We are Family? On intermarriage and the Jewish Future

The issue of interfaith marriage has always been a thorny one in the Jewish community, as this type of marriage has historically been very vociferously condemned as going against the tradition and representing an abandonment of the Jewish community, at least to some extent. It is also directly related to biblical injunctions, where the marriages of Israelite men to foreign women was explicitly condemned as forbidden in Deuteronomy 7:3 where it is written that “You shall not marry them [the gentiles], you shall not give your daughter to their son and you shall not take his daughter for your son.” The idea behind this is to prevent the Israelites from being led to serve other deities [or other foreign ideas more generally] and thus lead to the abandonment of the observance of the commandments. The idea that the correct level of interaction between the Israelites and the surrounding cultures had to be deeply circumscribed and delineated to prevent admixture and dilution of status of the Israelite community, is a constant theme in the Bible as well as in later Jewish law.

These rules are meant to ensure the continuity of the Jewish community by ensuring that non-Jews are prevented from becoming members of the community, unless they convert first. Related to this of course is the question of what determines the status of a Jew, as the different streams of Judaism in this current moment define this differently, with the Orthodox and the Conservative movements mandating that only people whose parents are both Jewish, whether by conversion or from birth are to be considered Jewish, while the Reform movement holds that as long as one parent is Jewish and both partners agree to raise the child as Jewish and the child confirms this later in life, they are to be counted as Jewish. This has been in the news recently with high profile Conservative rabbis such as Amichai Lau-Lavie (of Lab/Shul in downtown New York City) and Rolando Matalon (of B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, a non-denominational liberal synagogue), who are resigning from the Rabbinical Assembly, the governing body for Conservative rabbis over their support for intermarriage. Both have announced that they will begin to officiate at interfaith marriages under specific circumstances, which has provoked responses from the wider Conservative movement condemning their statements and actions.

The issue of intermarriage is a major difference between the Orthodox and Conservative on one side, and the Reform and the other liberal wings of the Jewish community being more supportive of it. While there are some Orthodox groups such as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an Open Orthodox Yeshiva, which said that a more nuanced approach to interfaith marriage should be adopted (they later rescinded this statement), the Orthodox community in general forbids intermarriage as a matter of course. For Reform synagogues, the non-Jewish spouse should welcomed to participate in at least some aspects of synagogue and Jewish life, in order to foster a connection to the Jewish community. Whether or not the Jewish spouse converts, if this is the decision it would certainly be welcomed. This brings in the issue of which conversions count as valid since the Orthodox do not accept any conversions performed outside of the Orthodox fold.

This is also similar to the reaction surrounding the acceptance and performance of gay marriage, in that the more liberal streams confirm these marriages and relationships as valid, although the Conservative movement leaves the decision to officiate at such marriages to the individual rabbi. The Orthodox condemn these marriages as a matter of course, and even though the Orthodox say that there is a need to be sensitive to the needs of the people involved, there is no way such unions can be approved by Jewish law. This position is the same as the Orthodox position on intermarriages, as Jewish law absolutely forbids it under any circumstances. Trying to be inclusive of the non-Jewish partner and the non-Jewish child (if the mother is not Jewish according to the Orthodox and Conservative), and finding a way to create an environment in which everyone is welcome in the synagogue, provided the impetus for the decisions of Rabbis Matalon and Lau-Lavie.

Responding to the current situation in the Jewish community as regards intermarriages and the larger issue of correct relations with the non-Jewish world is the most important issue in the Rabbinate writ large. I think that the various ways the different streams of Judaism are responding and potentially evolving on the issue, as this is the current demographic challenge to be very important. As someone who is a Conservative Jew, committed to interfaith dialogue, and as a religious studies scholar, all of these issues are very interesting. While I do not necessarily support the idea of intermarriage, I recognize that this is the reality in the current Jewish community and must be addressed by all the different denominations, even if the answer is a definitive negative. If the choice is between finding ways to include the non-Jewish spouse and children, and losing the family as part of the Jewish community, the choice to me is clear, but the answer should respect Jewish tradition and law as much as is possible.

Image Credit: Bachrach44, via Wikimedia Commons

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