In January of 1939 The Atlantic caused a stir when it published "I Married a Jew," an unprecedented first-person chronicle of the experiences of an intermarried non-Jewish woman. In it, the anonymous author describes the severe ostracism she and her husband faced from their families and communities because of their marriage. The piece was written at a time when there were relatively few intermarriages in the United States, and it was still common for Jewish parents to sever all ties with and literally sit shiva for a child who married a non-Jew. Since the second half of the 20th century--mainly as a result of greater secularization, assimilation and increased social mobility--American Jewish society has undergone a series of radical transformations. Simultaneously, there has been a steep increase in intermarriage rates, particularly since the 1970s. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project found that 44 percent of married Jews in the United States have a non-Jewish spouse. This number is higher in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements and somewhat lower in the Conservative movement. Intermarriage rarely if ever occurs in the Orthodox community, and when it does happen, people leave for other denominations.
The very meaning of intermarriage has shifted with these demographic changes. In earlier periods, intermarriage was generally seen as a rejection of Jewish identity and a form of rebellion against the community. These days, intermarriage doesn't necessarily spell the end of an active Jewish life or of Jewish lineage. Especially among younger Jews, intermarriage is often seen as unremarkable and fully compatible with being Jewish. Much of the current debate on the topic is taking place among religious leaders, for whom intermarriage is not just a matter of demographic survival but also theology and halacha (Jewish law). There are sharp divisions among the movements. The Reform and Recon-structionist movements officially leave the decision about participating in intermarriages to individual rabbis, many of whom will officiate at intermarriages. The Orthodox and Conservative rabbinates interpret the law as forbidding intermarriage. Orthodox rabbis do not attend or officiate at intermarriages and, since the 1970s, Conservative rabbis have also been barred from officiating at or attending weddings between Jews and non-Jews. Last summer, the debate was reignited when a small number of prominent Conservative rabbis at independent synagogues publicly broke with the movement and began performing intermarriages.
Despite its prevalence, intermarriage remains highly contentious and echoes American Jewish fears about assimilation and irrelevance. And since the Orthodox movement remains 100 percent opposed to intermarriage, the issue also contributes to the ever-widening gap between liberal American Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, both in the U.S. and Israel.
Moment asks a group of prominent rabbis, community leaders and scholars to weigh in on the debate. Although there are a wide range of strongly held views in this symposium, almost everyone we spoke with agreed on two points: Intermarriage is here to stay, and it is imperative to reach out to and integrate interfaith families into the Jewish community. Ultimately, the debate over intermarriage determines who American Jews are and will be in the 21st century and beyond.--Marilyn Cooper
MICHAEL SATLOW IS A PROFESSOR OF JUDAIC STUDIES AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES AT BROWN UNIVERSITY. HE IS THE AUTHOR OF SIX BOOKS, MOST RECENTLY HOW THE BIBLE BECAME HOLY.
Marriage used to be seen as a contractual relationship between a man and a woman rather than as something sanctified and sacred--that idea of marriage came about more as a result of Christianity. Similarly, the definition of intermarriage has changed dramatically over time, and concern about it has fluctuated. The early texts don't have any of the modern demographic concerns about intermarriage. They don't discuss matters like the survival of the Jewish people or the health of the community. Those were non-issues. When seen in the giant scope of the Talmud, rabbinic literature says relatively little at all about intermarriage.
Early Jewish texts generally condemn intermarriage. The reasons for this are not always clear, and there's an interesting dynamic in classic Jewish texts where they have a problem defining what intermarriage actually means. It may mean a marriage between a Jew and non-Jew, but it very often refers to marriages between two Jews. For example, there are some passages in the Babylonian Talmud where intermarriage is between a Babylonian Jew and a Palestinian Jew. There are other texts that define intermarriage as between a priest, a Kohain, and someone from a non-Kohainite line, but who is also a Jew. So although there is a clear condemnation of exogamy or "out-marriage," there is also a very blurry line as to what constitutes "out-marriage."
Historically, part of the reason for this condemnation is a notion that Jews are pure, and there is a desire to preserve the Jewish race. Because of this concern with purity, early texts might discuss intermarriage during time periods when there is not a significant threat of it happening. In other cases, there is a fear that the non-Jewish partner will lead the Jewish partner into foreign worship and start them down a slippery slope to idolatry. The Bible has numerous cases of Israelite men marrying foreign women: Moses marries Zipporah, daughter of the Midian priest Jethro. Joseph marries Asenath, daughter of the Egyptian priest Potiphera. And Judah marries Shua the Canaanite. Many of these foreign women are presented as temptresses, and the texts reflect an understanding that for a Jewish man to marry a non-Jewish woman is a sign of a lack of control.
EDMUND CASE IS THE FOUNDER AND FORMER DIRECTOR OF INTERFAITH FAMILY AND THE CO-EDITOR OF THE GUIDE TO JEWISH INTERFAITH FAMILY LIFE: AN INTERFAITHFAMILY.COM HANDBOOK.
There are many strong arguments for why intermarriage is good for Jews. Many Jewish partners find that their interest and engagement in Jewish life increases because they are in an interfaith relationship. They report that they cannot take their Jewish involvement for granted; they really have to think about it. I think that is a good thing because when you have to think about Judaism, it becomes a great source of meaning and value. Non-Jewish partners often become very engaged in and bring new insights and energy to the Jewish community. Intermarriage increases tolerance and respect for Jews and could potentially even increase positive feelings about Israel--although that can be challenging. Some people also say that intermarriage improves the genetic pool.
It's very counterproductive to say that intermarriage is bad. That was the response of the organized Jewish community for a very long time, and it was damaging. It pushed intermarried couples away from Jewish life. Many surveys show that intermarried couples are not nearly as engaged in the Jewish community as non-intermarried couples. But we can't know what these survey results would have been if these intermarried couples had been genuinely embraced and welcomed by the Jewish community starting 25 years ago, instead of being considered a problem. The solution is to engage intermarried couples. The affiliation of children of intermarried couples who are themselves active in the Jewish community is statistically comparable to the children of non-intermarried couples.
ASHER LOPATIN IS AN AMERICAN ORTHODOX RABBI AND PRESIDENT OF YESHIVAT CHOVEVEI TORAH RABBINICAL SCHOOL.
In general, intermarriage is very problematic. It's against Jewish law as stated in the Talmud and Torah, and it poses a great danger for our people. Most statistical data and anecdotal information show that in the majority of cases when a Jew marries a non-Jew and raises a family, their children have much less of a connection to Israel, are less likely to raise their children Jewish and, in general, they are less connected to the Jewish community. There's evidence of successful ways to modify that. For instance, the relationship of the Jewish grandparents to the grandchildren of intermarriage is very important. We need to be more welcoming to non-Jewish spouses, and conversion needs to be a much more workable system and opportunity. We...