The end of the chain
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 20, 2003
It was late in the night, and the shamash of HaRav Chaim Berlin, the rav of Moscow, was comfortably ensconced in his bed when he heard someone knocking at the door. At first the shamash attempted to ignore the noise, hoping that whoever it was would recognize the lateness of the hour and return the next day, but the knocking only became more insistent. At last the weary shamash dragged himself from his bed to admit the caller.
The man standing at the door insisted that he had to see the rav immediately. The shamash told him that only the greatest emergency could justify disturbing the rav at such a late hour, and asked the man to tell him what was so urgent that it could not wait until the morning. But the man only repeated that he had to see the rav immediately. When it became clear he would not leave, the shamash agreed to find out whether the rav would see the man.
The shamash found Rav Chaim Berlin still learning in his study despite the lateness of the hour. After hearing the shamash relate the circumstances of the strange nocturnal visit, he agreed to see the man.
Rav Chaim, seeing the obvious distress on the man’s face as he entered the study, asked him what he could do to help. Only then did the man begin to unburden himself. He began, "My wife gave birth to a baby boy last week and tomorrow I wish to enter him into the briso shel Avraham Avinu." Rav Chaim wished the man Mazel Tov and waited for the man to explain why this joyful event should have occasioned such an unusual visit or such a look of distress.
The man went on, "I make my living selling religious icons to the Christians. None of my customers suspect that I am a Jew. If they find out that I am Jewish, they will surely kill me for trading in their religious objects. Therefore, my son’s bris must be absolutely secret."
Rav Chaim Berlin immediately grasped how dangerous the man’s situation was, and rather than subject any of the city’s mohelim to risk, agreed to perform the bris himself. The next morning Rav Chaim disguised himself as a doctor and set off for an area of town in which no Jews lived. There he found the address of that the man had given him, and entered the house as if to make a routine checkup of the infant. Rav Chaim performed the bris, wished the parents Mazel Tov, and returned home. He gave no more thought to the matter until the same man was admitted to his study several months later under identical circumstances.
"I thought that you must have been curious," the man began, "as to why someone who has removed himself as far from the Jewish people as I have should care whether or not his son has a bris." Rav Chaim Berlin nodded affirmatively, and the man continued. "I was raised in a religious home. For whatever reasons, I made the choices I did until I reached my present situation. I want my son to be able to choose too, and I realized that without a bris he would be too far removed from the Jewish people to ever return."
Rav Chaim looked at the man for a moment and then told him, " You have given me new understanding of the comparison between the Jewish people and the dove in Shir Hashirim. The Midrash comments on the verse, ‘Behold, you are beautiful my love; behold you are beautiful; you have dove’s eyes....’ (Shir HaShirim 4:1): ‘Behold you are beautiful before the sin; behold, you are beautiful even after the sin.’ The Gemara in Baba Basra says that the dove has weak eyes, and will never travel further from the nest than she can see her way home. And so, you would not go further from the Jewish people than you could see the way back."
TODAY, BY CONTRAST, MOST OF WORLD JEWRY has traveled to the point of no return. Every year thousands of chains of Jews extending backwards in time over three millennia are cut off permanently.
The 1990 National Jewish Population Study determined that the intermarriage rate in America has reached 52%, and the results of the soon to be released 2000 study are expected to be even worse. A 50% intermarriage rate means that for every marriage between two Jews there are two intermarriages.
As a consequence, intermarried households are soon to be the norm for the American Jewish community. Already there are at least 70,000 more children under 12 being raised in homes with one Jewish parent than with two Jewish parents.
When a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman, a chain of Jewish transmission has been irreparably sundered. But even when a Jewish woman marries a non-Jewish man, statistics suggest that the likelihood is slight of their offspring retaining any connection, beyond the formal halachic one, to the Jewish people.
In Reexamining Intermarriage: Trends, Textures, Strategies, the most comprehensive study to date of intermarried couples, sociologist Bruce Phillips found that only 14% of intermarried couples could be classified as "Judaic," in the sense that the balance of religious observance in the home is Jewish. And even in such homes, 60% had x-mas trees. Close to 90% of the children of intermarriages will themselves marry non-Jews.
Due to the pervasiveness of intermarriage, American Jewry is too emotionally compromised to even oppose it. A 2001 study by the American Jewish Committee found that only 12% of Jewish parents strongly oppose their children intermarrying (a figure only slightly higher than the percentage of Orthodox Jews). Well over half responded that they would not be troubled at all by their children intermarrying.
The explanation of these grim numbers is not hard to find. Of those polled with at least one married child, a full two-thirds already had an intermarried child. For these parents, to oppose intermarriage would be to risk severing relations with a child and losing contact with grandchildren.
Forty per cent of the young "leaders" of the Reform movement are themselves intermarried. No wonder, as the Forward reports, it is almost impossible for a Reform rabbi who says he or she will not perform intermarriages to secure a job.
Jack Wertheimer reports in "Surrendering to Intermarriage" (Commentary, March 2001) that in religious schools run by synagogues, "teachers can no longer utter a word in favor of endogamy, or prevent Jewish youngsters from being exposed to the to the jumbled religious views of their dual-faith classmates who often …have trouble telling who is J. and who is Moses." Reform historian Michael Meyers warns of Reform becoming so syncretized with Christian elements as to make conversion of non-Jewish spouses beside the point.
To oppose intermarriage today, points out historian Jonathan Sarna, means going against the entire modern American ethos by placing group identity over social integration, individualism, and liberal values. Allan Smith, director of the Youth Division of the American Hebrew Congregations (Reform), deems it "unrealistic to expect our young people to reject the environment in which they’ve grown up – one that places such a high value on inclusiveness and tolerance."
Half of those polled in the American Jewish Committee study go so far as to term opposition to intermarriage "racist."
Thus in the space of little more than a generation, intermarriage has gone from being viewed as a tragedy by most American Jews to something verging on the positive – a sign of Jewish acceptance by the general population. The attitude of German Reform leader Leo Baeck, who once said that if there had been a Jew in every German family the Holocaust would never have taken place, has become that of the American Jewish establishment.
That establishment has thrown in the towel with respect to intermarriage. Thus Charles Bronfman, chairman of the United Jewish Communites and one of the major supporters of Project Birthright, once told a young leadership group of the Indianapolis Jewish Federation about a wedding he had attended the previous week between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish man, with a Reform clergyman and a Catholic priest co-officiating. It was, he said, "one of the most beautiful weddings I ever attended."
He could have been describing the marriage of his nephew Edgar Bronfman Jr., whose wedding to Catholic woman, with a priest officiating, was reported in detail in the New York Times. (Even that was less depressing that a Times photo of a male Reform "rabbi" marrying a female Protestant minister, in front of a large assemblage of priests, ministers, and "rabbis," all standing under a chuppah.)
Jewish singles have heard the message of their elders loud and clear. In a 1998 Los Angeles Times poll, only 21% of Jewish singles said they would marry only a Jew, and 57% said the religion of a prospective spouse would be irrelevant. Even among recently bar or bat-mitzvahed Conservative youth – i.e., among those most actively engaged in Jewish life – a full two-thirds responded that it is o.k. for Jews to marry people of other religions.
Next week we consider whether there is anything that can be done to reverse this seemingly hopeless situation.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity
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