Shalom TV: “agonized and worried”

Shalom TV, which bills itself as a “mainstream Jewish television network”, sent us an email entitled “Intermarriage Threatens Jewish Future.”

Oy vey.

The enclosed press release described a roundtable discussion between some of the Jewish communal experts who are most alarmed by interfaith marriage.

In the Jewish community, we generally celebrate diversity of opinion on questions. You know the expression, “Two Jews, three opinions”? You know how the Talmud always cites the minority opinion in discussions of halachah?

Not on Shalom TV, so much.

Of course I agree that it’s a problem for Jewish people to lose connection to their cultural and religious heritage. Our mission here is to encourage Jewish choices and a welcoming Jewish community. That’s for interfaith families, of course–and I think, for everyone.

How encouraging and welcoming do you find this? Here’s Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee:


In case you missed that, a quote from the press release:

“For 4,000 years, Jews knew that mixed marriage was not the right thing to do. They still may have done it, because we often don’t do the right thing. But we knew it was the wrong thing to do. Now, we are witnessing a cultural change, where people are saying, ‘It’s okay. It’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do.’ It’s that cultural change that I spend an awful lot of nights worrying about.”

According to Dr. Bayme, this normative change comes from a well-intentioned desire in the Jewish community “to reach out and bring in people on the periphery” of Jewish life, given the impact of intermarriage rates that have hovered near 50% for decades.

I’m just staggered. Is this really the best approach to involving Jewish people in their community? Not to encourage interfaith families to participate in Jewish life, but instead to join Dr. Bayme in being “agonized and worried”? That always brings them in to my schul. “Join us in agonizing worry about the future. Catered kiddush to follow.”

It’s depressing that this is still someone’s idea of mainstream Jewish discourse.

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23 thoughts on “Shalom TV: “agonized and worried”

  1. Of course Bayme is not really accurate, as I write at http://www.interfaithweddingrabbi.net/w … dings.html

    The interesting thing is that if we are, after all, to invoke tradition, we who see nothing wrong with interfaith marriage have quite a leg to stand on, and in a sense a better one than those who invoke tradition against it. After all, from the period where our ancestors, the Canaanites of the Central Highlands started to define themselves as Israelites and Judahites to at least 450 B.C.E., beyond the standard xenophobia, so common to those times, not many thought there was really that much wrong with intermarriage. This was in part because they all worshipped many of the same gods, with a small group of priests in the 7th Century B.C.E. pushing monolatry of one of those particular gods, Yahweh, and trying to foment a little bit more than the standard xenophobia with their intermarriage prohibitions. The latter openly lament, that they really didn’t make too much of a “splash” at the time in the general populace. That is why we see intermarriage exemplified by the legendary figures of Ruth, Ma’acha, Na’ama, Jezebel, Yeter, Uriah, and many more. Prof. Baruch Halpern talks about the fact that in general this Yahweh Alone party rewrote history with the traditional Israelite practice condemned as foreign and against tradition, and the new practice of this new party elevated as the true Israelite tradition. This is just one more instance, where that is so true. By being open to interfaith marriage we invoke the ancient and true traditions of our Canaanite/Israelite ancestors. By leaving their xenophobia behind, we improve on these traditions.

  2. I think the leg Rabbi Gruber has to stand on may be a bit shaky. We can put aside for the moment that the historical narrative he invokes is not accepted by everyone–and I don’t just mean that it doesn’t square with traditional Jewish readings of the our texts. This is only one reading, and many many archaelogists and anthropologists take serious issue with it (and there’s more than enough there to take issue with on scholarly grounds).

    But again, even putting all of that aside, the examples provided are hardly convincing. Ruth, although initially intermarried, converted. She is in fact the prototype Jewish convert. In modern terms, she would be the “success story” that someone like Dr. Bayme would point to. I find it mind boggling that a Rabbi would cite Ruth as an example of intermarriage rather than conversion. And as for Jezebel–would anyone say with a straight face that Jezebel is a good example for our community, an example of an intermarriage that turned out well? Alas, we could go through the other examples as well, but the point I think is clear.

