Send to Friend  Bookmark  Print

Between Intermarriage and Conversion: Finding a Middle Way

August, 2001

Despite our deeply ingrained conception of Jewish identity--that a person is either a Jew or a non-Jew and there is no category in between--perhaps it is time to invent something new. The increasing rate of intermarriage has become a cause celebre generating many new efforts, none of which speaks to the new reality that Jews face as fully integrated members of the societies in which they live.

Historically, whenever Jews have been intimately involved in a non-Jewish society, we have intermarried. We did it in Spain in the Middle Ages and in Europe in the 19th century, and we are doing it now in America. The community's preferred approach to date has been to encourage the non-Jewish spouse to convert, but this approach is rather problematic, as it tends to produce conversions of questionable sincerity.

This leads me to suggest an idea worth some communal consideration. Perhaps we ought to invent a new category between Jew and gentile. In fact, over the course of Jewish history, the tradition has grappled with variants of this challenge and bequeaths to us a number of ideas that we might rehabilitate today. One of the most interesting of these is the idea of the ger toshav, or resident alien, who occupied this in-between position in biblical times.

The ger toshav was not a convert. He was, according to the rabbis, a gentile who lived among the Jewish people, happy to be part of the Jewish world and supportive of the religious and social frames of Jewish life. He could eat tref (nonkosher) but was not permitted to publicly worship other gods, and if he was circumcised, he could partake of the Passover sacrifice. He was a lover of the Jewish people, though not a Jew himself. In many intermarried homes today, this characterization would aptly describe the feelings and commitments of the non-Jewish spouse.

When my cousin Janet married a non-Jew, I did not attend the wedding. Eventually, the shock wore off, they had children, and everyone managed to deal with reality. In fact, we all have come to love Janet's mate, Bill. Janet and Bill have raised their children Jewishly, with Janet's hard work and Bill's encouragement, and Bill is proud to be the non-Jewish father of a Jewish family.

Since Janet and Bill tied the knot, the Jewish community's attitude toward intermarriage has undergone a huge change. What was once taboo has become the norm. The 1999 Survey of American Opinion found that 62% of the respondents consider anti-Semitism a greater threat to the Jewish people than intermarriage. And though I am saddened by the increased numbers of "mixed" kids growing up in intermarried homes, I no longer can stomach the indignation that I once proudly held on the matter. All of us, including those of us in the Orthodox community, must do more to address this issue than we have.

Recent proposals to enrich Jewish experiences prior to marriage have much merit. The deeper and more intense an individual's Jewish cultural, social, and religious commitments are, the greater their desire to marry a Jewish person is likely to be. Such direct campaigns to combat intermarriage, like the Birthright Foundation's project of sending thousands of young adults to Israel, might slow down the trend, but they are surely not going to turn it around. So, instead of focusing our attention on mixed marriages, why not secure the Jewish home by creating a contemporary ger toshav--not a convert to Judaism, but a gentile who actively chooses to live among Jews.

This approach would emphasize the positive values of Jewish culture and tradition and the joys of living in a Jewish home without insisting upon conversion. Rabbis would then be able to offer to non-Jews wishing to marry a Jewish spouse the opportunity to become, not converts, but committed fans of the Jewish people.

For this approach to have a chance of becoming widely accepted, potential gerei toshav would have to learn about Judaism in a course specifically designed for this purpose along with their prospective spouse. They would have to be prepared to raise Jewish children and to help create a Jewish home. Children growing up in such a home would know that they have two parents, one Jewish and one not, but that they are full-fledged Jews and not half-Jews. In situations where the woman was the non-Jewish partner, the children could be converted in early childhood by a proper beit din (religious court), thereby insuring that they are treated as Jews within the larger Jewish community.

Forcing conversion on people doesn't work for many reasons. People often have good reasons for not wanting to convert. For some, the weakness of their religious convictions regarding their own faith makes them feel inauthentic about adopting another faith. Such folks don't feel strongly enough about religion to pledge their faith in good conscience. Others may feel powerfully drawn to Jews and Judaism, but feel unable to convert for personal reasons. They may not be prepared to cause the upset and disappointment that their conversion would produce for parents and siblings. While they may be eager to learn about Judaism and happy to raise their children as Jews, they may still feel the need to protect a sense of their own history and roots.

Adoption of the ger toshav status could provide a non-Jew with the time to experience Jewish life in a more organic way. Without the pressure to convert quickly (and often superficially) for the sake of marriage, a slower process of identification, one focused upon carrying out Jewish parenthood would nurture Jewish belonging from the inside.

The marriage of a Jew and a ger toshav would not be legitimate under existing halachic (Jewish legal) frameworks. However, my own work in finding solutions to gay and lesbian marriage has shed light on this issue for me. In this case as well, the traditional ritual would not well serve a mixed couple. New rituals for such marriages, rituals that partake of Jewish resources and speak honestly about what is actually happening, are needed.

Exactly what such marriages could mean for the Jewish community, how they ought to be formally enjoined, or how they should be terminated when they end are all questions that call for the exercise of cultural creativity. Maimonides makes it clear that the traditional marital ritual was an innovation when it began. Until then, a man took a woman into his tent, and when they came out they were married. If the present form of Kiddushin was once an invention, then innovation itself is not the problem.

If Abraham had two wives and Jacob had four, doing things just like our forebears is also not the issue. If the Talmudic sage Rav would call out on his travels, "Who will marry me for the day?" in order to provide a "day wife" for himself, it must be clear that marriage and family-making are always a part of the larger cultures in which they reside. It is time that we provide a place for the non-Jew in our families in much the same way the ger toshav, or alien resident, was given a place in ancient Judea.

Among King David's most trusted commanders was Uriah the Hittite. This non-Jew was the epitome of the ger toshav, loyal to David and and a fan of the Jewish people. He bears the Hebrew name, Uriah, meaning "God is my light" and is remembered as a man of integrity and decency. The Hittite commander was so morally upright that, despite David's urgings that he go and sleep with his wife Bathsheba, (so as to obscure the fact that she was pregnant by King David), he refused to sleep in the comfort of his bed while his men were in the battlefield.

It is surely better when two Jews marry and produce children who carry on the covenant of Israel as knowledgeable and proud Jews. But for the great non-Jewish souls who find themselves, like Uriah, drawn to the Jewish people and ready to stand up and even fight with us in our battles, we must find a way to formally recognize them. It is a sign of our success that we ought to celebrate rather than to mourn.

Hebrew for "sanctification," Jewish marriage is often referred to as Kiddushin, as one partner (traditionally, the bride) becomes "sanctified" (dedicated) to the other partner (traditionally, the groom). Rabbinic court involved in matters of Jewish law, including conversion and traditional divorce procedures. 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. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "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. Another word for "rabbi."
Rabbi Steve Greenberg

Rabbi Steve Greenberg is a Senior Teaching Fellow at CLAL--The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Visit www.Clal.org.

Send to Friend  Bookmark  Print

Welcome to InterfaithFamily!

We depend on readers like you to support the work we do online and in the community.