October 14, 2019

Beyond interfaith marriage

There is a methodological debate among demographers as to counting the number of Jews in the United States. Some demographers maintain that the Jews in the America are 5.6 million. Another group of demographers maintain that the Jewish population in the United States is 5.2 million. 

I think I understand something about the conflict among the demographers. When our president, Elaine, and I look out at the lecture hall, Elaine will ask me to guess how many people there are. “Six hundred,” I say. She replies, “Three hundred.” I have figured it out: Elaine counts the heads; I count the feet. Those who count heads are more pessimistic than those who count feet.

Whether you count heads or feet, all the schools of demography report that we are, as a people, shriveling. Sociologists note the low fertility rates, the aging community, the rise of intermarriage and the diminishing of synagogue attendance. Demographers deal with numbers. Their numbers read that one out of every three married Jews is married to a non-Jew.

  • There are one million interfaith couples in the United States.
  • By the year 2005, it is estimated that about 2/3 of recent marriages will involve a non-Jew. 
  • Professor Sergio Della Pergola of the Hebrew University in Israel estimates that the figure is considerable, and warns that the internal dangers of interfaith marriages are not limited to the United States, but that the same trends extend to France, Germany, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
  • The sociologist Dr. Sali Meridor claims that Jews are disappearing from the world at a rate of 50,000 a year. In another place, a sociologist puts the rate at 50 Jews lost to us per day.
  • The children in intermarried households number 750,000. Less than 1/3 of them are raised as Jews. A full half of them learn nothing of their Jewish legacy. We are losing our children.

I am frightened, and I fear the “hemorrhaging” of our people before our very eyes. Do not be deceived by the congregation on Rosh Hashanah or on Yom Kippur. “You are but summer to my heart and not the full four seasons of the year.” We are losing our critical mass, which is indispensable for a vital people.

I come to you because I need you. I come to you not for your money, not for your contributions. I come to you for much more than that. I believe that it is possible to staunch the bleeding. 

The issue, from my point of view, is not intermarriage. That is the demographer's “bogey-man”. To focus on intermarriage is to see the symptom, and not the cause. The symptom is not the cause, and if you treat the symptom in isolation, you will mask the root of the malaise that eats away at our core. If we managed to stop all mixed marriage, you would not touch the lethal malaise that is tearing us apart. 

I'm not a demographer, but I'm a rabbi, and I meet with all kinds of Jews. I ask different questions and hear different answers in conversation. Come with me into my study. There enter two people, one Jack, the other Mary. They have come to ask me to officiate at their wedding and one of them is not Jewish. Which one is not Jewish? I don't know. These days, names and looks can't tell you that. Her name is Mary – I guess she's Christian. I ask her is she Catholic or Protestant – she does not know. “I think,” she says, “I'm Protestant.” I then ask, “Presbyterian? Episcopalian? Baptist? Seventh Day Adventist?” She doesn't know. She doesn't think her parents know either. Jack also doesn't know what kind of Jew he is – Reform, Orthodox, Conservative or confused. He had a Bar Mitzvah, but like the song, he doesn't remember “where or when.” 

With Jack and Mary, I'm dealing with an “inter-faithless” couple – a hybrid between a rabbit and a hen: “Nisht ahin un nisht aher.”

I begin with Mary, and we speak about what she knows about Jewish people and Judaism. I speak something about 4,000 years of Jewish history. Mary's eyes are wide open, but Jack is squinting, sitting in obvious impatience. He's not happy with the way the conversation is going. I ask him ever so politely if he would wait for us in the waiting room. 

Alone with Mary, I'm doing far better. Mary has a general notion that Judaism is a tradition of the home, that it emphasizes family and that it is free of doctrines and dogmas and that it its permissible, indeed encouraged, to ask questions. I ask her if Jack ever talked about Judaism or the possibility of her learning about Judaism. No, the issue never came up, but she is truly interested. Jack returns to the study. He is obviously upset with me, for he had come to see whether I'd stand under the chuppah, and now we're talking about sixteen weeks, a course in introductory Judaism – that he had not bargained for. Jack admits to me that he's not religious. He won't force anything on Mary. That makes me the “enforcer.” Who is talking about enforcing – as far as Jack is concerned, he would like me to stand under the chuppah for the sake of his parents and would even like to have Mary's priest or minister co-officiate with me. He's ecumenical. I'm too provincial. I recognize that I've met my match, so I tell Jack I can do it all myself. “Look, I received my ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary as a rabbi, and in my post-graduate work at the Pacific School of Religion, a non-denominational Christian school, I received my Doctor of Theology. I can do both ceremonies without calling in anyone else. I know the Christian ceremony, and I certainly know the Jewish ceremony.” Jack looks oddly at me, and blurts out, “That's crazy! You can't do both!” I think – I hope – he understands the point. I hope he understands that marriage and marriage vows have religious and social implications. That Judaism and Christianity are unique and different religions s – that should they have children and should they be blessed with a male child then on the 8th day they would have to choose either circumcision or baptism? Shrimp or tzimmes? I hope he understands that “Hot cross buns and challah” is a crazy menu, that out of respect for every religion, you cannot dump Judaism and Christianity into a Cuisinart.