    This is a serious issue that impacts people’s lives, regardless of where they fall on the opinion spectrum. And it’s incredibly important to have an honest discussion about the issues, including what the Torah (and archaeology, etc.) say or don’t say about the issues. But let’s make sure we’re having a truly honest discussion. Citing Jezebel to bolster the argument for intermarriage is hardly the basis for a serious discussion.

  3. Frankly, Arguing with the consensus of Syro-Palestinian archeologists is not something one should do so lightly. Honesty and seriousness are thrown out the window when one ignores what almost every non-Orthodox (and some Orthodox) scholar admits today.

    However leaving that aside, I seem to have missed where Ruth converted, i.e. went to a Beit Din, learned for two-three years, dunked in the Mikvah etc. Could you cite chapter and verse? You see where I am going with this. In the pshat (simple reading of the text) she never did, and you insisting that she did is kind of like the proof cited for Jacob’s having worn a hat. (You must wear a hat. How do we know? We know from Jacob, as it says, “And Jacob left Beer Sheeba”. What, you think he would leave Beer Sheeba without a hat one? That is proof that one should always wear a hat!) In other words a circular argument. The pshat actually argues for one type of interfaith couple I deal with, where the non-Jewish spouse adapts to the Jewish environment of the household, but never converts. It is indeed ironic that Ruth, which according to many was written in repsonse to Ezra’s anti interfaith marriage crusade, is cited by you in such a way. Reading much later customs of coversion into the text is a real stretch, and is frankly baseless.

    We will never know what the real Jezebel was like, as the Yahwists use her as a straw woman, and probably do not describe her accurately. That said, that is beside the point. The fact is that the king of Israel could openly marry her, and no one thought anything of it, just as the rustic chieftains of Judah we know as “kings” David and Solomon could marry women of non-Judahite descent, and no one thought anything of it. And if you think that all those thousand women the Yahwists imagine Solomon marrying converted, was that before or after they worshipped all the idols that the Bible tells us they worshipped? (Wouldn’t that have invalidated their Orthodox conversions?)

    You see, if you are honest, and don’t force the text to say what you want it to say, but rather read it for what it really says, with a recognition of the biases of its all too human authors, you discover that Halpern is right. Thank you for ironically proving him right once again.

  4. I have a very open and inclusive attitude but I agree with the sentiment that many feel; ultimately intermarriage does threaten the future. If a non-Jewish mother doesn’t convert she’s going to have non-Jewish kids and it’s very often the case that children in mixed families will not have the same level of engagement in and investement in the future of Jewish community life as those in only Jewish families. This is why it’s so vital for communities to make sure that this doesn’t happen, by ensuring that those who sincerely wish to convert can do and that those who don’t will still find a place in the community where they will feel valued enough to ensure that their children will be full and active members.

  5. I’m feeling unjustifiably smug because here I criticized Shalom TV for not providing an opportunity for dissenting voices on intermarriage to speak–and you fellows came and started debating right here in the comments to my post! Thank you so much for modeling civil and knowledgeable disagreement.

    I’m not sure that it’s totally relevant to debate Bayme’s 4,000 year argument, which seems silly on the face of it. Isn’t such a broad assertion always liable to being punctured by historical research? In any case, how ethically effective an assertion is it to say that in past societies with no possibility of civil marriage, Jews did not believe in intermarriage? How could one actually marry, rather than merely live together with someone from another religion, in a society in which there was no legal arrangement to regulate such a relationship? I hate to say that history has only marginal relevance to the current situation–I studied history, and find it incredibly interesting–but what circumstance in Jewish history is comparable to our present?

    Moish, if you haven’t spent time prowling around our site, I invite you to do so. I’ll bet you have a lot to say about what you read here. I don’t know whether it is statistically significant, but we have published a lot of voices here willing to talk about how their non-Jewish parent contributed to their successful growth into strongly-identified Jewish adults.

