Responses to Inter faith relationships: The Shiva approach and the Simcha approach

by Maskil on 10 Mar 2008

We are all used to reading and hearing statements like the following (which appeared in J. – the Jewish news weekly of Northern California). The piece dealt with Conservative Judaism’s clergy association’s (Rabbinical Assembly) policy of prohibiting intermarried Jews to address its annual convention.

No observer of the American Jewish scene can remain neutral on the issue of intermarriage. Over the long run, it clearly poses a demographic threat to the national Jewish population. In a free society like ours, intermarriage is a thorny problem to solve.

Maybe it seems old-fashioned, but Conservative Judaism’s unapologetic stance on intermarriage has merit.

So much so, in fact, that it has become part of our unexamined “common sense” on the issue. This conventional wisdom says that the phenomenon (intermarriage and inter faith relationships in general) is the greatest threat to our survival in the Diaspora (Israel clearly has a different set of challenges).

I would like to examine this accepted conventional wisdom in a little more depth, and even suggest that inter faith relationships are less of a threat than we believe, provided that we find ways to respond to (and even accommodate) these relationships. I would even go so far as to suggest that it is this lack of positive response that constitutes the real demographic threat from intermarriage.

Simply put, our traditional response is to regard the Jewish partner in an IFR (inter faith relationship) as being lost to the Jewish people (along with the non-Jewish partner and their offspring) and operate accordingly. This immediately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This approach (let’s call it the Shiva approach) may have worked in an age where the Jewish people was a separate social (and sometimes even legal) entity, and where the Jewish authorities had coercive powers. In an era where a significant number of Jews are fortunate enough to be able to vote with their feet (not to mention their wallets) on just about every issue that concerns them, it becomes self-defeating.

The Shiva approach may also have worked in past ages, where the forces of repulsion between Jews and non-Jews were far greater than the forces of attraction. Despite the world-wide resurgence in anti-Semitism in all its variants, this is not the case at present. Jews probably now have more in common with their neighbours than at any other time within recorded history.

Here’s our scenario. Our Jewish protagonist has met “someone” and is now thinking along the lines of significant other, committed relationship, maybe even life partner or (gasp) marriage. This actual or potential partner is not Jewish, but usually “not seriously something else”. He/she is now ready to “introduce” the other to family, friends and community (including the weight of generations back to Abraham and Sarah). Will “they” (a “they” that is something more than those actually being introduced) accept his/her choice? In their minds they already know (or believe they know) the answer already: not in a million (or 4,000) years! The Shiva approach has become such a part of our cultural response to IFRs that we believe we know the answer even before the question has been asked.

My observations (admittedly mainly in SA) tell me that, in the majority of cases, individuals correctly assume that their choice will not be endorsed by the community, and accordingly don’t even make the effort or attempt to remain within the fold. This perception and the underlying realities must be changed. Leaving the community should be a last resort where no common ground can be found.

Would this work for you? Telling someone who has just (hopefully) met the love of his/her life that what he/she is doing is finishing Hitler’s work?. No way in hell! This can only be a sure-fire recipe to alienate both partners permanently. Keep in mind that unless you’re living in the equivalent of a Ghetto or Shtetl, the chances are that most (perhaps 80 or 90%) of potential dating/marriage partners you meet will not be Jewish. Excluding 90% of your potential market has its own probable outcomes.

Does this scenario HAVE to mean the end of the (Jewish) line? Is this an Oy vey or a Mazal Tov situation? A tragedy or an opportunity? Do we approach it as Shiva or Simcha, or simply pretend it makes no difference?

Our traditional approach, of course says this is an Oy vey moment and, true enough, if we (as affected individuals and as a community) are not geared up to respond, there will not be a happy Jewish outcome. In the past (50 years, a century or more?) we’ve become accustomed to treating IFRs as a tragedy, with both the family, the community and often even the individual him/herself seeing it in those terms.

But has this natural reaction, translated into a formal response or a strategy been successful in either reducing intermarriage or bringing those in IFRs back into the fold? I think it would be fair to say that, by and large, it’s been a total, almost a catastrophic failure.

The Shiva approach almost universally leaves both partners (and any children) lost to the Jewish collective, leaves both partners with negative feelings (including guilt) towards Judaism and the Jewish community, and leaves families divided.

