Can Anything be Done about Intermarriage?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 27, 2003
Last week we detailed the grim trends concerning intermarriage in America – trends which left unchecked doom American Jewry, outside of the Orthodox enclaves, to near extinction by the end of the century. Of no less great concern is the passivity that has overtaken American Jewry in response to these trends. Opposing intermarriage, says sociologist Egon Mayer, is like opposing the weather, and that attitude has come to dominate the official Jewish community.
In place of opposing intermarriage, American Jewry has opted by-and-large for what is called Jewish "outreach." Jewish outreach seeks to keep intermarried couples somehow within the Jewish fold in the hope that their children will remain part of the Jewish community. Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which recently has been busy trumpeting the fact that there will soon be more intermarried than inmarried households in America, expresses the philosophy of "outreach." "Interfaith marriage is not the end of Jewish continuity – not raising Jewish children is," says Olitzky.
"Outreach" efforts to intermarried couples, however, suffer from an insuperable internal contradiction. "Outreach" workers seek to make the non-Jewish spouse feel more welcome by emptying Judaism of all content. In the process, they only succeed in convincing both the Jewish and non-Jewish partners that Judaism is such an empty vessel, chas ve’Shalom, that its continuation through their children is a matter of total indifference.
At the most extreme fringe of the "outreach" movement stands Egon Mayer, who would have the Jewish community accept unconditionally any gentile in an interfaith family as a member in good standing of the Jewish people. Edmund Case, who has a website devoted to interfaith couples, berates the Reform movement for encouraging conversion of the non-Jewish spouse and thereby implying "that those who choose not to become Jewish are less valued, less worthy, or deficient in important respects."
Case and Mayer assert most explicitly the central message of the "outreach" movement: There is no substantial difference between Judaism and Christianity. But it is a position shared by mainstream "outreach" advocates as well. At the 2000 General Assembly of Jewish Federations, "Rabbi" Tirza Firestone was one of those chosen to speak on dealing with the intermarried. "Rabbi" Firestone described why she feels it important to keep a x-mas tree in her house. By doing so, she argues, she honors the memory of the non-Jewish mother of her stepsons, both in their mid-20’s.
Not surprisingly, Firestone finds that theological differences rarely pose a problem for the couples with whom she works. As far as they – and apparently she -- know Judaism has no beliefs or theology. Kerry Olitzky, another self-styled "intermarriage" expert, told the GA delegates that the most important message for them to keep in mind is that "there is "no right and wrong way to be Jewish." Olitzky would replace the old religion of Law with a contentless dispensation.
Yet after nearly three decades of welcoming non-Jewish spouses by blurring all distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, the "outreach" movement has virtually nothing to show for itself in terms of children raised Jewish. As we mentioned last week, no more than 15% of the children of intermarriage are raised with "Jewish" as their primary religious identity, and even in those cases, there is usually a large admixture of Christian elements.
Treating Judaism as trivial, then, is not the solution. When the Reform movement declared tens of thousands of non-Jewish youngsters to be Jewish, it did so in the name of "keeping them within the fold." In reality, however, it did no such thing. Rather the fold is being infinitely expanded, through accounting tricks worthy of Enron, to encompass wayward Jews and their progeny no matter how far they stray. But the abasement of Judaism has only ended by making it less, not more, attractive to intermarried couples.
In addition, the trivialization of Judaism encourages ever higher rates of intermarriage. For if Judaism espouses no beliefs, has no rights and wrongs, then why seek out marriage partners only among those who share the same null set of beliefs rather than among those with whom one shares truly important things, like political affiliation or favorite movies.
WHILE ONLY ABOUT 15% of Jewish parents today tell pollsters that they would actively oppose their children’s intermarriage, a much larger percentage still have a vague sense that the end of the chain of Jewish transmission with their children would be a tragedy. Yet when they attempt to articulate their sense of that tragedy to their children, the reasons they give cannot withstand scrutiny. Let’s consider some of the most common expressions of why the continued existence of a Jewish people is important.