Mary enlisted in the course at the University of Judaism and Jack went along reluctantly. I was a participant in the three-rabbi Bet Din and officiated by myself at their wedding as a rabbinic solo.

But our real dilemma was, and is usually, not prenuptial. The truer problem is post-nuptial. Months after they were married, Mary comes to me with great discomfort: “Rabbi,” she said, “I am a deeply spiritual person. God means something to me. The synagogue and ritual have come to mean a lot to me, but Jack will have nothing to do with it. I don't know whether he's ashamed or ignorant, or what, but he's an absent Jew. But it's certainly not what I had hoped for in choosing to be a Jew and enjoy a Jewish family.” Mary is the Jewishly observant one. Mary comes to schul alone. It will be Mary who will insist on a day school for their child.

So the problem is not Mary. The problem, which studies show, has far more to do with Jack. 

Not coincidentally, in the last national population study, there was a revealing figure that 1.5 million “born” Jews, when asked what was their religion, answered, “None.” Jack is not a Jew and not a Christian – he is a “Non-Jew”. Mary became a “Jew-by-Choice”, but Jack remains a “choice less Jew”. Neither God, nor language, nor literacy, nor ritual – this “biological Jew”, Jack, is wedded to nothing. Jewishly, he's a bachelor without commitments.

When a number of years ago we introduced a Keruv program for the un-churched and the un-synagogued, I came across a type of gentile I have not met before. The gentile searchers were not interested in matrimony; they were interested in patrimony – ancestry. They were not interested in marrying our sons or daughters; they were searchers for ancestry, for rootedness, for a culture and a civilization they have heard about as the mother of all monotheistic faith. They yearned for the depth of a history and a destiny. And they find something in Judaism that Jack never suspects.

Mary's in shul today. She comes quite often on Shabbat and she told me something I have heard many times before: “You won't believe it, Rabbi, but Jack's relations who don't attend the synagogue look down upon me. I have heard them whisper, `It will never work, you can't make a non-Jew Jewish because Jewishness comes with the chicken soup. It's a genetic taste.' There's a book by a Yeshiva University Graduate, Professor Michael Wyschograd, called The Body of Faith, in which he claims that Jews are “carnally elected” – that God chose us as a biological people that “remains elect even when it sins.” Jewishness is embedded in our physiognomy and even in our culinary predilections like gefilte fish, lox and bagels. Can you convert taste? But – by God – my own children don't like gefilte fish! Where did Malkah and I go wrong! It is humiliating to hear Mary tell me: ” I hear them say something in Yiddish. I found out what it meant. `A Shiksa bleibt a shiksa un a goy beibt a goy.”' As a Jew, I am embarrassed and deeply hurt and I wondered how many people who use that expression know that the word shiksa and shegetz comes from a Hebrew word sheketz, which means “abomination”, “an unclean creature”, “loathsome”, “vermin”. And Goy, while it means “nation”, is no compliment. “He has a `a goyishe kop' ” does not mean “he's the head of a nation.” 

Listen to the testimony of the executive director of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg: “The Conservative Movement and the Conservative synagogue are perceived as places that fail to welcome the intermarried… it is the overall consensus about Conservative Judaism.” I am embarrassed by that alienation of those who should be warmly embraced.

I don't want to digress from my major point. Shagetz. That is a racism we must fight. When did the xenophobia penetrate Judaism? From its inception Judaism embraced the stranger, the ger, the “Jew-by-choice”?

Who are we? What does our Passover Haggadah tell us about our birth? Who are native-born Jews? Our ancestors were pagans and slaves. Abraham and Sarah, our ancestors, were the first “Jews-by-Choice. Abraham is called “Avi Ha- Gerim“, father of the proselytes. 

Our rabbis were proud to declare that Yithro, Moses' father-in-law, became a “Jew-by-Choice”, and so Batyah, the daughter of Pharoah, and so the Egyptian midwives Shifrah and Puah who saved Jewish children cast into the river by the edict of Pharaoh. 

We must not allow perversion of Judaism. We can't allow this racist bias to enter into a compassionate people who, according to the Talmud in Bava Metzia 59-B, note that one verse in the Torah is repeated thirty-six times, more than love of family. Thirty six times we are mandated to love the stranger, we are prohibited to wound the stranger, to oppress the stranger. We are to treat the Ger, the stranger who has chosen to share our culture and destiny, with concern and care and love.

Unlike Christianity and Islam, Judaism never has been motivated by the notion that outside Judaism there was no access to God. Judaism is a sacred choice open to all people.

