Cracks in the Orthodox Armor?

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.

At the same time, Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesperson for the ultra-Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America (and a genuinely nice, if ideologically stringent, guy), tells Wiener, “intermarried couples from outside the community are, I think, increasingly seen by many Orthodox Jews as people not to be summarily rejected, at least if there is any chance of the non-Jewish partner’s sincere and halachic conversion.”

Indeed, there does seem a movement afoot among the Orthodox to accept an intermarried couple as long as the non-Jewish partner is dedicated to an Orthodox conversion. Its biggest proponent is the organization Eternal Jewish Family, which has organized conferences of Orthodox rabbis to set standards for the conversion of non-Jewish partners. This condition of acceptance is harsh, but it’s a big step for a community that once considered intermarriage one of the unforgivable sins.

On a related note, over on Jewcy, Tamar Fox talks about her conversations with friends who have started seeing non-Jewish boyfriends or girlfriends. She says, “I have seen all kinds of reactions to inderdating, from violent outbursts to ignoring the situation completely.” Clearly, she’s coming from a more traditional place than typical secular Jews, but she has some wise things to say about interdating. Her main point? If you’ve thought about and talked about the issues with your significant other, you’re on the right path.

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4 thoughts on “Cracks in the Orthodox Armor?

  1. I’m writing as someone who was intermarried, but whose spouse had an Orthodox conversion. We are immersed in the Orthodox community and so have some experience “from the inside.” The characterizations here are not quite accurate.
    Actually, Orthodox Judaism has always been open to intermarried couples if the non-Jewish spouse converts. From the standpoint of halacha (which is the lens through which Orthodox Judaism views things), once a person has had a halachic conversion, they are Jewish–period. Therefore, once the conversion has taken place, it is simply not viewed as an intermarriage.
    It is true that Eternal Jewish Family is proactively reaching out to intermarried couples–something that is still a matter of some disagreement within the Orthodox community. However, the acceptance of non-Jewish spouses as sincere converts is a matter of Jewish law, not a matter of changing policy. (Not that every single person in the Orthodox community holds this exact view, just that this is the norm. If anything, my spouse has experienced more acceptance as a convert within the Orthodox community than elsewhere. We’ve heard not fully accepting statements like “They’re intermarried–she converted” in many Jewish quarters, not not yet among our Orthodox friends.)
    As someone whose family has been through this and has seen it from both sides, I do not agree with Micah Sachs’ assertion that “This condition of acceptance is harsh.” My personal experience is that being a mitzvah-observant Jew is something that is viewed very positively within the Orthodox community. Many Orthodox Jews view converts with great respect for the steps they’ve taken. I’ve experienced “strict” observance as something beautiful and laden with meaning. From that perspective, the step someone takes to embrace that should not be seen as a “harsh condition of acceptance” but might be seen as something truly beautiful, deep and meaningful–as something that could be of great benefit to the convert and his/her family, not simply as a very high hurdle for the sake of acceptance. I know, at least, that’s how it’s been for my own family.

  2. Very interesting–and enlightening–perspective, Hal. I can see why in your situation you see nothing “harsh” in the Orthodox response to intermarriage. If you walk into an Orthodox synagogue from day one and are seriously considering conversion, then their response aligns with your personal goals. But think about it from the other side: what if your spouse had misgivings, but you still wanted to worship at an Orthodox synagogue? What if she (I’m assuming it’s a she only from your first name, which sounds male) was curious about conversion but was not quite ready to dive into the whole process? I’m curious what your experience with the Orthodox community was like before your spouse was committed to converting–were you received differently then?

    I think you’re correct, however, in your observation that observant Jews are often friendlier towards converts than less observant Jews. I think there is more of an assumption in the progressive Jewish community that someone converted “only for marriage,” whereas in the Orthodox community, there is a sense that conversion is undertaken only by those who have a sincere commitment to becoming fully Jewish.

  3. to the Orthodox, interdating and intermarriage are pretty much unforgivable sins. if you are raised all your life to know that marrying Jewish is the most important decision you’ll ever make, then chances are pretty high that you’ll be looked at crooked if you don’t follow through. look at Noah Feldman, for example. he went to one of the most renowned yeshivas in the US, where he no doubt was lectured many times about the dangers of intermarriage. and while i’m sure Professor Feldman did his best to find a suitable Jewish mate, he ultimately chose love over tradition…and look at the controversy it caused. yet oddly enough, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (who isn’t exactly in favor of intermarriage) stood behind him throughout the entire ordeal. he may not have agreed with Noah’s decision to intermarry, but he felt that retaining him and welcoming his wife would be more productive than ostracizing them. and he’s right. the Orthodox are not immune to intermarriage like everyone assumes. although the intermarriage rate among Orthodox is less than 4%, it shows that even those who are staunch in their observance of Judaism can fall in love with someone from the outside, non-Jewish world. it’s rare, but it happens.

    i agree that observant Jews tend to be more accepting of converts than less observant Jews. there is a great amount of insecurity among less or non-observant Jews when the topic of conversion is brought up. even though they were the ones who were born Jewish, they feel inferior to someone who was not but who chose to undergo this overwhelming process. while conversion for the sake of a relationship or marriage is still frowned upon in the Orthodox world, people still do it anyways…at least in the less observant circles. some who originally converted just to please their uncomfortable in-laws winds up becoming more religious than the members of the born-Jewish family, while others regret their decision and feel as though they succumbed to pressure because they didn’t want to break up or divorce.