(It is instructive to note that in these situations, the other partner’s place of worship (if any) will almost invariably do everything possible to welcome and integrate the Jewish partner, and will bend over backwards to accommodate any children born to the union. On the Jewish side, however, they will face almost complete rejection. Some choice. Some strategy.)

What, then are the desirable Jewish outcomes, how can we assist those in IFRs to achieve them, and does this Simcha approach hold more promise than the discredited Shiva approach?

  • Assist the couple (and later the budding family unit) in celebrating their life cycle events in a Jewish context and manner (starting with the wedding, if there is to be one)
  • Allow them to retain (or even deepen) their affiliation with organized Jewish life, including congregation membership, etc.
  • Assist them in running a Jewish home (enough of a challenge when only one partner is Jewish, even assuming the other partner agrees).
  • Make every effort to ensure that any children will be brought up Jewish, receive a Jewish education (preferably a Jewish day-school education) and be recognized as Jews, at least consistently by their own stream of Judaism.

Organisations such as and The Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), as well as the JOI offshoot Big Tent Judaism are already doing excellent work to change attitudes towards those in IFRs. What we now need is a global acceptance from all the progressive streams of Judaism that the Shiva approach cannot and will not work, and a willingness to attempt the Simcha approach. While there are some concrete steps that need to be taken, most of the changes needed have to do with attitude:

  • To reiterate: A change in attitude, on the part of family members, Jewish institutions and those affected themselves. This is perhaps the most essential and most difficult change.
  • Acceptance. That IFRs are a fact of life in open societies. Let’s take what we have and work to strengthen and deepen the commitments.
  • Synagogues, schools and JCC’s to create environments where families with only one Jewish partner/parent (either) are accepted and the children welcomed.
  • Accommodate the non-Jewish partner in all life cycle events, starting with a wedding.
  • Recognise equilineal descent (one/either Jewish parent) as a presumption of Jewishness across all progressive streams of Judaism.

The Simcha approach should not be seen as a blanket endorsement or blessing of IFRs. It is simply an acknowledgement of things as they are, of tens of thousands of individual decisions forming a trend. It is also an attempt to secure a Jewish outcome for IFRs, and requires commitment and minimum standards to be adhered to by all parties. This may include the following:

  • Undertaking to examine the option of conversion to Judaism with an open mind, now or at some stage in the future
  • A commitment not to practice another religion publicly or within the home (widespread cultural practices such as Christmas Trees are probably OK)
  • An undertaking to keep a Jewish home (that in itself needs more definition)
  • A sincere effort to celebrate all Jewish holidays and life cycle events, with special emphasis on those relating to children
  • Commit to raising any offspring of the union or the Jewish partner as Jews
  • Emphasis on providing a Jewish education; if possible a Jewish day-school education
  • Brownie points for synagogue membership, etc.

We also don’t need to abandon our efforts to facilitate relationships where both partners are Jewish. Not just as a knee-jerk reaction, but because (quite frankly), there IS more likely to be a Jewish outcome. The whole business of a life partnership is a whole lot easier when both partners are Jewish and a common cultural background gives marriage (or other forms of partnership) greater chance of success. Not an insignificant factor when one looks at the odds stacked against a successful long-term relationship.

There is still more than a grain of truth in the overused quotation that says “The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, and then expecting different results.“. We cannot really expect a different result by continuing to use the Shiva approach. In a time and place where we’re all (to a greater or lesser extent) Jews by Choice, we need to stop blaming (or chasing away) the customer. Let’s change the tone of our whole message from Shiva to Simcha and see what difference it can make. What do we have to lose, apart from ditching a losing formula?

Note – This article obviously does not deal with those on the Orthodox/Ultra-Orthodox end of the spectrum, who as a community attempt to avoid both the benefits and challenges, the blessing and the curse of open societies. The Shiva approach can and does work in communities (mainly ultra-Orthodox) where the collective carries a much greater weight than the individual. Most of us live in societies where the individual is paramount, and wouldn’t have it any other way.


IFR – inter faith relationship


j. – Conservatives’ “inmarried-only” rule must go

The Jewish Outreach Institute

Big Tent Judaism

Jewish Justice: jewish matrilineal patrilineal descent

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