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This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.
Rosner had said that in the absence of definitive studies or any consensus, the debate about whether interfaith marriage will weaken or strengthen us will be decided by trial and error over three or four generations, with some rabbis officiating and some not. I said his was an incredibly non-activist approach and that âarguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis not officiating â disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships.â
Rosner now says that I was right, in the sense that a clear and unified message might be better. But he says critics of intermarriage can make the same argument, that âarguing that sticking withÂ in-marriageÂ weakens us is self-fulfilling.Â In-marriageÂ wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis officiating â disapprove of insistence onÂ JewishÂ couples and relationships.â
That is a false equivalency, in my view. There canât be any question that decrying interfaith marriage turns interfaith couples away, or that insisting on “in-marriage” doesnât work. No one is arguing that Jews marrying Jews is bad. Rabbis officiating for interfaith couples does not send a message of disapproval of Jewish-Jewish marriages. Interfaith marriage could be regarded as an equal norm, along with Jews who marry Jews; they can co-exist. Itâs the insistence that there is only one right way thatâs the problem.
Rosner says aÂ Conservative rabbiÂ who refers to âthe naive hope that [a rabbi] standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they buildâ is right. How anyone can hold that position after theÂ Cohen Centerâs latest researchÂ showing the positive impact of rabbinic officiation escapes me. (Rosner cites anÂ article by Roberta Rosenthal KwallÂ that rolls out the tired old, previously failed strategy to âactivelyâ encourage conversion, and an interesting âdescriptive, not opinionatedâÂ analysis by Emma GreenÂ in the Atlantic.)
TheÂ Continued Decay of Jewish Federations, which generated a lot of comment onÂ eJewishPhilanthropy, takes pot shots at intermarriage; the anonymous author says âIf the person I walk down the aisle with isnât Jewish, how much am I really going to care about the [Jewish] folks down the block?â and â72% of non-Orthodox intermarrying is âŠ about Jewish apathy.â Fortunately one comment wagers that the writer âholds outdated views that intermarriageâŠ divorce
Thankfully there has been more positive perspective in the media. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor of the LA Jewish Journal,Â says:
One outstanding example of an answer is Debbie Karl, who tells “How One Interfaith Family Found a Home in a Synagogue“: because a wonderful rabbi agreed to officiate for her and âturned the whole process into a positive experience for both of us.â If she hadnât, âthat could have been the end of Judaism for meâŠ I could easily have written off organized Jewish life, as so many disenchanted Jews choose to do.â This is one of the most persuasive pieces by a lay person that Iâve ever read; I wish every rabbi who doesnât officiate would read it and take to heart what she says about the children of intermarriage:
An outstanding example of a cantor who âgets itâ is Erik Contzius, who says “Letâs Stop Calling It ‘Intermarriage.’”Â He used to not officiate, but âComing to understand how a hostile attitude from clergy turns young couples away from Jewish identity and practice changed my mind.â
Avram Mlotek, a courageous Orthodox rabbi,Â reportsÂ that he âencountered fierce oppositionâ to his op-ed about welcoming interfaith families and â adopting a posture of radical hospitality,â but steadfastly believes that âproviding a space that caters to every Jewâs spiritual needs â even if that Jew is married to someone of another faith â is the most practical way to ensure the future of the Jewish family.â
Two of the smartest thinkers on intermarriage happen to be senior leaders of the secular humanist movement. Rabbi Adam Chalom offers “Intermarriage Agony? Been There, Past That“:
Paul Golin offers two excellent pieces. “Intermarriage is the Wrong Bogeyman”Â (an edited version of a longer piece onÂ Medium) explains that the approach that intermarriage is the cause of declining Jewish engagement is based on
Golin argues that theism is the problem â most people do not believe in the concept held by most of organized Judaism of a God that answers personal prayers. I agree with Golin that âWhen thereâs no magical âJewish geneâ to perpetuate, Judaism must be about meaning and benefit. And if Judaism is meaningful and beneficial, why would we limit it to just Jews?â But while secular humanism may be an approach that would suit many interfaith couples, many others are interested in spirituality, and the religious movements could do a lot of work developing concepts of God and liturgies that express those concepts that contemporary couples would be far more comfortable with.
