Noah Feldman on Intermarriage

I went to a fascinating “conversation” last night between Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, the president of Hebrew College, and Noah Feldman, the Harvard Law School professor and frequent New York Times contributor. Feldman’s July 2007 New York Times magazine article about the reaction of his modern Orthodox community’s reaction to his intermarriage was the subject of heated commentary that our Micah Sachs blogged about extensively at the time.

Hebrew College is a wonderful institution which had a major role in developing the Me’ah program of adult Jewish education, runs Prozdor, an outstanding supplmentary high school Jewish education program, and a few years ago created a trans-denominational rabbinical school, among many other things. Rabbi Lehmann, who only recently became president of the College, said that intermarriage had become a much bigger issue there particularly in the rabbinical school, with issues being presented about whether people who are intermarried could be admitted to the school, or whether people who developed interfaith relationships while in school could be ordained. (Coincidentally, we’ve just published an article by Edie Mueller about her experience fifteen years ago when she wanted to attend rabbinical school and was told she could not be admitted because she was intermarried.)¬† Rabbi Lehmann said that the issue of officiation at weddings of interfaith couples is also being raised among their rabbinic students.

It is difficult to capture the wide ranging conversation about intermarriage between Lehmann, Feldman and the audience. One interesting thread was when Feldman described an internal tension in the thinking of American Jews about how we should think about who people should marry. After pointing out that a Jew would experience as anti-Semitic a situation where a non-Jewish family objected to their child marrying a Jew, he asked why is it socially normative for only Jews, and possibly African-Americans, to say that they want their children to marry only other like them? Someone made the point that the child of a black person and a white person will still be black, therefore blacks have less reason to insist on endogamous marriage, but the same isn’t true of the child of a Jew and a non-Jew.

After saying that half of Jews are “voting with their huppahs,” Feldman said there is a deep and profound soul-searching going on in the Jewish community about intermarriage, with many people feeling that their Judaism is not incompatible with their being intermarried. I understood Lehmann to say in that context that intermarriage “will certainly weaken” Jewish affiliation or continuity or community, a point that I argued with him privately after the program ended. If there was a flash point in the discussion, that was it.¬† As is usual in my experience in this kind of setting, the points of view were all over the spectrum. A woman in the audience said with emotion that her intermarriage had not lessened her Jewish involvement in any way. A man in the audience said he was intermarried, very active in the Workmen’s Circle, and his three teenage sons were fluent in Yiddish. Another woman in the after-program private discussions said that the way to prevent intermarriage was for parents to forbid interdating.

Aside from the two audience comments, the one perspective that was not presented clearly by either Lehmann or Feldman was the view that intermarriage is an opportunity for enlarging and enriching the Jewish community. Feldman didn’t discuss how he and his wife are raising their children, and the importance of encouraging and supporting Jewish choices by interfaith couples and families in that regard was overlooked.

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