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Lessons on Intermarriage from Abraham

Reprinted with permission from United Synagogue Review. Visit www.uscj.org.

All Jews who are dedicated to their heritage are concerned about who their children will marry. The first Jew to worry about who his son was going to marry was the first Jew--Abraham.

In parsha Chaye Sarah, Abraham gives his servant Eliezer explicit instructions. He tells him to swear he "will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live," and further instructs him to "go to my country, and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac."

Eliezer retorts, "Maybe the woman won't want to come with me; should I bring your son back to the land you came from?"

Abraham, aghast, says "Take care that you do not bring my son there again." And of course the result is that Abraham's son Isaac intermarries. Rebecca may be "kin," but she's not Jewish--at least not when Eliezer first finds her. In biblical times, it appears that getting married to a Jewish man was the way that a woman became Jewish herself--she simply joined the tribe.

There's a lot we can learn about how to deal with intermarriage from studying this passage in the Torah. But before we try to tease out those lessons, I want to put intermarriage today into perspective.

It's a topic that Jews are acutely aware of, yet a lot of rabbis avoid talking about it from the pulpit. After seven years of preaching and teaching, having given hundreds of talks and sermons, I never gave a sermon specifically about intermarriage until quite recently. And I don't think I'm unique--I think for a lot of rabbis intermarriage is the elephant in the living room, impossible to ignore, but not openly discussed. I had to ask myself--why don't people talk about it?

Well, it's a topic that makes people uncomfortable. But anyone who has heard me speak more than once knows that I don't shy away from making people uncomfortable. I think the reason is a little more basic. The topic makes me uncomfortable!

Why does it make people uneasy? It's divisive, it seems somehow "unwelcoming." To speak of the benefits and rationale for endogamy (in-marriage, marrying other Jews) seems somehow exclusivist, elitist, and against the American ideal that everyone is created equal. A recent survey found that 50 percent of American Jews--of the Jews--felt opposition to intermarriage was racist. Our discomfort also may come from tensions intermarriage creates in our families, and as parents we might be worried about whether our kids will intermarry.

I have another reason for feeling personally uncomfortable with the topic. My family motto could be "intermarriage is us." My father intermarried--my brother, my sister, and I were converted as children and raised as Jews. I intermarried, my brother intermarried, my sister intermarried. I have aunts, uncles, cousins, and two half-sisters who are Jewish and married Jews, but the non-Jews in my family circle significantly outnumber the Jews.

Despite all that intermarriage in my family--despite the fact that I myself intermarried, more than once--I am now adamantly opposed to intermarriage, and would be mortified if one of my kids married a Gentile. So how can I speak out on this topic without sounding like a hypocrite?

I hope that rather than making me a hypocrite, my personal and family experience qualifies me to address the topic with authority.

Intermarriage is a huge issue for the Jewish community. As someone said, "The problem Jews have today isn't that Christians want to kill us: it's that they want to marry us!" Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder of the National Jewish Outreach Program, said, "Our grandparents prayed for a melting pot. What they got instead was a meltdown!" Sixty percent of all Jews live in households that are not identified as Jewish. Fifty-four percent of all American Jewish kids are raised either with no religion or with a religion other than Judaism. In his book The Vanishing American Jew, Alan Dershowitz predicts that in a few generations the only Jews left in America will be the ultra-Orthodox. He predicts that liberal Judaism will intermarry itself out of existence.

We're all familiar with the statistic that 52 percent of Jews intermarry. There are things that make that statistic not as bad as it sounds, and things that make it worse. On the one hand, the intermarriage rate is much higher for second and third marriages than it is for first marriages. Those later marriages are less likely to produce children, so this ameliorates the impact of the intermarriage statistic to some extent.

On the other hand, to put it in a scarier context, a 50 percent intermarriage rate means that two out of every three weddings involving a Jew is an intermarriage. Out of four Jews, two--50 percent--marry each other, and the other two each marry a non-Jew. No wonder our demographic decline is forecast to be so precipitous.

And demographics really are what the intermarriage issue is all about. That was the issue for Abraham--he wanted to increase the number of Jews--and it's the issue for us. In parshat Lech Lecha, God promises to make Abraham's descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the earth. That's not going to happen if we can't keep our descendants Jewish.

If Jews are just a tribe, a collection of people with a common heritage, it really does not matter. Lots of tribes have disappeared. All the ancient civilizations other than Judaism basically are gone, at least as far as continuity with their culture goes. There are still people called Egyptians, but they don't build pyramids, worship Isis, or make mummies. For a totally secular Jew--someone who does not believe Judaism has an important message for the world, who does not practice Judaism at home-- be concerned about intermarriage frankly would smack of racism.

