Intermarriage – Straight Talk or Just More of the Same? (Part 2)

by Maskil on 6 Oct 2009

At The Synagogue
Image by bowbrick via Flickr

(Part 1 of “Intermarriage – Straight Talk or Just More of the Same?” appeared here.)

My belief is that most of us are not absorbing an Adult Judaism by the time we need it to sustain us. We start off with an age-appropriate version of Judaism filled with miracles and God’s intervention in history. Our Jewish upbringing is usually stalled at Bar/Bat-Mitzvah age, though, before our Childhood Judaism can be replaced by a more mature, robust version. In many cases, our Judaism of wide-eyed wonder is simply no match for the questions, doubts, challenges, education, philosophy and people we will encounter long before adulthood. For that, we need an Adult Judaism.

Adult Judaism

This is not another Jewish denomination (although I’m very much in favour of a multitude of denominations within Judaism (unity does not mean or need uniformity)), but rather an irreducible minimum in terms of both Jewish belief and understanding. I see it consisting of the following components.

  • That we came into being as a people with a set of laws through an epic encounter with the Divine (however we care to understand that).
  • That our acceptance of those laws obligates us to act in a certain way towards the rest of Creation (this is encapsulated in the story of the person who approached Hillel, saying “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel converted him, saying: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, now go and learn it.”)
  • That this in turn results in a whole body of customs, rituals and practices, which differ somewhat from place to place and era to era. These rituals are not Judaism, although they often manifest some aspect of it.
  • That the ethical requirements cannot be taught academically, but must be embodied practically in families and societies. This is ultimately the reason for Jewish peoplehood, and the reason why Judaism puts so much emphasis on doing.
  • That the laws inherited from our encounter with the divine are now ours to modify, keep or discard, with all due care. (There is an obligation to abolish those that have become abhorrent to our developing sense of understanding.)

We need an exposure to that Adult Judaism at a much earlier stage; before we’ve begun to question the parting of the Red Sea. We need to make it clear that Judaism is not contingent on miracles. We need to teach basic theology, i.e. what it is we should believe, not just some Aleph-Bet, some history and traditions and our Torah portion.

This is very much a first pass at defining the bullet points for an Adult Judaism, one that can carry us through the personal, intellectual and moral challenges we inevitably encounter on the path to adulthood and throughout our lives. If we want to stem the tide of assimilation away from Judaism, we need to define and educate for an Adult Judaism that looks at least something like this.

For those well-versed in Jewish learning and texts this may look like primary school stuff. For those whose Jewish education ended at 12 or 13 (or even before it began) this may well be a revelation. It may also make the difference between staying or going, being anchored or drifting.

Only an Adult Judaism – in both definition and education – will allow us to juggle belief and reason without the danger of dropping or compromising either. Only an Adult Judaism will sustain us spiritually and allow us to assimilate the best of what the world has to offer, without forgetting who we are.

We need to understand clearly that it’s beyond the power of organised Judaism to stop intermarriage to any meaningful extent. Instead, what it needs to focus on is a Jewish upbringing that gives answers to the question why be/remain Jewish. It also needs to put emphasis on allowing people to remain firmly within the Jewish fold, irrespective of their choice of life partner.


The second part of my two part answer to the challenges of assimilation and intermarriage is Outreach, which we should really be thinking of as Acceptance rather than Outreach.  This Acceptance needs to encompass not just the “usual suspects” (the intermarried), but all those who tend to drift or be edged towards the fringes of Jewish society.

We need to reframe the issue. Rather than saying “Intermarriage is the greatest threat to Jewish survival, etc.”, ad nauseum, we should be saying “integrating the intermarried into our communities is our greatest challenge, and our greatest need.”

Instead of just paying lip service to Outreach (or questioning whether there should be funding for Outreach at all), we need to dedicate a substantial portion of our budgets to it. It needs to be almost taken for granted as one of the major line items on the communal Jewish budget.

The kinds of attitudes and programs that should be included in a meaningful Outreach campaign have been addressed by organisations such as The Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) and its Big Tent Judaism initiative, as well as, so I won’t attempt to duplicate that work here, just note that it needs to front and centre in our thinking, actions and budgets.

One final point: As noted by one of the better commenters on the article that inspired this post (Dottie Goldman), we also need to look at the cost of Jewish living. In our post-global economic crisis economy, we need to find ways to smooth out the cost of the big-ticket items, e.g. education and synagogue membership.

To sum up:

Intermarriage then is not a problem (or at least not THE problem). It is more an indicator of a far larger problem; the failure to address some fundamental questions:

  • Why should it be important to remain Jewish?
  • Why should it be important to marry within the faith? Why is doing otherwise considered damaging to the Jewish people?
  • What are the options if you love and want to marry someone who’s not Jewish, but want to remain connected to Judaism, and want your offspring to be Jewish?

There are two parts to the answer:

  • An Adult Judaism
  • A complete, unambiguous welcome (acceptance) for those in inter-faith relationships, with suitable budgeting and programs to go along with it. Both attitudes and priorities need to be addressed.

You’ve heard my straight talk, now let’s hear yours.


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