  6. Re: Rabbi Gruber. I really have no desire to get into an ongoing debate on this, because given the views you’ve expressed (i.e. you are seeing things one way and one way only, and are frankly closed to any other views being relevant) such a discussion would be pointless. Speaking of pointless, it really is pointless to read (relatively) modern conversion standards into an ancient text like Ruth, and then say, aha, she didn’t go to a mikveh, etc, so clearly there couldn’t have been a conversion. You should perhaps read scholars such as Shaye Cohen on what conversion actually meant in those days (this is especially relevant to non-Jewish women marrying Jewish kings). Also pointless is a debate about the “consensus of Syro-Palestinian archeologists.” It is simply inaccurate not to acknowledge that archeology is (by the admission of most responsible archeologists) more art than science, and that a range of credible opinion exists. On your web site, on which you base your original post, you primarily cite Finkelstein, et al. in support of your position. That is one school. There are many responsible archeologists who do not agree with that school. To suggest otherwise is simply wishful thinking to arrive at the place one wishes to arrive. Regarding your thoughts on Jezebel, what can I say? You’re welcome to say that we don’t really know what she was like, and then completely discount what the text actually says she was like as mere propaganda. Again, it gets you where you want to be, and it’s certainly a point of view, but I don’t see how that is a more “honest” reading of the text than the traditional one. Regarding Solomon’s wives, please take your own advice and delve into the texts a little more deeply. There’s Biblical text and there’s the underlying message of the text. The text makes pretty clear that what Solomon did was not a good thing and did not have a good result. It can very easily and credibly be read as an anti-intermarriage message (i.e. don’t do this if you don’t want this to happen to you) rather than “well see, Solomon did it so it’s obviously ok.” Anyway by having a mindset that discredits Ezra’s “intermarriage crusade” but then looks for every possible way that the text could conceivably support intermarriage, you are definitely presenting a point of view. And that it perfectly valid. But let’s be honest and recognize that it is a point of view and not some open value-neutral humanist exploration of the “facts.”

  7. Of course I am expressing a point of view, one that as most people who hold points of view, I think is based on facts. It is interesting though to be accused by the Orthodox side of seeing things from only one point of view, and not according legitimacy to others. Again irony is the soul of wit. I also find it typical that that side must resort to saying that experts don’t really know what they are talking about (which is really what calling a science, that has experienced a revolution of sophistication over the last forty years, an “art” means, right?)

    I acknowledge that there are different points of view in the Tanach, some I champion and some you champion. It is the Orthodox and orthodox that try to make it into one homogenous mishmash that supports only one point of view.

    The point of this posting, this website, and my work, if I may be so presumptous to mix all three, is that there is room for more than one point of view regarding interfaith marriage. I do not fault the Orthodox and Conservative for disagreeing with my point of view? How could a Halachic based Judaism agree with it? (Frankly I have more of a beef with Reform rabbis that frown on interfaith marriage, as they are of a non-Halachic based Judaism.) I fault the Orthodox in this instance and others for a my way or the highway attitude.

    I do agree however that this is a pointless discussion. We will probably never convince each other.

  8. Not pointless for me! I’m enjoying your arguments, regardless of who gets convinced.
    Thanks for an interesting read.

  9. I suppose perhaps that the only thing we will agree on is that this conversation is pointless. In calling archeology more art than science, I thought it was clear that I was not discrediting archeology, as you were only too happy to read into my remarks (as it then fits perfectly with your view of how “the Orthodox” view the world). Rather, I was simply describing the process and that the same archeological evidence is interpreted very differently by equally credible archeologists. Incidentally, my description of archeology as more art than science came directly from archeologists themselves, not from an “Orthodox fundamentalist” trying to discredit archeology. Some of us have come to Orthodoxy from other worlds are are not nearly as sheltered as it is convenient to your worldview to portray. Believe it or not, some of us Orthodox really do get out into the “real world” every once in a while.