    Rabbi Shafran is right. intermarried couples should not be written off so quickly, especially if there is the possibility that the non-Jewish partner has a sincere interest in converting and is not just doing it to “keep the peace”.

    Chabad seems to have the right idea. despite the constant rumors of Chabad attempting to convert non-Jewish partners, i’ve heard countless stories of interfaith couples entering Chabad houses with no problems. while Chabad does not approve of intermarriage, they recognize that we are all human beings and we are not all the same. in fact, on the Chabad.org website it clearly states that their educational centers are accessible to everyone, including “curious Gentiles.” does the non-Jewish partner ever convert in these instances? not always, but at least they know they have a place in the community where they can feel welcome and learn about Judaism all they want.

  4. Micah,

    You raise a very good point, and I want to address it, because we certainly went through a rather lengthy period where we were exploring Orthodoxy, and my wife had not yet decided whether to convert. Were we welcomed? The answer is–it depends.

    Certainly, there were several Orthodox Rabbis and many Orthodox Jews who did welcome us even before it was 100% clear that this is where we were heading. And yes, there were others who were very clear that there really wasn’t a place for an intermarried couple who planned to stay intermarried.

    Although I understand why some would have a problem with this, we never did. First, there were enough people in the community who did welcome us and did give us encouragement. And in every case, even where a Rabbi was not so welcoming, we were always welcome to attend their synagogue, and there were people in those synagogues who invited us for a Shabbat meal–again, even where the Rabbi had taken a very clear stand.

    Second, we never thought it was the duty of the Orthodox community to validate us. They stood for certain things. If we stood for something different, then it would be clear that a different place would be more appropriate for our needs. But we appreciated the fact that, although we were welcomed, the community had a good sense of what they were welcoming us into as opposed to simply bending to fit our needs without requiring anything from us.

    For a long time before we ever looked into Orthodoxy, we were involved in a non-Orthodox synagogue. The people were all very nice. My wife was “fully accepted” although she hadn’t converted. But after a while, my wife wondered what the point would even be of converting if, in the eyes of the congregation, it seemed to be all the same anyway. In other words, while of course we must be welcoming to the intermarried and find a place for them, if we essentially treat the intermarried as if they are a conversionary family, then aren’t we in effect sending the message that the process of conversion is meaningless?

    The road to conversion is a process, and especially in the case of Orthodox conversion, sometimes a rather long process. I agree that it’s important that intermarried families have some space to explore that process, which means being welcoming in some form. As H. above pointed out, Chabad houses are very welcoming. I’ve seen a number of Chabad houses, and there are intermarried families in every one of them, something that goes against some of the conventional wisdom about intermarried outreach and where the intermarried will feel comfortable. And it’s not limited to Chabad. For a time, I had attended an Aish HaTorah weekly Torah study session. The Rabbi knew I was intermarried. He welcomed me. And there were others there who were either intermarried or children of intermarried who had not grown up with any religion and were trying to figure it all out. In my own synagogue now, there is an intermarried family where the wife is Jewish. She is completely involved, she sends the kids to day school, her husband does not intend to convert, and the family is welcomed just like anyone else. (I imagine this is, in part, because there is no halachic issue concerning the children and everyone deems it important that they be raised as Jews. If it were a Jewish husband, the issues would be different and there would probably be a different approach.)

    As long as there is some space for the intermarried to explore, then I think the setting of boundaries can be a good thing. There are some (many?) times when an intermarried family is not looking at conversion and it has more to do with the fact that they don’t know what the possibilities are than it has to do with a specific decision based on knowledge and reflection. Many intermarrieds don’t know what they don’t know.

    The idea of process means that everyone has the potential for change. If someone had told me 10 years ago that, not only would my family be Jewish, but we would be Orthodox Jews, I would have thought they were crazy. And I’ve met a fair number of others in may position.

    So the idea of process not only means that the Orthodox risk turning a future Jewish family away if they are not welcoming. It also means that the non-Orthodox community can risk not promoting Jewish growth that could otherwise occur if they see intermarried families as static, as “once intermarried, always intermarried.” Obviously, not every intermarried family would want to become a Jewish one, nor would it be right for many intermarried families. But I believe there are many more who would find it compelling, if again, we presented Judaism as the wonderful 3,500 year old tradition that it is rather than as a condition of acceptance.

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