In hisÂ second piece, Golin uses the terrible situation of government of Israel reneging on a deal for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall to point out that the Chief Rabbinateâs claim that liberal expressions of Judaism are invalid is not unlike liberal Jewish leadersâ claims that intermarriage makes a Jew ânot Jewish enough.â I agree that his as usual trenchant comment: âpolicing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of whoâs doing it.â
The debate in Jewish communities about interfaith marriage is heating up. Rabbis and Jewish professionals are arguing both sides and predicting the future of Judaism based on whether or not they will officiate at interfaith marriages. Iâve seen articles that talk about âcaving on intermarriageâ and âcoming to terms with itâ and âaddressing the problem.â This kind of language infuriates me because it makes interfaith marriage about the rabbis, and not about the people getting married.
By telling someone we will not marry them, we are not stopping them from marrying someone of another faith background. What weâre stopping them from (and I have heard this time and time again) is engaging in Judaism and being part of the Jewish community.
We need to change the way we talk about interfaith marriage. Itâs not a disease. Itâs not a shameful act. Itâs a beautiful reflection of the world in which we live. Itâs about people who have strong identities and familial connections, who are secure enough in who they are that they can love someone with a different background. Interfaith marriage is an amazing example of people with different experiences coming together and finding common ground.
When I took the job as director of InterfaithFamily/LA I was terrified that my rabbinic colleagues would turn their backs on me and lose respect for me. What actually happened is beautiful. My colleagues have said, âThanks for doing the work that Iâm not allowed to do.â
So many of my rabbinic colleagues come to me for advice on working with an interfaith couple who has approached them for a lifecycle event, usually a wedding. These colleagues donât deal with this scenario frequently, but know that I work with interfaith couples every day. The couples who are told by rabbis and communities that âWe accept you and your partnerâ and also, âI cannot officiate your wedding, but you can still buy High Holy Day tickets.â These couples often come to me dejected and confused and wondering how to fill their desire for Jewish engagement. During my first meeting with an interfaith couple who has been turned away by another rabbi, I spend most of the session repairing the hurt and rejection they are feeling.
One such couple came to me through our officiation referral service at InterfaithFamily, looking for a rabbi to talk to about marriage. In my first meeting with this coupleâa Jewish woman and a man who was raised mostly agnosticâthey said, âWe never even imagined we could have a Jewish ceremony. We were planning on having a friend do our ceremony, but now weâre excited to have a rabbi.â I hear this refrain over and over from interfaith couples as they are searching for a way to engage Jewishly and are hearing âNo, youâre not welcome hereâ either explicitly or by liberal rabbis who mean well but whose boundaries are so tight that they do not allow them to see the people sitting on the couch in their office.
Just this morning I had a conversation with Becky Herring, a Jewish professional and the new associate director of our Atlanta office. She recently got engaged and this was her experience: âMy fiancĂ© is not Jewish and when we talked about who would officiate our wedding, he didnât want a rabbi because he was worried heâd feel uncomfortable. I totally get it. The thought never dawned on me; I just thought rabbis were rabbis. And then I met Rabbi Malka [director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta] and it was amazing to see that she would work with us.â
I do this work every day. And I love it. I feel that working with interfaith families makes a true impact not only in their lives, but in the larger Jewish community.
I hear a lot of people say that interfaith marriage is always bad for Judaism and always leads to disengagement and the decline of Jews. But the truth is, life is not that simple.
Families are complicated and most peopleâs religious experience lives somewhere in that gray area between full observance and secular identity. To flat out deny someone the possibility of Jewish engagement at the beginning of their union ignores the real life experiences of people in our communities.
Whether or not we (the rabbis) decide interfaith marriage is OK, doesnât matter.Â People are not choosing to end relationships and find Jewish partners just because a rabbi has told them she wonât marry them. While we rabbis are sitting in our offices behind the walls of synagogues and institutions, people are falling in love, getting married and trying to find their place in Jewish communities.
