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The Human Face of Intermarriage: A Rabbi's Pastoral Reflections

May 11, 2009

This article originally appeared in the Reform Advocate published by the Society for Classical Reform Judaism and is reprinted with permission.

A snapshot of a couple that allegedly is destroying the Jewish people:

"I feel devastated ... Like I got kicked in the stomach. I mean, I've known him all my life. He bat mitzvahed me. He confirmed me ... I just always thought that he would marry me. But he just looked at me, shook his head and told me that he wouldn't. He said that we were destroying the Jewish people. I don't understand. I am so happy with John. I love him so much. He treats me so well. It's not like I don't love Judaism too. We wouldn't have come to him if Judaism wasn't important to us."

sad coupleThey sit in front of me--she crying, he handing her a tissue and rubbing her back. His face is concerned and confused. He leans over and says to me, "I'm not even really Christian but my parents are. In fact, they keep telling us that their minister will be happy to marry us. But I don't know, Christianity never really made sense to me as a faith, growing up, so why would I want to have a minister marry me now? It seems opportunistic. Besides which, I know that she would not feel comfortable with that either. And, I mean, like I said, I don't even think of myself as Christian. I never really did. I never felt I could ask questions. I never really fit in ... So I don't understand, because it's not like it's even really an interfaith marriage. It's just that I don't know enough right now to say that I would want to convert. I mean, I like Judaism, and I love the way her family has welcomed me in. I love the lighting of the candles and the warmth ... It's just that he wanted me to make all these promises. And I couldn't make them ... because I just don't know. I mean, I don't even know if we will have children, and there he was asking me to make all these promises."

She goes on, "I just thought he'd be happy for me?happy that I was in love. But I just felt condemned. Like who I was, and what I had chosen for myself, were not good enough ... And then we went and asked my Hillel rabbi, who told us the same thing. I had been so active in college, and we had gotten close, you know? I thought he would understand that if I was asking, it was because Judaism was still important to me. But he said that our marriage was what was wrong with the Jewish people. He told me about how Hitler was going to have a posthumous victory because of people like us. That was harsh. Who is he to judge us? How does he know what we are going to do? I was so embarrassed in front of John ... like how could I be so devoted to a people that judged me so harshly? I wanted to give up- just run away and go to a Justice of the Peace ... I didn't want to have anything else to do with Judaism. If they won't accept me for who I am, why should I bother? But it was Jonathan who talked me out of it."

He speaks up. "I know how much she loves Judaism. How much of a part of her it is. And it does seem really beautiful. Just because I am not ready to make all these promises in an honest and authentic manner does not mean I don't see its beauty... does not mean I don't appreciate the way that it makes space for questions... the way it places family and relationship first." He sighs. "I love her so much. And it's a part of her. A really beautiful part of her. I don't want to watch her try to kill that part of herself off, just because she feels hurt and rejected right now. I just kept thinking, there has to be another option... and then my friend told me about you. So, we thought, that, uh, maybe you could help..."

One Rabbinic Response

I sit before them ... moved to tears by how much they care about Judaism ... how brave it was for them to risk rejection for a third time! These are the people who are destroying the Jewish people? This loving couple that is practically begging for a rabbi to help them find a way to incorporate Judaism into their life together as a couple--these are not the people who are destroying the Jewish people. These are the people who are saving the Jewish people, despite all odds.

Because, the claim that our survival is in jeopardy is true. By many objective standards, we do not seem to be growing. But, I disagree with their assessment of the threat. We are losing Jews, not because of who they choose to marry, but because of how we respond to them. The more restrictive our definition for "who is a Jew", the more we will shrink. When I am faced, again and again, with couples exactly like this one--thoughtful, loving couples, who so desperately want to be married by a rabbi, and find their place within the Jewish community--I feel awe. I feel tremendous awe for the powerful Jewish spirit that, once again, as it has always done, refuses to be deterred from living its faith on its own terms.

And I feel anger. A deep anger and sadness for how fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are our own worst enemy. The desire to protect the Jewish people is actually turning Jews away. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, I know, only too well the fear of extinction that is causing so many to react in a narrow and restrictive manner. If we have learned anything from that unspeakably awful experience, I wish it was that fear is at the root of prejudice and that giving in to fear is an abdication of faith.

The saddest part is that one cannot reason with fear. If only I could somehow reach my colleagues and get them to hear beyond their fears... If only they had a fraction of the faith of this couple that refused to give up hope ... There are so many reasons to see intermarriage as a wonderful opportunity to learn, grow and indeed, thrive. I believe that, depending on how we respond to it, intermarriage can be a blessing.

