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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 âŚ about Jewish apathy.â Fortunately one comment wagers that the writer âholds outdated views that intermarriageâŚ 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 meâŚ 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
There are many in the Jewish community, including Steven M. Cohen in his recent response in The Forwardâs Seesaw column, who put forward a two-pronged approach to sustain the American Jewish community in light of the high rate of intermarriage. First, they encourage in-marriage. But when that fails, they encourage interfaith families to engage Jewishly and raise their children within the Jewish community.
But just listen to that language â when in-marriage âfails.â Those are my words, but it is certainly the message I received from many in the Jewish community. Those who take this two-pronged approach are in essence saying that interfaith marriage is second best, so it is not a far leap for interfaith families to feel like second class citizens. That is not a good starting point if you want interfaith families to engage Jewishly.
Would we feel comfortable telling our children to only marry within their race? Or within their socio-economic class? Of course, religion is not exactly the same as race or class. It also makes a difference if you are in the minority or the privileged position. But it is worth asking ourselves how these questions make us feel.
I understand where many Jews are coming from in wanting to preserve a minority population. But what is it we are really trying to preserve? For me, I want to perpetuate Jewish practice, history, belief, thought, food, culture, and community. There are so many treasured memories I look back on from my childhood and want to pass on to my son. Because all of these elements of Judaism have beautiful things to offer the world and the individuals who hold them dear.
So letâs focus on that. Instead of encouraging in-marriage, letâs encourage young adults to find a life partner who shares their values and who will help them celebrate and live their Jewishness. Someone who is open to sharing in and contributing to the life of the Jewish community whether or not that person is Jewish themselves. That is what I found in my husband who actively helps me build a Jewish home, but who is not Jewish himself.
From that starting point, it is easy to move to step two of encouraging interfaith families to engage Jewishly. In fact, from this starting point, we can be sharing the same message with all new families and welcoming everyone on even footing.