Intermarriage – Straight Talk or Just More of the Same? (Part 1)

by Maskil on 5 Oct 2009

Photo by Gila Brand.

With a challenging title like “Time for Straight-Talk about Assimilation”, I expected some real ground-breaking stuff from this article. Instead, it ended up being just more of the same; another sad “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm?” lament about the disappearance of American Jewry in the face of assimilation and intermarriage.

Albert Einstein is purported to have said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Another definition might be: asking the same question over and over again and expecting a different answer. Let’s see if we can ask some different questions and perhaps come up with some slightly different answers.

Are assimilation and intermarriage the fundamental issues confronting the Jewish people today?

No. Both are simply a fact of life in an open society. And if you perceive open societies to be a threat, then the solution is provided by the Ghettos and Shtetls of the Haredim and Hassidim, who by all accounts have a very low dropout rate. The reason why both assimilation and intermarriage (they are related but not identical) have come to be seen as threats is that mainstream Judaism fails to provide basic, relevant, satisfying and timely answers to the question “why be (or remain) Jewish?” It then largely fails to provide paths for those who choose or have a non-Jewish partner – but who wish to remain within the Jewish fold – to integrate him/her and their offspring into the Jewish community.

Should Judaism even have anything to say regarding your choice of a partner of spouse?

Probably not. Some will search for a life partner based on certain characteristics, one of which may be his/her Jewishness. Often life intervenes, though, and people end up falling in love with someone who is “not”. Does that need to be the end of their involvement with Judaism, even if the partner chooses not to convert? Our patriarchs and matriarchs were the original inter-married households. Surely modern Judaism in all its forms can be no less successful in finding ways to sanctify those relationships and integrate those families and households seamlessly into Jewish life?

There is a “common sense” or common understanding that almost everyone subscribes to: that anyone “marrying out” is lost to the Jewish people. Until that common sense is replaced by another, more positive one, we’ll be fighting a losing battle.

For close to 2,000 years, the coercive power of the Kehilla, a culture of endogamy and (probably) lack of opportunity have kept this trend within manageable proportions. Judaism could afford to sit Shiva for those few who defied convention.

All these factors have now disappeared (or at least diminished in impact), however. Instead of bemoaning the new realities, we need to come to terms with them and deal with them in a constructive manner.

If Judaism insists of standing in the path of attraction, love or companionship, it should expect to be trampled in the stampede.

Should we be surprised that many of the offspring of intermarried families don’t identify as Jewish?

Not at all. In fact, considering the shocking reception that they and their parents receive from most of organised Jewish life, it’s nothing less than a miracle that ANY of them choose a Jewish path. Likewise the non-Jewish parent, or anyone contemplating conversion to Judaism for any reason. I know there are many very praiseworthy exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking the Jewish community shows an indifferent, or even outright hostile face to those not born into it. Orthodoxy at least has the excuse that this is subject to Halacha. We have no such excuse; this is sociological.

(Don’t believe me? Carry out a mystery shopper test, either in real life or simply in your imagination: send a sample (preferably thick-skinned) intermarried family out to a random synagogue and to a random church. See which of the two gives your fragile little (potential) Jewish family the warmest, no-questions-asked welcome and acceptance. You already know the answer, don’t you? Based on that welcome, the Jewish partner would need some very powerful motivation for going with the synagogue option anyway. Until the pendulum has swung completely the other way, we have little chance of winning the assimilation contest.)

So, why be Jewish?

Not everyone needs a coherent, consistent answer to this question. We all know people – sometimes even quite observant people – who don’t think about this question and answer; they simply are. Others find their answer in the Holocaust, in Zionism and Israel, in secular Jewish culture, even in Jewish cuisine. Many others are still secure in the old ethnic Jewish paradigm. Our shrinking numbers, though, and shrinking affiliation tell us that that ethnic or social Jewishness is no longer enough or is no longer relevant for many.

We can argue about whether the Jewish people is a tribe, a collection of tribes, a nation, an ethnic group, a religio-nation or even a race. The fact is, though, that the entrance ticket to the Jewish people (albeit not necessarily the definition) is a religious one, i.e. Judaism. (Once you’re in, it’s a different matter.)

Is Judaism (the religion) the answer? If so what kind of Judaism can stem the tide?

We already know that ultra-Orthodoxy mostly “works”, at least insofar as holding onto its progeny is concerned. Most of us, though (me included) are simply not prepared to pay that price for the sake of continuity. (And it’s not just that I see open, democratic societies as attractive. I also see them as the best environment for the growth of Judaism; in many ways even an expression of the best within Judaism.) On the other hand, the theology of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism largely “works”, allowing one to reconcile Judaism with science, reason and conscience; to reconcile what we believe with what we know. Why then are they the worst affected by assimilation?

Part 2 of this post (Adult Judaism) will be published later this week.


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