November 20, 2018

More Jews mugged by the reality of intermarriage

Exactly a month ago, I wrote that “Interfaith marriage between Jews and non-Jews is back in the news.” The ending I wrote for that article prompted a few phone calls from a few rabbis, some of them relatively well-known. There were the rabbis curious about my argument, those who wanted to understand if a certain policy course is hidden between the lines, and those angry with my “surrender,” as one of them defined it. I told him he was too angry – but also that he has a point. I surrender. Mugged by reality, as one Jewish intellectual once said in a different context.

Here is what I wrote on the still-raging (see my proof further down) debate about Jews intermarrying: “the only way forward is to let this trial and error process run its course. Not because this is what the Jews need, but rather because this is what the Jews are going to do. If studies cannot give a definitive answer regarding what we ought to do, and if the Jews themselves are not willing to agree on what we ought to do, then life will be our field of experimentation. Some Jews will marry non-Jews, and some will not. Some rabbis will officiate in interfaith ceremonies, and others will not. Some scholars will argue that intermarriage is about to weaken us – and some will argue that intermarriage can strengthen us. Give it two or three or four generations, and this debate will be decided by reality.”

So a month has passed, and the Jews are still undecided, still debating. The volume of writing on Jewish interfaith marriage in America is high – while the reason for this uptick is somewhat mysterious (it clearly has to do with Conservative rabbis rebelling against their movement’s policy – but seems to have grown larger than that). In the next few paragraphs I would like to quote some of the articles I’ve read about this topic in the past month and add some comments on a few of the arguments these articles made.

In NY Jewish Week, Gerald Zelizer urged Conservative rabbis to “hold firm” – that is, refuse to perform intermarriage ceremonies. “The available information,” he writes to fellow Conservatives, “does not suggest that we Conservative rabbis should change our standard in the naive hope that standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they build.” He is right. The data does not support such “naïve hope.” He is also wrong: such “naïve hope” is not the main driver of change. Rabbis’ rebelling against the current policy do not do it because of false “hope” hidden in studies, they do it because of a very vivid reality. Jews will do what they do. If the rabbis don’t keep up with non-rabbinic Jews, they will be leaders with fewer and fewer followers.

In the Jewish Journal, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall suggested that the “progressive movements need to develop better marketing skills, because the Jewish religion is a wonderful product. It is a way of life that touches both the mind and the heart. We need to take more pride in our product and encourage others — particularly those who are marrying Jews — to join us as members rather than as spectators. In short, we need to actively encourage conversion.” Well, conversion is a great option. But there is a problem: if you do not perform intermarriage, non-Jews are not likely to be a part of your congregation. If they are not part of the congregation, you are not likely to be able to push them towards conversion. So first one has to answer the original question: to officiate or not to officiate?

A long Atlantic article by Emma Green (more descriptive than opinionated) argued that “the inflexible standards of Israeli Judaism exacerbate the situation in the United States and contribute to the sense among some rabbis that traditional and liberal Judaism may be irreconcilable.” Of course, the term “inflexible” does reveal a certain bias. You could make the same argument by writing the opposite biased sentence: “the lax standards of American Judaism exacerbate the situation… and contribute to the sense among some rabbis that traditional and liberal Judaism may be irreconcilable.” But, leaving that bias aside, Green puts her finger on an often-neglected point: American Jews (rightly) berate Israel when it makes decisions that impact the whole of the Jewish world without consulting them. But American Jews are currently also in a process of making dramatic decisions involving the core definition of Jewishness, and they are also going through this process without much consultation with Israel.

Paul Golin wrote in the Forward about his frustration with progressive Jews who also want “standards” for Jewishness and apply a lesser status to intermarried Jews. “The policing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of who’s doing it,” he writes. And it must be said: his argument is cohesive. Golin would like the Jewish group to include all those who declare themselves to be Jewish. He praises Humanistic Judaism’s definition of every person who “identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.” Is there a problem with this position? I think there is. It does not correspond well with the many Jews who think that Judaism is a religion, and it does not correspond well with the many Jews who think that the Jews are a people. In other words: Golin’s definition establishes a new, undefined group, of people who supposedly have similar “values” (assuming there are Jewish values we all accept), or a shared “culture” (whatever culture means in this context). He proposes a coherent definition – but creates an incoherent group.

Lastly, Ed Case, of Interfaith Family. In his organization’s blog, Case addressed the point I was making a month ago. “The problem with this incredibly non-activist approach,” he wrote about my article, “is that arguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis not officiating – disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships”. Case is right: sending a clear and unified message might be better to achieve the desired result. But such an argument can cut both ways – and his opponents can make the exact same argument: “arguing that sticking with in-marriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. In-marriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis officiating – disapprove of insistence on Jewish couples and relationships.”

Thus, the debate continues, and my conclusion that we are doomed to “let this trial and error process run its course.”