Holy Moses! When Biblical Heroes Intermarry

By Julie Wiener


Reprinted from The (New York) Jewish Week with permission of the author.

June 15, 2007

I will be the first to admit that I am no Bible scholar.

I received no formal Jewish upbringing, and for a long time what little I knew of the Good Book’s contents came from literary allusions, first grade in an Episcopal–yes, Episcopal (but we’ll save that for another column)–school and the catchy tunes from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Shortly after graduating college, while living in Jerusalem for a year, I decided to finally sit down with the Bible. One Shabbat afternoon, my housemate, who was studying full time at a yeshiva, lent me one of her numerous Tanakhs, and I plunged in for my crash course in Judaism, expecting straightforward, morally enriching parables.

But by Chapter 12 of Genesis, when Abram and Sarai travel to Egypt, I started to get frustrated. Abram pimps out his wife to Pharaoh, in exchange for slaves and assorted livestock, and then Pharaoh is the one God punishes? What lesson was I supposed to derive from that? For this I was supposed to give up shrimp and lobster?

In the almost 13 years since then, I have developed more realistic expectations from Bible study, recognizing that, while fundamentalists might claim otherwise, it’s a far more complicated and ambiguous text than, say, Tuesdays With Morrie.

Particularly when it comes to intermarriage. Yes, there are passages in the Bible that rail against Jews marrying gentiles, and certainly much of the midrash, commentary and Talmud are devoted to this theme. But every spring, when Purim, Passover and Shavuot come and go, I can’t help but notice that the Bible stories we read for these holidays are all about people–Esther, Moses and Ruth–in interfaith marriages. (Yes, I know Ruth converted, but not until after her Jewish husband died.)

Indeed, I have long found it kind of amusing that so many Orthodox Jews name their children Moshe and Esther, when they would be horrified to see them follow in their namesakes’ footsteps at wedding time. I know they hope their children will emulate other aspects of Moses’ and Esther’s stories–their rescue of the Jewish people from slavery and genocide–but I wonder if their redemptive qualities can be separated from their marriages. After all, for both Moses and Esther, their ties to gentiles were not incidental, but a central part of their story. Had Moses been raised among Hebrew slaves and had his wife been a slave, would he have been able to envision a life of freedom? What clout would Esther have had with the Persian king if she hadn’t been his wife? Rather than turning away from the community as a result of marrying out, both used their non-Jewish connections to help them save the Jews.

Rabbi Brian Field, of the Denver-based outreach group Judaism Your Way, recently led a text study session on intermarriage in the Bible at InterfaithFamily.com’s Professionals Advisory Circle conference. He notes that after bringing the Jews out of Egypt, Moses has a reunion with his wife’s father, Jethro–and every time the Midianite priest’s name is mentioned, the text reminds us that he is Moses’ father-in-law.

“It feels like the Torah is rubbing it in our face that this Midianite is family,” Rabbi Field says. “There’s something being said not just about marriage between a man and a woman, but a Jewish leader and a Midianite leader… Moses’ relationship with Jethro, this love-family-intermarriage relationship is part of what helps Moses move the Jewish people forward from slavery to freedom to Torah.”

Perhaps even more significant, Rabbi Field says, is the key role Moses’ wife, Zipporah, plays in Chapter 4 of Exodus, shortly after Moses has seen the Burning Bush and been instructed to return to Egypt. On the way, God inexplicably seeks to kill Moses, until Zipporah steps in and circumcises their son with a flint.

“If we want an example in the Torah of a non-Jew being a fundamental actor toward Jewish continuity, you couldn’t have something more central than a non-Jewish woman circumcising her son and thereby permitting Moses to go on his task that’s going to lead to the birth of the Jewish people,” Rabbi Field says.

Another significant episode in the Bible, Rabbi Field says, is when Jacob blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. Rather than distancing himself from Joseph’s children of an Egyptian wife, Jacob singles the two out for a special blessing, saying “in them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”

“The standard Jewish communal response to intermarriage is that this is a problem, a curse, an undermining of the Jewish people,” Rabbi Field says. “But what does Jacob do? He says, ‘Through you shall Israel invoke blessings’… What would it mean if we looked at intermarriage through Jacob’s eyes, seeing intermarried Jews not as a source of dilution, but as a potential blessing?”

Indeed, while many Jews focus on intermarriage as leading Jews away from Judaism, it can also draw gentiles in. And, particularly at times when a community becomes too insular and set in its ways–whether in biblical times or today–outsiders often bring an influx of fresh ideas, energy and leadership.

As Rabbi Field says, “often when there’s a crisis in the Jewish community, salvation doesn’t come from the Jewish people, but from an alliance between a Jew and a non-Jew. What’s the teaching here about boundaries? When is the crossing of boundaries redemptive?”


About Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at julie.inthemix@gmail.com.