But if you believe that Judaism has an important message to share with the world, if you believe that God made a covenant with Abraham so that the Jews would be a blessing to the world, or as Isaiah put it, to be a light to the nations, then it is vitally important that Judaism continue and that the Jews continue to exist as a people.

And that is why, despite my personal experience with intermarriage, I am now opposed to it. I realize that I am something of a fluke: It's pretty rare that someone intermarries, and the end result is he ends up becoming a rabbi. I thank God that I somehow married someone with a Jewish neshamah, whose journey to Judaism inspired me to really explore my own Jewish heritage for the first time as an adult. But I know we can't count on such fortuitous circumstances every time.

We can get some advice from the story of Abraham. First of all, Abraham is concerned that his son marry the right person. Do we communicate to our kids that we care who they marry? If you don't express an opinion about whom your kids date, it's tough to express an opinion about who they marry.

Secondly, why was Abraham so adamant that Eliezer find a bride for Isaac from far away, instead of choosing a local Canaanite girl? Why does he further insist that Isaac not go to live in Babylonia, among his own family? Abraham was afraid that if Isaac married a local girl, he would be absorbed into her culture--the dominant local culture--d he would lose his identity as a Jew. If he lived among the idol worshipers in either place, there was a good chance that he would assimilate. He needed a strong Jewish identity, he needed to establish a Jewish home. We need to implant a strong Jewish identity in our children.

But no matter how strong a Jewish identity we implant in our young people, intermarriage will still happen. Jews are only about 2 percent of the population in America. Even committed Jews meet and fall in love with Gentiles. What then? Trying to stop them with a guilt trip is a nonstarter. Love is very powerful, more powerful than guilt. Telling them "it's giving Hitler a posthumous victory" or "you're breaking a 3,000 year old chain of your ancestors going back to Mount Sinai" is simply not going to carry much weight in the face of love. Reminding them that it is a commandment in the Torah not to intermarry is probably not going to help much either. We have to do something different.

In the story of the search for Isaac's wife, after Eliezer brings Rebecca back to the land of Israel, the Torah tells us: "And Isaac brought her to his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rebecca, and she became his wife; and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death."

The first step Isaac took was bringing Rebecca into his mother's tent. He brought her into his home, his culture. Only after that did he marry her. If our kids fall in love with a Gentile, we should encourage the Gentile to convert to Judaism. This can be a very positive thing for the Jewish people.

The story is told of a young Jewish man who fell in love with a Gentile. His father was very upset, and told him "Don't marry a shiksa. You'll regret it!" The young woman saw how important Judaism was to her fiancé's family. She started learning about Judaism and liked what she saw, so she studied with the rabbi and converted. The first week after the couple returns from their honeymoon, the son is back at work in the family business. Friday afternoon Dad tells the son, "We'll see you tomorrow morning, we'll go over the books," and the son replies, "Sorry, Dad, I can't come. Tomorrow is Shabbat, so we'll be at shul." Dad says, "I told you not to marry a shiksa!"

We may laugh, but it's true that very often converts become some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated members of our congregations. They not only enrich us spiritually, they help strengthen our gene pool--too much in-breeding leads to a concentration of such genetic diseases as Tay-Sachs.

Of course Jews have brought in converts everywhere we have lived. Polish Jews look like Poles and Iranian Jews look like Iranians. Welcoming others into our tent is nothing new. Moses married a non-Jew, Tzipora, the daughter of a Midianite priest. King David is descended from Ruth, a convert, whose story we read every year on Shavuot.

But not every Gentile who marries a Jew will want to convert. Some are committed to their own religions, and if someone believes Jesus is the only path to salvation he or she is not really a candidate for conversion to Judaism. But even then, we can encourage the family to raise their children as Jews. Non-Jews are often sympathetic to the demographic plight that the Jewish people face, and if the Jewish partner says it's important to him or her they will often agree to raise the children as Jews.

But for that to happen, it is incumbent upon us as a Jewish community to be as welcoming to intermarried couples as we can. Rejecting intermarried couples because we don't approve of intermarriage is the surest way to see the next generation grow up Christian or nothing.

Judaism can only remain vibrant in America if we are successful in encouraging non-Jews to embrace Judaism. So we must remember the commandment v'ahavta l'ra'echa k'mocha--to love your neighbor as yourself. If we welcome non-Jews and prospective Jews in our midst with love we will draw them close. We can't afford to turn our backs on them. The future of the Jewish people depends on it.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "soul" or "spirit," the word literally means "breath." In modern Judaism, it is believed that a person receives their soul from God with their first breath (based on Genesis 2:7). The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. Hebrew for "portion," one of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff

Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff is the religious leader at Congregation B'nai Israel in Toledo, Ohio.

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