  10. Steve Bayme rears his head once again. if we’re talking about people who are considered to be sheltered, he fits that description perfectly. he is still living in some sort of time capsule where he sees in-marriage as the only possible means to Jewish continuity. Bayme can’t seem to grasp the idea that American Judaism has moved forward in the past 50 years and that things are very different from when he grew up. while there are still those in the community who marry within the faith, there are many others who do not. if the community expects to keep them within the fold, then Steve Bayme isn’t the person to listen to. he is not offering non-Jews a positive reason to join the Jewish faith. the only reason he extends is “because i said so.” he is more concerned with numbers and with appeasing Jewish in-laws than he is with enriching people’s spiritual lives. quite honestly, no one is going to be swayed that way.

  11. To h.: Yes, you’re right. Things are very different from when Steve Bayme grew up. Whereas, Orthodoxy was weak then, today it’s strong and growing stronger all the time. Today, there are literally tens of thousands of people who did not grow up Orthodox who have chosen to become traditional observant Jews as adults. And today, even many intermarried Jews have been swayed by these trends. Today, if you walk into virtually any Chabad house, Aish HaTorah, etc., you will find intermarried Jews or children of intermarried. Today, there are even people who are intermarried who have chosen to become Orthodox (I know many), and many more who have converted Reform or Conservative. My point is that many want to believe that intermarriage is the trend of the Jewish future, but willingly ignore other very significant trends in Jewish life. It’s convenient to think of those trends as marginal, but thinking of them as marginal would be to live in a time capsule of 50 years ago and not grasp the reality of today. Hard as it is to believe, there are many intermarried who have responded to the trends I have described rather than the trends that many would like to believe are the only ones.

  12. Hal, this is a great point! It’s easy for both people doing outreach to interfaith families and for people doing outreach to Jews to encourage them to practice in an Orthodox way to forget that there are Jews who are in the middle of the Venn diagram of these two trends.

    Indeed, if I were the one running a roundtable about interfaith marriage and the Jewish community, this would be something I would want to cover. It’s so interesting to me that these two things are happening at the same time.

    I don’t see how anyone can say that nearly 50% of Jews are marrying non-Jews, AND that these Jews are “marginal.” Even if it turns out that a much smaller percentage of the Jewish community is moving in an Orthodox direction, I don’t find those Jews marginal, either. I don’t really think we have enough Jews in the world to regard any population of Jews as marginal! This is of course what I deplored about Bayme’s comments in the first place.

  13. The reason the Orthodox are growing is overwhelmingly because of their higher birthrate (Kiryas Yoel, NY has the lowest median age of any municipality in the US with mroe than 5000 inhabitants).

    I’ve gone to Aish events and read Chabad literature and have never heard of intermarried couples or the children of intermarried Jewish men going to Aish or Chabad. Go to their websites. Nothing about this.

  14. Thank you, Ruth, for your last comment. It is really nice to hear some one assert that a “trend” that involves nearly half of all Jews is NOT marginal nor outside the mainstream. Interfaith marriage definitely poses possibilities for problems, but also for growth. I am a non-Jewish spouse, who is converting, but in my own time and in my own way. And I am doing it in a Reform congregation that has been welcoming to me and the explorations of my husband and me. I’m not converting because someone else wants me to or has told me to. For us, and for me, Judaism is the right path, but it took us awhile to figure it out. In fact, had conversion been required for us to be married, we’d probably be a family of Presbyterians right now. But because of the welcoming attitudes of the Reform congregations we have associated with, there are two more smart, handsome, amazingly wonderful young boys growing up as Jews. Chalk up a +2 in the intermarriage acceptance tally!