This is our pride. Every single day, thrice daily, we recite a benediction, the 13th benediction of the Amidah, praising God for having created righteous proselytes, men and women who choose Judaism on their own. This is sacred liturgical our tradition. In the Tanchuma, listen to the rabbis declare: “Dearer to God is the proselyte who has come to Him of his own accord than all the populace of Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai. For had the Israelites not witnessed the thunders and lightnings, the quaking mountains and the blaring trumpets, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the proselytes, without having seen any of these things, comes and takes upon himself the yoke of heaven. Can there be anything dearer to God? Yesh chaviv mizeh?

I read in the Talma Yevamot (47A) that our rabbis taught: “If, in present times, a person comes to be converted, they say to him, `For what reason have you come to be converted? Do you not know that, in present times, Israel is afflicted, pushed aside, swept away, displaced and subjected to suffering?' If he replies, `I know, and am not worthy,' they immediately accept him.” [M'kablim Oto Miyad] This text brings to mind that question I asked of a potential convert: “You know that anti-Semitism is a reality?” He answered, “I have studied the holocaust…I know, but I would rather be numbered among the persecuted than among the persecutors.” We embraced. As it is written in the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 10, verse 19: “Love ye the proselyte for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

There are potential Jews who in this world of choice should not find synagogue, or Judaism a cloister – there are hundreds of interfaith couples, who say they wish to raise their child as a Jew – but the noblest of intentions left alone will evaporate in the anonymity of mass culture. If we in the synagogue do nothing, I mean VBS – I mean you and me – if we in the synagogue community abandon those people, if we forsake the child, the thousands if potential Jewish children, they will be abandoned and assimilated, not to another religion, but to the anonymity of mass culture. It is a mitzvah on moral, demographic and theological grounds to embrace the potential Jews all around us, in our community, in our family. Stop wringing your hands. Stop citing statistics. We can turn the challenge into an opportunity to enlarge and enhance Jewish life. 

Help me! Help me to help them! Help me to help ourselves! We at VBS are a significant congregation and we can make a dent in the thinking and behavior of Jewish life. If it starts here, it will not end here. Do you want to be part of a Mission of Mitzvah: Do you want to help change the Desperate Demography of our statistics? Will you enlist in a program of “in-reach”, the purpose of which is two-fold? First, to learn and to study about what Judaism is – but not for the sake of study itself. This is not another adult education program, but with a particular purpose – “lilmod u'l lomed ” – to study so that you can teach. To teach so that you can persuade. To persuade so that you can transmit the ethics, the spirit, the culture of a 4,000 year tradition. I urge you to become mentoring teachers because there is no better way to learn than to teach. It is not learning for the sake of learning. I ask you to tithe talent. The curriculum of this “in-reach” course is focused upon one basic theme: I want you to know enough about Judaism and to feel enough about Judaism and to study with leading teachers so that you can fill in the answer. I believe that Judaism is of such value and importance because … why Judaism is of such superordinate value that it makes all the difference in the world whether you child is raised in a Jewish home. I want you to join a special cadre of Jewish mentors instructed by Rabbis Hoffman, Feinstein and myself from within VBS to learn in order to affect the future of the Jewish people and the character of Judaism. I need your passion for Jews and Judaism. I need your sense of mission for the creative survival of one of the great religious civilizations in the world.

More, I want you to not only transmit Judaism from books or lectures but from belonging. To help potential Jews find a path to Judaism calls for us to open our own homes, to bring seekers along with you to Jewish lectures and concerts and plays and music and religious services. We need the Jewish warmth of belonging. We must reach within in order to reach without.

I need you. Jews need Jews to be Jewish and potential Jews need Jews to become Jewish. I want a pledge – not of money, not of cash and not of check, to transform us from passive to proactive. I want your idealism, your love of Judaism and the Jewish people to strengthen the open, lovely character of Judaism. The stranger is our mirror. It reflects the stranger in us. To meet the stranger, to embrace the stranger, is to raise ourselves. As the great Jewish philosopher Herman Cohen wrote, “In the stranger, man discovered the idea of humanity.” In our attitude and practice toward the stranger we as a community of faith will recover the moral passion and purpose in Jewish living. Out there I seek seekers who want to discover a faith, wisdom, ethics and people who can solidify their lives. Out there are intermarried couples who stand outside on the threshold of the synagogue, ambivalent, frightened to enter, waiting to be invited in. I look at the potential Jew with love: not as a surrogate for our low fertility rates nor as a replacement for the millions who were decimated in the genocide. 

I seek him/her because we are a people with a universal message to the world, because godliness needs allies and because Judaism seriously lived can offer them and their families the nobility of meaning and the utility of a purpose. The demographers prognosticate a bleak scenario. But my ancestors were not statisticians. They were prophets. Therefore, I believe that we can turn that challenge into an opportunity for life. You know within and without your family and friends who are inter-married – they need to know from you an address if a synagogue and rabbis who will not chastise, but wish to help them and their children enter the ambience of the Jewish community. Will you volunteer to “reach in” so that we can “reach out” to potential Jews?

Our people are waiting and they are waiting for us, for we of the synagogue to save Jewish life here and now. If not now, when? If not you, who?