Let’s talk some more about intermarriage! I truly think it is one of the more divisive and serious problems American Judaism faces.
We’ve looked at the compatibility angle, but that isn’t the only one. Let’s look at it from the point of view of inclusion/exclusion.
There are certain aspects of Judaism for which you must be a Jew to participate. For men, this includes being counted in the minyan (quorum of 10 men required for certain prayers and rituals), being called to the Torah for an honor (aliyah), leading blessings such as Kiddush (blessing over the wine) or leading prayers in general, acting as a witness to a marriage, etc. For women, there are fewer, but they include lighting Shabbat and holiday candles and mikvah (which I’ll probably talk about in another post), and the most important of all: a child is only Jewish if his mother is! (Or if the child converts or is converted after birth.)
The problem this creates is one of inclusion/exclusion. If a Jewish couple shows up to synagogue, both members can immediately participate in any or all of the rituals pertinent to their gender, no questions asked. The husband counts in the minyan, may be called for an honor, etc. The wife will participate in lighting holiday candles, making challah, etc. Even if this couple has all of the other problems you can imagine in a marriage, they are both included when they wish to participate in Jewish ritual.
If an intermarried couple shows up to the synagogue, even if they have no other difficulties in their marriage, even if it’s the happiest marriage on the block, they have a fundamental problem. If the husband is not Jewish but the wife is, he can sit in services all he likes, he can don the kippah and tallit, but he does not count in the minyan, he will not be called up to the Torah, and he cannot lead prayers or blessings. If it is the wife who is not Jewish, she may feel less noticeably excluded, but the couple’s children may find they are treated just slightly differently because they are not obligated to follow the laws that their Jewish counterparts are, such as keeping kosher or observing Shabbat.
There are two possible responses to this inclusion/exclusion scenario, depending on the type of person the non-Jewish spouse is and whether he or she is actually interested in Judaism or being Jewish.
If the non-Jewish spouse is inspired by the teachings of Judaism, she or he may make the decision to convert. (I’m switching to the universal “he,” though feel free to fill in “she” wherever applicable.) In this case, once a Gentile has made clear his intention to convert to Judaism, he must be refused three times. If he still insists, then he must live at least one full cycle of holidays (one full year) as a totally mitzvah-observant Jew. Indeed, if he is married, his whole family must live as observant Jews for a full holiday cycle. This is a real commitment. This isn’t just “converting for the in-laws,” or converting for the sake of the children. This is a Jewish soul coming home.
However, what happens far more often is that the non-Jewish spouse feels excluded, feels the mitzvot would be an unnecessary burden, and has no interest in pursuing conversion once he finds out what’s involved. This is where we arrive at the push-pull problem. The Jewish spouse is pushing for more involvement, while the non-Jewish spouse would just as soon go to the movies on Friday evening and sleep in on Saturdays. What often happens, sadly, is that the Jewish spouse is pulled away.
If it is the wife who is not Jewish, this means there is very little chance that her children will convert. Certainly, if the father is persistent in teaching about Judaism to his children and involves them in synagogue-going and other Jewish ritual, the children may decide that they’d like to convert. We can only hope this is what will happen.
If it is the husband who is not Jewish, he may end up pulling his children (or potential children) from their Jewish roots, though they would not need to convert if they were attracted to their Jewish “half.”
(I’d like to insert a note here that you cannot be “half-Jewish.” You either are Jewish or you are not. If one parent is Jewish and the other is not, then you are Jewish if your mother is, and your are not Jewish if your mother is not. Simple.)
I’m not going to argue the point that in some rare cases, “The One” for a Jew is, in fact, a non-Jew with a Jewish soul, who needs that marriage as the impetus/catalyst/eye-opener/introduction for conversion to Judaism. It does happen. But not very often.
I’m also not going to suggest that all Jewish people are marriage material. Jewish people are still people, after all, and there may be plenty of Jews out there who are not “The One.” Don’t go out and marry someone just because they’re Jewish, any more than you’d marry someone just because they’re a Harvard graduate or finding the cure for cancer.
I have a few more things to say on intermarriage, so stay tuned!
By the way, you can follow me on my Facebook page, Jessica on Judaism.