  15. I think part of the confusion is the conflating of religious and cultural practices with some unspoken idea of a quasi racial ethnic identity and a misunderstanding of the many ways people can be not Jewish. My wife is Jewish, my kids are Jewish, I am not. I am also not Christian and am offended to be lumped as such by some. My family has not been any religion for at least four generations. Being christian is not something you are born. So what other religion could my kids be other than Jewish? Secular agnostic science background is not a religion. If they want to be religious when they grow up I hope it will be Jewish. I philosophically dislike Christianity. I have some non theistic Buddhist leaning but I’m not going to push them. I’m not converting because I don’t believe in god and have trouble with the justification of many violent torah stories. This is no doubt very similar to many a red diaper baby experience in a culturally Jewish family circa 1910. Just because I am non Jewish doesn’t mean I am exposing them to evangelical or catholic Christianity. Just like Barack Obama I won’t have them deny or not know that they have historical roots on their father’s side of Irish, English, and Scottish.
    Because my wife grew up on the east coast as secular Jewish with Jewish traditions in the air for her it is hard to see that in Seattle we have to make a choice to expose them to Jewish traditions beyond visiting grandparents. It turns out that I am the one who mainly gets them to Jewish holidays and community events. We have a joke that comes from something my wife said “If you had a culture we would raise them in that too!” she said one time. Of course I talk about science and sitting meditation and enlightenment intellectual values and ethics as much as a 3 and 5 year old can follow but the holidays and ritual such that there is Jewish. I think this is common in the US as the more unique and stronger intact cultural traditions are the ones that will be memorable to the kids. For many people in mixed families that will be the Jewish side.
    Lastly on a perhaps less civil but clearly unspoken note in many of these discussions about how intermarriage is bad I think someone has to say it: forget ancient history, although it is interesting, if my kids are Jewish enough for lots of evil people in the 20th century to want to kill or exclude then they should be Jewish enough for you. This is not hypothetical, they are real kids and you should embrace them and say welcome to me! To say how they came to be should be prevented and is wrong is not just a matter of opinion or ideas or even respectable religious belief. It is wrong and I would say it is the same sort of evil. It doesn’t matter how you dress it in tradition. You are not only not “welcoming the strangers in your midst” you are making strangers of family when you promote such ideas. I really don’t think that the casual acceptance of these ideas a just a matter of private belief is ethically alright. I think people have an active duty to stand up and be counted against this sort of thinking.

  16. Erik,

    I of course agree with you that it is critically important to be welcoming. But I would take issue with the idea that those who “are Jewish enough for lots of evil people in the 20th century to want to kill or exclude then they should be Jewish enough for you.” Although this position is very compelling on an emotional level, it misses a very important piece–i.e. who it is that set the boundaries of what constitutes a community. If we are saying “if they’re Jewish enough for Hitler, then they ought to be Jewish enough for the Jews,” then we’re saying that Adolph Hitler gets to define who is a Jew. No matter what kind of disagreements Jews may have on where the boundaries of the Jewish community fall, I am simply unwilling to say that those who hate us are the ones who define us. Any real definition of what it means to be Jewish must be based on a positive internal construct, not on a negative construct imposed form the outside.

    Dave,

    You’re right–a lot of the growth of Orthodoxy has to do with birthrate (and higher retention than in the past) – which is an important discussion in and of itself. At the same time, you shouldn’t discount the very real impact of the Baal Teshuvah movement. The vast majority of Orthodox synagogues you walk into, you will find lot of people who are Orthodox and didn’t grow up that way. As for Aish and Chabad and interfaith families, I didn’t say that they are specifically reaching out to interfaith families, simply that they do attract them. Perhaps you have not met such people when you have attended. I have–many times.

  17. Right, Hal, I get what you are saying. It’s not that Orthodox organizations are reaching out to interfaith families, it’s that they are reaching out to Jews, and a lot of Jews are children of interfaith families or are married to non-Jews. Since intermarriage is an even bigger taboo in Orthodox circles than it is in the rest of the Jewish community, there isn’t anyone to talk about what it is like to be part of a family–I mean a nuclear family–that has Orthodox Jews and non-Jewish members. (Obviously, nearly every Jew in the United States has an extended family like that.) I would really love to get such voices onto our site.

