This essay was submitted to the Forward, but they rejected it. I tried to think of other venues that might accept it: The [New York] Jewish Week is really in a separate universe; Tikkun is liberal but perhaps too much so -- the thesis I put forward below might lack all novelty to them. In addition, their founder's politics are not to my liking. I am mailing the piece to Conservative Judaism, the journal of the movement where I reluctantly hang my yarmulke, but I don't think it's scholarly enough for that publication. If anyone can suggest other possible venues for this piece, please let me know.
Why Do Jews Intermarry?
Start by thinking about people you know.
Jews should care about both the shared life of the ethnic and religious community and the moral and spiritual striving of the individual. Since American Jewish life is dominated by large institutions, this second, more intimate dimension is often overlooked. Such is the case in current discussions of intermarriage, which many see first and foremost as a blow to the Jewish people. While that opinion should not be discounted (though it may be disputed), the day-to-day life of the individual Jew is also important. How can we better understand Jewish intermarriage from this point of view?
Intermarriage in the abstract is often condemned out of hand – but we react differently to it when seeing it up close, when someone we love chooses to marry a non-Jew. For those who respect the opinions of their Jewish friends and relations who intermarry, the question becomes not “What did we do wrong in not convincing them to marry within the faith?” but “What might they be doing right?” Why is the Jew marrying the non-Jew – not from the point of view of the Jewish collective, but understood from inside his or her own life?
This question is too rarely posed. Intermarriage is treated not as an opportunity to consider the individual relationships of Jews and non-Jews, but as an excuse for institutionally pious rhetoric both religious and secular. It goes without saying that in the halachic universe intermarriage is looked on with grave disfavor, but then again so are any number of other prohibitions, some more pivotal and severe, which do not arouse such consuming interest. For their part, secular Jews employ the rhetoric of Jewish peoplehood: The individual Jew must not marry a non-Jew, since thereby the Jewish people is weakened. In the boilerplate responses of either variety, the individual is meant to subordinate his or her own desires to the Jewish nation.
However, in post-Haskalah everyday life, individuals hew to standards which make both these “arguments against” inapposite in two ways. First, they are addressed to the person as a member of a group, not as an individual – to a Jew, not a person. Second, they are phrased in negative terms. Whether in secular or religious life, the modern individual most often lives not by avoiding the forbidden but by following a path he or she has found worthwhile. How do we understand those Jews who marry non-Jews? What is the rationale of the intermarrying Jew?
We want to marry someone who supports, challenges, and improves us, and is worthwhile to raise a family with – but not just that. It is not just “the right sort of person” we want to marry, but the right person: one person in all the world whom we have chosen from among many others. Ideally, that person fits into our lives in a way particular to us. It is not surprising that such a particular, individual fit does not always provide a corresponding fit on an ethnic or religious level.
What might be going on in the mind of the committed Jew when he or she finds “the right person” – who isn’t a Jew? It’s quite simple: he or she imagines a future married life which includes both involvement in Judaism and marriage to a non-Jew. According to his or her deliberations, a non-Jewish spouse does not compromise individual, Jewish aspirations.
This requires further explanation, because many Jews still harbor the misconception that non-Jews are inimical – or at best irrelevant – to Judaism. But like any other worthwhile human activity, Judaism can be strengthened by those people who are supportive of it, whether or not they are to be found within its institutional borders; we have learned, for example, that non-Jews have much to give Israel or the American Jewish community in intellectual sustenance and constructive criticism. If the committed Jew, consulting his or her spiritual compass and deliberating on a future Jewish life, finds a non-Jew to be bashert, how can we tell them to choose “any” Jew? Exchanging the right person for any adequate Jew is not an attractive recommendation, but this is exactly the response much of the Jewish community limits itself to.
Here two obvious objections come to mind. First: what about the non-committed Jew? If a Jew makes no active, individual effort to speak of, and is hanging by a thread from the fabric of Jewish society, can we really speak analytically of different realms of individual and society, when his or her individual life is Jewishly quite poor? How can the Jewish community not combat the self-alienating choice of intermarriage?
The second objection broadens and is related to the first. In fact, it makes the whole matter much more complicated. To most people, marriage means having children – and establishing a family is the very spot where “individual Judaism”, the moral and spiritual striving of a human being, meets “plural Judaism”, the shared life of the community. When a family is established with one Jewish and one non-Jewish spouse, which of these is weakened: the Jewish attachment of the family as a whole? the Jewish commitment of the Jewish spouse? the non-Jewish concerns of the husband or wife? Perhaps none or all of these?
Those who are raising families themselves, or have grown up in one (all of us) know that no a priori, exhaustive answers to these questions are available. The best we can do is to tell stories, that is, consider examples of families that provide us with possible and positive arrangements of Jewish life in all its complexity. (This is one of the reasons why we find the book of Genesis necessary and helpful in our own day.) For example, while an intermarried family may not participate in all aspects of traditional religious observance (to pick one example of a contemporary Jewish community), e.g., both spouses may not be present in the synagogue, or fasting on Yom Kippur, it may provide a warm and welcoming environment for Shabbat dinner, a nurturer of their or others’ Jewish children, a forum for discussions about the Jewish purpose, an engine for Jewishly imagined social change, or a nucleus for support of Israel.
This route to a Jewishly supportive intermarriage requires no special techniques or institutional initiatives. It merely depends on what one expects from a healthy married life: the interaction and mutual reinforcement of two individuals committed to different but complementary ways of life. In this way, the Jew is not excluding him- or herself entirely from the Jewish community by marrying a non-Jew, but neither is he or she sacrificing the search for a true match to the real or perceived needs of the Jewish people.
Will most serious Jews soon welcome intermarriage? No – but neither are we to overlook the importance of the individual Jew’s spiritual and moral strivings, of which a non-Jewish spouse can be a valuable and contributory part.
With regard to the non-committed Jew, perhaps the foregoing discussion provides a productive approach: rather than “enticing” the marginal Jew with dire predictions of the downfall of the Jewish people brought about by intermarriage, we can provide positive examples of substantive Jewish life among individuals from a variety of backgrounds and individual choices. All of these Jews, together with their families, make up the Jewish people, which is strong and broad enough to share its bounty with the “chosen non-Jews.”