Because Jews are the source of such seminal ideas as monotheism, the dignity of the individual, and equality before the law. While awareness of Jewish contributions to civilization should be a source of pride, to the extent that those ideas are today generally shared they provide no reason for our continued existence.
Because Jews are disproportionately represented among Nobel Prize winners. Yes, there do seem to be a lot of smart Jews. Perhaps it’s genetic; perhaps attributable to our traditional reverence for learning. But either way, there are a lot more smart gentiles. If our goal is creating a gene pool of smart people, it makes no sense eugenically to exclude the latter.
Because Jews are so warm-hearted and generous. Again, Jews do give to charity at far higher rates than other ethnic groups. Our Sages say that anyone lacking the quality of mercifulness is of doubtful Jewish origin. But again, there are many fine, generous gentiles, who it makes no sense to exclude from the society of ethical humanism.
Because Jews support the Democratic party at higher levels than other ethnic groups, and are the most liberal voices in the party. If being Jewish is synonymous with being a liberal Democrat, let us devote our efforts directly to the Democratic party and forget Jewish institutional life.
Jews must continue to exist in order to provide continued financial and political support to Israel. This one begs the question. If there is no reason for the Jewish people to continue as a identifiable entity, then there is no particular reason why we should care about the continued existence of a "Jewish state."
OTHER PARENTS attempt to dissuade their children from intermarrying with grim statistics about the marital difficulties that afflict intermarried couples and the deleterious effects of intermarriage on the children of such marriages. Indeed there is an impressive body of social science literature to support the argument that couples from different religious backgrounds are more likely to divorce and have less happy marriages. The divorce rate among intermarried couples is nearly twice that of inmarried couples.
And research also reveals that, contrary to the rosy picture painted by the "half-Jewish" industry, children of intermarriage suffer greatly from a lack of clear self-identity. They also often suffer from having their parents and extended family compete over their religious allegiances.
Weakly affiliated Jews often wrongly project on their gentile spouse-to-be their own lack of attachment to their ancestral religion, and are shocked to discover after marriage that the gentile spouse is not altogether indifferent to his or her religion. Or they may discover after the birth of a child a strong desire to share with that child aspects of their own religious upbringing.
Doron Kornbluth in a useful and well-researched little volume Why Marry Jewish, which summarizes much of social science literature, relates the poignant story of a Jewish woman who after the birth of her son began preparations for his brit milah. She was shocked when her husband told her that he refused to countenance such a barbaric practice. Even after the husband eventually agreed to the brit, the wife had nothing to say when he told her, "Now you can understand why I insist on his being baptized."
Jewish parents would do well to emphasize these facts to their children when they are young. For once they have fallen in love with a gentile, dire warnings of future unhappiness are likely to fall on deaf ears. The young couple will either convince themselves that every rule has its exceptions, and the strength of their love will prevail. Or they may conclude that with American divorce rates already over the fifty per cent mark that a little more danger hardly makes a difference.
AT ONE TIME OR ANOTHER most of us have had the experience of attending parenting classes in search of some magical advice that will ensure that our children are happy, well-adjusted, and filled with yiras Shomayim. Inevitably we are told that there are no shortcuts to raising successful children. If we want our children to grow up as fine Jews, we ourselves must be fine Jews. No amount of lecturing or any segulah can ever compensate for the model we provide.
Similarly, there is no easy solution to the intermarriage crisis. Either American Jews will begin to take Judaism seriously or their children will intermarry in every growing numbers. Only in the rarest of cases can something still be done at the point that a Jew decides to marry a non-Jew, a choice to which few social barriers exist today and to which no stigma attaches.
Only by raising children who rejoice in their Judaism and who view their entire purpose and meaning in life as inseparable from their identity as Jews, can intermarriage be combated. For children raised to view their Judaism in this way, the possibility of marrying a non-Jew will be unthinkable. For all others, the likelihood is that they will marry out.
So the real question is not whether anything can be done about intermarriage, but whether anything can be done to get American Jews to take their Judaism seriously. Based on the evidence before us, the answer can hardly be encouraging.
Correction: Last week’s reference to German Reform leader Leo Baeck should have read: "if there had been a Jew in every German family the Holocaust would never have taken place."
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity
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