  18. I’ve been reading this exchange with some interest; I’m Jewish, raised in a ‘Conservadox’ family. My wife is a Ger Toshav (in the modern, informal sense); we keep a kosher home and observe the holidays. Our daughter, adopted in China, was converted to Judaism shortly after we brought her home. In short, my Catholic wife is (to me) a Jewish wife.
    We discussed religion for a long time before becoming engaged. We learned a lot about each other’s traditions and perspectives and discovered something; while we have different religions, we have the same faith. It was more difficult for members of our families to come to terms with our relationship that it was for us.
    This is not to say that we haven’t had issues — my wife has sacrificed a lot in order for our relationship to work. But there are good times — I still laugh when my wife tries to sway me from cleaning for Passover with the challenge: “Your choice: chocolate bunnies or matzoh”
    But the sad thing about all of this is that we still haven’t found a synagogue that we’re comfortable with. The Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues we’ve visited have felt alien to me but welcoming to Karen. The Conservative synagogue I grew up with felt cold to Karen — I could even hear the whispers of ‘goy’ when she went to Rosh Hashana services one year. The community needs to be more supportive of interfaith families, rather than express agony and worry. Period.

  19. The weird thing is, I know exactly what you mean about your wife being a Jewish wife. I mean, I know a lot of the things that could mean. That she feels familiar and right, like home. That she supports you in creating a Jewish family. That your marriage to her feels to you like the cultural ideal of a Jewish marriage. (Or maybe I’m being too romantic and idealistic, and what you mean is that you have married a smart person who rebels against cleaning for Passover, like any sane Jewish woman would! I have Passover cleaning on the brain. I’m so behind it’s ridiculous.)

    In any case, I hope you can find a good Jewish community for your family–one that’s more about the catered kiddush, less about the agony and worry. We keep a listing of places that want to be known as welcoming, but that doesn’t always mean that they ring your chimes liturgically or theologically.

  20. Being a Catholic I don’t know what my brother in law Steven Zaretsky means when he says my sister is a Ger Toshav. I know that when it comes to faith and religion my sister is the one who has had to make all of the compromises. That is the one thing I have a problem with. I have respected her decisions since she is an intelligent and educated woman. I just wonder why the compromise has to be one sided. Maybe that is the root of the problem you are all discussing here. I mean no disrespect-just wondering?

  21. Thanks for commenting, Marsia. I think most people don’t know what ger toshav means–it’s a term from the bible that some Jewish intellectuals adopted to try to place the non-Jewish family members and friends into some kind of Jewish historical or legal context. We ran a piece about this here, and I am in the middle of editing a follow-up article. It seems like it never really caught on, because it’s just too obscure, and in some ways distancing for the non-Jewish community member. The term comes from a much-discussed Hebrew phrase in Leviticus 19:34. It has more than one valence or meaning in Judaism, and I expect that in Catholicism, too, it’s quite a rich verse to mine both for behavioral guidance and for inspiration.

    It does look to me, from the outside, like interfaith marriage, and especially parenting, entail a lot of compromises. Maybe, on reflection, that’s true no matter who one marries! Most of the families who come to our site to write for us, read or comment, are motivated by love and respect for each other, which I find inspiring every day.

  22. Thank you Ruth. I did some investigating on my own and found the best explanation of a Ger Toshav on your site. I do understand what it means in today’s society. I also know my sister agonized, studied and prayed prior to entering an interfaith marriage and we as a family are accepting because they love each other and support each other. Love never seems to pay attention to these differences of faith. As for the definition of Ger Toshav as it is interpreted today, I have to agree my sister is a supporter of the Jewish faith, a friend if you will. I have learned something new today! Thank you.

  23. I find very upsetting that Mr. Gruber calls hismself a Rabbi when he doesn’t know anything about Halacha law. A Jewish wedding can only occur when both individuals are Jewish. A “Rabbi” who officiates at a mixed wedding is violating Halacha law. A real Rabbi would never condone intermarriages. You are not a real Rabbi Mr. Gruber!

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