sometimes we make decisions in haste, or as one father of non Jewish children told me, self-hate.

  4. FWIW, I survived a personal and very unpleasant encounter with Rabbi Gellman as a guest on God Squad, talking about my book The Catholic Home. Fortunately, my rigorous Jewish upbringing and tribal sense of humor allowed me to shove him right back but I’m still recuperating.

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