Wednesday, June 9, 2010

On Intermarriage

I hope you didn’t miss me too much during my brief hiatus. Lots of things happening lately, and I couldn't think of a good topic to blog on until now.

But enough excuses. Today we have a touchy subject.

One consequence of assimilation is intermarriage. In this context, intermarriage means when a Jewish person marries a person who is not Jewish. I have seen statistics that suggest that up to 50% of married Jews are married to a non-Jew. That’s… a lot.

As American Jews, we are pulled in two directions. On the one hand, we want to fit in, meet a diverse group of people, have friends of all “types.” We champion the freedom to choose, to meet and marry the person of your choice. And yet, we also work toward the preservation of our culture. We are saddened by the decline in synagogue membership, in religious participation, in Jewish education among our children.

Intermarriage is one of the main problems on both sides of the argument.

We feel we should be able to marry whomever we wish. We feel we shouldn’t exclude someone or distance ourselves from them just because they are of a different race or religion or culture or ethnicity. Thus, if Adam wants to marry Christina, and Christina is a lovely young woman with a good education and a wonderful family, we want to wish Adam the best in his new life. And if Adam’s parents or grandparents or community is against his marrying Christina, and we see how in love they are and how great their life together will be, our instinct is to tell his family and his community to stay the heck out of his way and let him marry the woman he loves and make beautiful babies with her. Intermarrying is both a result and a catalyst of assimilation, and if assimilation is the goal, then let the mazal tovs and the well wishes commence.

On the other hand, if Adam marries Christina, their children won’t be Jewish. There’s a good chance that Adam will not continue practicing Judaism. Christina’s parents might not like it if Adam tries to take their grandchildren to synagogue or wants to host a Passover seder. And Adam might hate it every year on Christmas when they travel to Christina’s family’s house and gather ‘round the tree to open presents. And Adam’s parents, who opposed the union from the start? What will they say when Christina doesn’t want to come for Rosh Hashanah dinner and wants to baptize the children?

It’s not that Adam is doing anything wrong by exposing his children to Jewish rituals. And it’s not that Christina is doing anything wrong by immersing her children in Christian practices. The problem is that Adam isn’t Christian and Christina isn’t Jewish.

I would venture to say that intermarriage really isn’t only a Jewish problem. Plenty of other religious traditions, cultural traditions, and ethnic traditions strongly encourage children to marry within their faith, culture, or ethnicity. It’s not xenophobia or racism. It’s not out of desperation to preserve a waning population. It’s because the most successful marriages are based on similarity of worldview, similarity of background. It’s not true, usually, that opposites attract (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s marriage to Maria Shriver notwithstanding).

When Jews speak out against intermarriage, though, because it is a small population rebelling against a large one, it looks like racism. It looks like those poor Jewish children are being isolated, kept from experiencing another world. But when that poor Jewish child escapes his “cage” and goes off to marry a lovely non-Jewish girl, he might find out, too late, that his parents were right. That, or he might simply be lost to Judaism, another victim of assimilation or attrition.

In my own community, I am familiar with quite a few intermarried couples. The main problem that seems to come up is when the Jewish spouse wants to get more involved with Judaism and the non-Jewish spouse wants nothing to do with Judaism. In many of these cases, the Jewish spouse eventually loses the argument, especially if the non-Jewish spouse doesn’t want their children attending services or Hebrew school. I know a few couples where the non-Jewish spouse becomes equally interested in Judaism and even expresses interest in converting. Those are the lucky few, unfortunately.

(That’s not to say that even if you marry within Judaism, life will be smooth sailing. I know plenty of couples where one spouse wants to be more religious than the other. In those cases, there is quite a lot of tension, where one wants to come to services often and the other doesn’t, where one wants to keep kosher or keep Shabbat and the other doesn’t. And the issue can be just as divisive as when one spouse isn’t Jewish. Or more so! But that’s a topic for another time.)

I want to ensure that my boys (and, G-d willing, one day, girls) marry Jews, love Judaism, and bring up lots of Jewish babies. I want to ensure that Judaism continues on into future generations. How can we do this? By exposing them to Jewish ritual throughout the year, by making Judaism an everyday presence in their lives, by saying the Shema at night, lighting Shabbat candles every week, and putting a mezuzah on their door, by giving them a Jewish education, by teaching them to read Hebrew, by helping them to learn the prayers, by giving them opportunities to make Jewish friends, meet Jewish girls (eventually), and by showing them that Judaism is a privilege and not a burden. If only it were as easy as it sounds.


The Newmans said...

Great post - as always.

Gaby said...

I guess part of the problem is seeing marriage as a means of fulfilling the individual and couples needs for love.

The difference with Judaism is that while we are encouraged to lead fulfilling lives, the individual faces a multitude of scenarios in which they are required to nullify their Self in order to actively accept the yoke of heaven.

G-d provides us with three powerful and oft times mutually exclusive forces: (i) the Torah - His law and guidebook for living on His world; (ii) intense physical, intellectual and emotional drives which all too often are incompatible with (i), and; (iii) freedom of choice to decide whether to satiate (ii), or adhere to (i).

The individual Jew in an interfaith relationship will use any excuse they can possibly consider to justify to themselves and anyone who cares to listen why it is OK for them to be involved in such a relationship, and therefore to continue to satisfy their personal desires. Is that so wrong? It's LOVE, after all....

The difficult truth is that like all other elements of life in this planet that we are forced to sacrifice to keep G-d's laws and create a dwelling place for him in this lower realm - which our purpose for being here, in fact for the creation of the world - relationships with those outside of our faith are temptations that simply need to be avoided. Aside from the extremely valid reasons of Jewish physical and cultural continuity, the higher rate of successful relationships, etc., we do this simply because it is G-d's law that we bind our souls to another Jew and partner with G-d to create a Jewish home and a Jewish family to serve him.

Does this make it easy? Clearly not. And that is the eternal difficulty that Jews everywhere have struggled with in the past and will continue to do so until sometime hopefully very soon when Moshiach redeems us.