Trying to Reason With Fear

The first and most obvious way in which intermarriage can be a blessing for the Jewish people is the new possibilities that a personal encounter with Judaism can offer to many non-Jews who do not feel very connected to their faith of birth. Many non-Jews, through their exposure to Judaism, eventually incorporate elements of our faith into their lives. For a variety of personal or family reasons, they may or may not always choose to formalize this process through an official conversion, but either way, their presence in our congregations is a huge gift. Through their questions and insights, they bring a new perspective on rituals and beliefs that we may have taken for granted, giving us the opportunity to be renewed in our own faith. Very often, they may inspire their own partners to become more observant, or to attend services more regularly. In countless ways, these individuals, who come into our communities through intermarriage and choose to stay, to whatever extent, binding their fate with our own, are huge blessings. We owe them our gratitude, not our judgment and suspicion.

Of course, not everyone who marries a Jew chooses to live Jewishly. It may be because they have their own religious faith, or it may be because they do not want to be where they are not welcomed or wanted. Nevertheless, such individuals, and their families, can still be a force for good and blessing for the Jewish people. The advent of thousands of non-Jews choosing to link their fate with the fate of Jews means that thousands upon thousands of non-Jews will have a personal stake in fighting anti-Semitism, and given a new reason to stand up in the face of hatred. If the only thing they know about the Jews is that they rejected their child, just for being in love with a Jew, we will probably have that many less allies in the world. And having countless new advocates, with personal connections to our people, is just as essential in our perennial quest for Jewish continuity.

This is part of my sadness. I understand that the concern over numbers emerges from our own unresolved grief over the millions who perished in the Holocaust. But the way we express our fears does not help to create a world where we can say with certainty, "Never again". I believe that our challenge is a task of alchemy, namely to transform our dark shadowy legacy into one where ignorance is replaced with understanding, blindness with sight, fear with trust and hatred with love. This is the real task of Jewish continuity, to liberate ourselves from the specters of our history. How many times do we need to experience Mitzrayim--the biblical Egypt which symbolizes all narrow places that imprison us--to learn how to love those who come to dwell amongst us?

The most frequent objection to intermarriage is the children. How can the children of a minority be brought up being exposed to the faith of a minority and a majority? Both sides of the debate turn to statistics, of varying degrees of validity, to back up their arguments ... And, so, it is appropriate to note here that there are several studies that seem to indicate that children of intermarriage have just as high a degree of Jewish self-identification as the children of two Jews married.

But, the hazard of relying upon research is that these studies are done on intermarried couples and their children in a social environment where their parents may have been rejected at least as often as the couple described above. We only know the outcomes of the current situation, that, for so many, feels devastating. We do not know what the outcomes could be if we, as a Jewish community, were to respond differently--if we were to respond with love instead of fear. What if couples who chose to marry, and wanted a rabbi to participate, were lovingly welcomed into the Jewish community, without judgment or condition? What would the rates of Jewish identification for their children be?

Jewish Continuity

Jewish continuity is not just about quantity but quality. And when couples intermarry, the Jewish community is given the opportunity to be enriched at every level. The fate of the Jewish people depends upon Jews and non-Jews, upon individuals like our couple, who are bravely willing to risk rejection and stigma. And the Jewish community may not be brave enough to admit it, but we owe them our deep and abiding gratitude. They are teaching us how to keep our faith alive, as did all those generations before us. We, who were strangers in a strange land, have an obligation to love those who come to dwell amongst us.

The real threat of extinction is when we cease to be true to ourselves and true to our faith. At the core of our faith is the Sh'ma and the V'ahavta, namely the command to listen and to love. We are commanded to listen to God's ongoing revelation through love and to respond in love. The challenge of intermarriage is an opportunity to do just that, to listen closely to these couples, and to hear God's word in the powerful love that they embody--in their love for one another, and in their love for God that inspires them to risk repeated rejection in order to receive blessing. And, who are we to withhold blessing?

The Sacred is beyond all language and words?and just as I choose to express the Divine with a word that moves beyond conventional language, so have I chosen to respond to the challenge of interfaith marriage in a way that also transcends the boundaries and limitations that we impose on the Divine Creation, and one another. This is the theological understanding that calls me to remain open and all-embracing of the many different ways God is revealed in human love that do not always fit into the categories of our understanding? through all the different religions, and through all the countless ways in which the Sacred becomes manifest in this world and in our lives.

May it be God's will that we will soon find the strength to respond to love with love, not fear. May we have faith in Judaism's ability not only to survive, but to thrive. And may we have the courage to trust that God is working through love to bring healing to our broken world.

Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Rabbi Nadia Siritsky

Rabbi Nadia Siritsky is a Reform rabbi who lives in Canada. She is the Program Coordinator for The Society for Classical Reform Judaism.

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