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Intermarriage Nemesis

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Originally published on Jewish in St. Louis. Reprinted by permission.

What should our attitude be when an interfaith family comes to our shul or community? Should we actively try to engage interfaith families or might this give people the impression it is OK to intermarry?

What should a rabbi do when a couple comes to him who perhaps knows little about Judaism and may not even realize intermarriage is frowned upon? Should the rabbi reject them? Rebuke them? Accept them? Help with their wedding, since they will certainly be marrying? Does it make a difference if the man or woman is the Jew?

The word intermarriage rings for many in the Jewish community like the sound of a (wooden) coffin nail, and indeed, 75 years ago in America it was. A whole generation of American Jews to whose parents Jewish life and Jewish tradition were important, viewed marrying a non-Jew as their ticket to becoming an American instead of a Jew. It was the way to a safer, freer and more prosperous life without Judaism. Appropriately, parents tore their clothing and sat shiva for intermarried children because often those intermarriages did signify a Jewish end.

As an Orthodox rabbi, I believe Jews should marry other Jews. Nevertheless, I think we do damage to the Jewish people if we react to intermarriage today no differently than we did in the past generation. Today, close to half of American Jewish weddings are interfaith. It sounds like the end of the Jewish people, but that depends on one’s perspective.

The phrase "Jewish continuity" has been overused in recent times, especially within the world of raising money for Jewish causes. No one disputes the fact that it’s important for the Jewish people to continue. However, when we view Jews marrying other Jews as the only goal of Judaism, then we are just being prejudiced against non-Jews. In fact from a strictly halachic (Jewish legal) perspective, it is arguably better to marry a non-Jew and keep the Sabbath than to marry a Jew and not keep it (Tur, Even Haezer 15, Mishnah Torah, Isuray Biah 12:1).

Intermarriage is a symptom of Judaism’s irrelevance in the lives of so many American Jews, not the cause of that irrelevance. If I am unwilling to marry a non-Jew just because that person is a non-Jew, and not for any other reason, that is just prejudice. Jews should marry Jews because their personal Judaism is such an integrated and encompassing part of their lives that it would be very difficult not to not share it with their spouse. If we stressed meaningful Jewish lives instead of "Jewish continuity," we would not have to worry about Jewish continuity. In the past marrying out of the Jewish religion was a way to escape the limits of Judaism but today, ironically, it can be a gateway into Jewish life.

Increasingly, a Jewish man or woman whose Jewish life is not an encompassing and fulfilling spiritual journey, a Jewish man or woman whose connection to Jewish tradition and mitzvot is superficial and whose knowledge of Torah and Judaism is minimal, meets someone with whom they fall in love who happens not to be Jewish and, for the first time in their lives, the Jewish partner calls a rabbi.

I have heard it many times: "Rabbi, my name is David. I am not very religious. I grew up going to synagogue once a year and celebrating a Seder and Hanukkah. I am getting married and my finance and I want to have a Jewish wedding. She is not Jewish but likes the idea of a Jewish wedding and some of the Jewish traditions."

For this Jewish person, it is often the first time he has volitionally knocked on his People’s door. And in a sad and ironic twist of Jewish history, it is precisely at this moment that the door is closed: "I'm sorry David, I don't do interfaith weddings but I'd be happy to meet with you and your fiancée and talk about the meaning behind Jewish weddings."

Inevitably, since David and his fiancé have never met with a rabbi and are in stressed out wedding planning mode, they never call back. We not only turn away engaged or already married interfaith couples explicitly, but as a Jewish community we do so in more subtle ways also. When we see intermarriage as the end, couples and interfaith families sense this. If they get up the nerve to walk into a synagogue, they often gather that something is amiss.

They see that, in most Conservative and Orthodox synagogues at least, they cannot join as families and they feel turned away. In many of our communities we do not do this with the Jewish family that drives to synagogue on Shabbat; the car they parked two blocks away does not color every interaction we have with them. Why do it with interfaith families?

The floodgates of the rivers of Jews leaving the faith that we imagine we are opening by not censuring intermarriages are, in this generation, a miasma. Such attitudes will not stop anyone from intermarrying, only from ultimately cultivating a meaningful and perhaps more observant and informed Jewish life.

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." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "repetition" (from the verb meaning "to study and review"), it refers to the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions ("Oral Torah"). Mishnah is the first post-biblical collection of Jewish legal materials, and the primary building block of the Talmud (the major collection of Jewish law), as interpreted by the rabbis. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Rabbi Hyim Shafner

Rabbi Hyim Shafner is the rabbi of Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University and studied at the Yeshivas Chofetz Chayim. He is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, the St. Louis Rabbinical Council of the Vaad Hoeir, the St. Louis Rabbinical Association and The Chicago Rabbinical Council. He has served on the local boards of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Fund for Human Needs.

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