Photo credit: Tom The Photographer
In March Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a Conservative rabbi at Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, explaining “Why I Will Not Simply Accept Intermarriage,” wrote for the Forward that âCelebrating interfaith weddingsâŠ [would] diminish a sacred covenantal tradition, and risk making liberal Judaism into a jumble of traditional gestures that might please individuals but demand nothing from them.â I wrote a letter to the editor which appeared in the March 20 print issue of the Forward (it’s not on the Forwardâs website):
Today another Conservative rabbi, Michael Knopf from Temple Beth-El in Richmond VA, had a very important response published in Haâaretz, “Getting over intermarriage: Judaismâs guide to finding the right partner.” Rabbi Knopf says that âJewish leadersâ obsession with discussing intermarriage through the prism of permissibility risks trivializing Judaism as a religion of policies, rather than as a fountain of relevant and enduring wisdom and values.â Stating that Jewish tradition has much wisdom to offer about finding a partner that is just as relevant to those who intermarry, he says âWhat if, instead of trying to finger-wag Jews into endogamous relationships, we offered compassionate and nonjudgmental support to people, drawing from the riches of our tradition, as they seek to couple?â Among his many refreshing comments are, âJudaism teaches that marrying Jewish is not a guarantee of a successful relationshipâ and âpeople of different backgrounds can be oriented to faith in harmonious waysâ and âtwo people of different backgrounds can sharpen each other in myriad ways.â Rabbi Knopf concludes,
We applaud Rabbi Knopfâs novel approach and the welcoming attitude he expresses. But what happens when interfaith couples are brought closer to Judaism, specifically to Conservative synagogues? In March, Rabbi David Lerner of Temple Emunah in Lexington, MA, wrote a blot post for The Times of Israel describing a New Conservative/Masorti ceremony for interfaith couples, which is described in greater length on the website of the Rabbinical Assembly (the association of Conservative rabbis).
Rabbi Lerner was a co-chair of the Rabbinical Assemblyâs Commission on Keruv (Outreach), Conversion, and Jewish Peoplehood and he concentrated on creating a ceremony to welcome interfaith couples, âa ritual through which a couple could celebrate their love and the Jewish choices they were making, while including family and friendsâŠ within our understanding of halakhah (Jewish law).â The core of the Hanukkat Habayit ceremony is putting up a mezuzah; the ceremony is described at length in the blog post and on the RA website and it does appear to offer a lovely and meaningful ritual and celebrate the Jewish choices the couple has made. It also comes with a three- to six-month learning period with the rabbi before the ceremony and continuing conversations with the rabbi afterwards, all aimed as supporting the coupleâs Jewish growth.
We applaud this effort to support and recognize interfaith couples who make Jewish choices in a Conservative context, but itâs important to note that very clear Jewish choices are required for the ceremony: It is âfor interfaith couples who have decided to build an exclusively Jewish home and family together;â âif the mother is not Jewish, the children would undergo a halakhic conversion;â âThere should also be the clear expectation that non-Jewish symbols and observances would not be a part of the coupleâs home, such as a Christmas tree.â Many interfaith couples who might want to make Jewish choices in a Conservative context may note be quite as far along in terms of their decision making as is required for the ceremony. And there is continuing tension with those coming from the perspective of tradition â as Rabbi Lerner says, âsomeâ in the movement may be uncomfortable with the ceremony, even with its requirements, âas we seek to straddle the space between our tradition and keruv.â
This will surely be a continuing discussion worth following.
Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Joy Levitt have written an extremely important op-ed for JTA: “If You Marry a Jew, Youâre One of Us.” For the past 14 years, we at InterfaithFamily have been advocating for Jews to welcome, embrace and fully include interfaith couples and families into Jewish life and community. We have always maintained that the attitudes Jews have toward intermarriage need to change from negative or ambivalent, to seeing the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families.
It is wonderfully affirming to now hear Jewish leaders like Levitt, the brilliantly successful director of the JCC in Manhattan, and Cohen â until recently one of the most vociferous critics of intermarriage â espouse the same views.
The crux of their essay (I am quoting what I feel are the most important points):
We know that where both parents identify as Jews, nearly all their children identify as Jews as well. And when only one parent sees himself/herself as Jewish, only a minority of their children grow up as Jews. Aside from raising the inmarriage rate, how can we create more households where both partners see themselves as part of the Jewish people?
One answer is for all of us to change the way we think of, and treat, those who love and marry our children, family members and friends. Basically we should agree and fully internalize the idea: If you marry a Jew, youâre fully part of our community until proven otherwise.
Born Jews would undergo a subtle but critical shift in the way they relate to family members and friends not born Jewish. It would mean fully including them in holiday practices, life-cycle ceremonies, and Jewishly centered social action and political activities.
