In the great new movie “The Big Sick,” Kumail Nanjiani plays a Pakistani-American stand-up comic whose traditional immigrant parents pressure him to marry a nice Pakistani girl.
Instead, he falls in love with funny blonde Emily, which sends his family into a crisis.
“Can I ask you something?” he says to his heartbroken father. “Why did you bring me to America if you don’t want me to live like an American?”
This drama has taken place over the centuries in many American immigrant family homes — Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Greek, Arab — and hundreds of years after the first Jew touched these shores, we still are playing it out.
Last month, it was Conservative Jewry’s turn. Two prominent rabbis, trained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and members of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, announced they would begin to perform intermarriages.
Rabbi Roly Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun in New York and Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of New York’s Lab/Shul both decided to break with the movement’s long-held prohibition on intermarriage.
A handful of other Conservative rabbis, such as Adina Lewittes, former assistant dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary, had done the same several years before them, but the high profile of these rabbis made their decision immediate news.
“The fight over intermarriage might seem like a rabbinical squabble confined to one small corner of American Judaism,” Emma Green wrote in The Atlantic. “But what’s at stake is actually the future of Jewish identity and pluralism.”
Since only about one-fifth of American Jews identify as Conservative, that may be overstating the impact. But what’s interesting about the current debate is the rabbis who are leading it can make the argument that they are the ones doing more to strengthen Jewish life and community.
For years, Jews saw intermarriage as one of the main factors chipping away at the American Jewish community, and research tended to support that view. Surveys found that as the intermarriage rate has grown, there has been an almost 30 percent drop in the number of Jews who identify as “Jews by religion.”
But recently, something has shifted. As Green reported, a 2017 study at Brandeis University found that “millennials born to intermarried parents were much more likely to have been raised Jewish than the children of intermarriages in previous generations.”
In other words, intermarriage does not necessarily mean a loss of Jewish identity. Indeed, these rabbis believe, it could lead to a net gain in the number of people bringing Jewish practice and values into the world.
“On the whole, I feel like the motivations I and other colleagues have been talking about, in my limited data set, they’re being borne out for me,” Lewittes told me.
I called Lewittes because even though those big-name rabbis have grabbed most of the attention, she actually has been performing intermarriages since 2015, after resigning from the Conservative movement. She has officiated at six so far, with more in the works.
Lewittes, who is now rabbi at Sha’ar Communities in New Jersey, said she is choosy about which couples she will intermarry.
“I work with people who indeed genuinely both want to have a relationship with Judaism,” she said. “Both of them want to establish a Jewish home, raise a Jewish family. I say no to more people than I say yes to.”
She engages in several premarriage counseling and learning sessions with the couple and follows up with meetings and learning.
The ceremony itself is untraditional. There is no kiddushin, or ritual betrothal, and she doesn’t recite the seven blessings. Instead of a ketubah, some couples have composed a “mission statement.” There is a chuppah, or wedding canopy, and the breaking of the glass.
Lewittes will not co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy. The ceremony, after all, also is about drawing the couple more deeply into the Jewish community.
Has it worked?
Lewittes said her admittedly small sample has been encouraging. Couples have continued to be active in her congregation. She has officiated at Jewish naming ceremonies for their children, and she has continued to teach some of them.
“The couples with whom I have worked have shown a real sense of connection to the Jewish community,” she said. “They look for ways to cultivate the seeds I was able to plant.”
Where all of this leads will be fascinating to watch. I certainly get the traditionalist argument: Marrying within your tribe is a powerful way of preserving your tribe.
But I know — we all know — too many wonderful intermarried couples. They continue to serve the community as volunteers, funders, activists. They raise children who go on to practice Judaism, embody its values and contribute to the Jewish community and the world. They succeed at being Jewish far, far better than any number of “in-married” Jewish couples who stay uncurious and uninvolved, whose biggest contribution to Jewish life was paying the rabbi who married them.
This truth puts rabbis and movements who resist intermarriage in the same bind as many were before acknowledging same-sex marriage. How do you exclude a committed, loving constituency, willing to belong and contribute to Jewish life, from meaningful Jewish rituals? Can intermarriage done correctly actually be not a curse, but a cure?
The ground has shifted on this issue, and something tells me we’re about to find the answer.