[F]or those who choose to be part of our community without formal conversion â who come to the Passover seder and drive their children to Hebrew school, who sit shiva with us, or who bring their sons into the community at a brit milah, who shep naches at their daughtersâ bat mitzvah and who go to Israel on vacation â we say welcome. Itâs a pleasure to know you. Come learn. Youâre one of us if you want to be.
We couldnât have said it better ourselves.
Right around Passover, there was some prominent coverage in the secular press about intermarriage due to the publication of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part and reviews in the Wall Street Journal (where she has been a religion writer) and the New York Times.
I’ve ordered the book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I thought Riley’s suggestion that religious communities “strike a delicate balance” in their approach to interfaith families, as described in the Wall Street Journal review, was itself fairly balanced:
I’m concerned about the emphasis on the last point — that interfaith marriage leads young adults “away from the fold.” According to the Wall Street Journal review, Riley says that questions about child-raising can “tear at the fabric of a marriage,” that interfaith families are on average less likely to be happy, that the partners lose steadiness of observance and belief, that children are more likely to reject their parents’ faiths, and that couples are more likely to divorce.
The divorce point makes me question the basis for Riley’s observations. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog post, Are Interfaith Marriages Really Failing Fast, about a story Riley wrote for the Washington Post. Here’s what I said back then:
Susan Katz Miller, in her blog On Being Both, also finds Riley’s stance on intermarriage to be “strangely pessimistic” and finds her “gloom and doom” not supported by Riley’s own data.
I also question the basis of Riley’s observations because at InterfaithFamily we have published many narratives and heard from so many interfaith couples that they have resolved questions about child-raising, have children who learn to love Jewish practice, and who themselves strengthened observance and belief — and are quite happy in their marriage. People like the brother of Stanley Fish, author of the review in the New York Times, who describes the lengths which their father went to break up his brother’s relationship and concludes:
The New York Times review suggests that Riley isn’t against intermarriage — she’s in an interfaith and inter-racial marriage that has worked:
That’s balanced advice, too — although again, I’m concerned that “bed of thorns” overdoes it.
We’re back from Passover and there was a flurry of commentary about intermarriage in the Jewish media. Last week Benjamin Maron blogged about Rabbinical Students and Intermarriage, picking up on Rebecca Goodman’s February post on Rabbis and Intermarriage. This is all started when Daniel Kirzane, a rabbinic student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the child of intermarried parents, wrote in a debate in Reform Judaism magazine that that seminary should admit students with non-Jewish partners — which it currently does not allow. (This debate has been going on at least since I blogged about it in 2009.)
Benjamin pointed out that a Reform rabbi, Mark Miller, wrote a rather scathing article in the Times of Israel, lamenting Reform Judaism’s supposed “embrace of assimilation.” I want to bring to your attention Aliza Worthington’s very powerful response, also in the Times of Israel, Rigidity is the real threat to Jewish continuity. Worthington tells her personal story of Jewish engagement despite — or perhaps because of — her own intermarriage, the welcome she and her husband received, how she shares Judaism now with her children — and then describes Miller’s response to Kirzane as follows:
I respect your education and career. I admire your devotion to our shared faith. I worry, though, that you have grossly misidentified the real threats to Judaism: Sanctimony, Superiority, and Judgmentalism.
Sadly but not surprisingly, Worthington’s essay attracted vituperative comments which spurred Adin Feder, a high school student at Boston’s Gann Academy — a pluralistic Jewish day school — to write in The Threat of Warrantless Hatred:
Sadly, again, Feder’s article attracted more nasty comments — but Worthington had what I hope is the last word: “Thank God for kids like you who are thinking, educated, engaged, open-minded, compassionate, and articulate. You are the future of a strong, healthy Judaism. Thank you.”
The nasty comments are unfortunate but they aren’t really the point. There will always be people at the extreme who see their way as the only way and intermarriage as intolerable — just as there will always be people who are extremely passionate about the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families. But I wonder what this exchange of commentary demonstrates about the attitudes towards intermarriage of the “great middle.”
With the same-sex marriage cases recently before the Supreme Court, there has been much in the secular press, less about the extremely pro and extremely con voices in that debate, but much more about the revolution in attitudes of the “great middle” in favor of marriage equality. Is Feder’s survey — and remember, it’s from a Jewish high school — representative, indicative of a great shift in attitudes among younger Jews which will push negative views like those of Rabbi Miller to an ineffectual extreme? I wonder.