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Ask The Rabbis // Is it the job of rabbis to fight intermarriage?

INDEPENDENT

Intermarriage is a reality of American Jewish life that isn’t receding, no matter how valiant the efforts to counter it. The central challenge to American Judaism isn’t intermarriage; it’s disaffected Jews who lack the knowledge and inspiration to live Jewish lives. Our job as rabbis is to offer a compelling and relevant Judaism—to rekindle Jewish passion, bring Jews home to their tradition and culture and welcome whoever makes that journey with them. What makes a home Jewish isn’t just the family that lives there but the devoted and purposeful Jewish life they live together.

When a few years ago I decided to leave the Conservative movement, in which I was ordained, to create alternative wedding rituals for intermarrying couples committed to Jewish life, I wasn’t motivated by a desire to sanction intermarriage. I was motivated by a calling to embrace Jews of all kinds, together with their partners, and facilitate their most educated, meaningful and robust connection to Jewish heritage and destiny. It’s not all about them; it’s about all of us.

Rabbi Adina Lewittes
Sha’ar Communities
Paramus, NJ

HUMANIST

Again with intermarriage? Haven’t we debated this matter long enough? Isn’t it time to move on? Here’s my answer, from a letter to The Jewish Week almost ten years ago. I stand by it:

Let’s face it, intermarriage is increasingly prevalent within the Jewish community and someday may even become the norm.

The tide will not be turned by refusing to officiate. These couples will get married anyway. The cost is their waning affection for and growing alienation from a Jewish heritage and community that does not accept them.

We should welcome these couples, not because we’re caving in to their demands, but because we affirm and embrace their love for one another. We’re not selling out. We’re opening doors instead, with decency, respect and caring.

We also ought to recognize that many couples are looking for ways to affirm their Jewish connections within a cultural context outside of a traditional theistic ceremony. As a Humanistic rabbi, I am proud to develop such ceremonies for Jewish and intercultural couples that are secular, inclusive and personal.

Rabbi Peter Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY

RENEWAL

I find the way the question is phrased to be highly problematic. Something more neutral, like “How should rabbis respond to issues around intermarriage?” doesn’t load the dice before they are rolled. For 13 years, I have built a rabbinate in part around what I consider the holy and necessary work for saving the Jewish people at this time, namely to advocate for interfaith couples and support them while officiating at their weddings. As a recent study from Brandeis University makes clear, interfaith couples who marry under a rabbi’s auspices are far more likely to maintain a Jewish home and raise Jewish children than those who don’t. Rabbis who refuse to officiate do not deter interfaith couples from marrying, but they can help deter a couple from any future contact with Judaism.

If other rabbis refuse to officiate and other Jewish denominations forbid intermarriage altogether, I respect their holy intentions. But I hope that even the staunchest foes of intermarriage would not consider it the job of rabbis to fight intermarriage. A rabbi’s job is to support Jewish life, Jewish ritual and Jewish learning and to fight poverty, hunger, injustice, bigotry and the causes of hatred, violence and war. Causing assimilated Jews to feel even more alienated from their heritage than they already are does not fall within my job description.

Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
Congregation Kehillat Israel
Lansing, Michigan

RECONSTRUCTIONIST

Old paradigm: We exist to serve some monolithic “Judaism.” Better and more effective: Judaism is here to enrich our lives and better our world; once people feel that, they’ll embrace it, enrich it and pass it on.

The very language of “fighting intermarriage,” axiomatic until recently, is now part of the problem. Reason number one: Some 70 percent of non-Orthodox Jews now intermarry; why alienate our majority? Two, we worked hard to feel at home in America; of course our kids will connect “outside” the 2 percent that’s Jewish. Three, intermarriage makes religion the sole key vector of identity, as if class, race, gender expression, politics and lifestyle scarcely matter. Four, intermarriage presumes that tying the knot is everyone’s goal; not anymore.

Let’s have a vision “for,” not a stance “against.” We must be for Jewish identity, in its myriad expressions. We need more creative (and less judgmental) Jewish education and robust communal sponsorship of rich, diverse Jewish pathways. We should all teach, support and above all model a relevant Jewish life that matters to people—enough that they choose to pursue it, whomever they love. It works. Let’s make it happen.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Bethesda, MD

REFORM

Intermarriage has existed for millennia. After Sarah’s death, Abraham married Keturah, a woman from outside his tribe; Joseph had an Egyptian wife; and Moses married Tziporah, a Midianite. Talmudic rabbis debated the permissibility of intermarriage. They set up rules about marriage and divorce between Jewish and non-Jewish spouses. Despite rules and restrictions, intermarriage has continued. One could say that for centuries, the rabbis have unsuccessfully fought intermarriage.

The Reform movement has embraced outreach to interfaith couples and families since 1978. Rabbi Alexander Schindler  proclaimed outreach not as acquiescence to interfaith marriage but as an affirmation of Judaism, a means to welcome non-Jewish spouses into the Jewish community. Today, intermarried families are warmly welcomed into Reform congregations. Non-Jewish spouses are recognized for their commitment to Jewish values and to enriching their own Jewish homes.

In progressive Jewish communities, it does not serve us well to fight intermarriage. Instead, we need to create opportunities for those who are seeking to learn about and potentially choose Judaism, and honor those who may not so choose but who support the Jewish commitments of their spouses and join them in raising Jewish children.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Fresno, CA

CONSERVATIVE

There is a difference between approving or disapproving of intermarriage on an abstract level and dealing with actual individuals and couples. In the abstract, I believe it is preferable that Jews marry Jews. But that doesn’t always happen. The Jewish community I serve has integrated into this multicultural society, and intermarriage is the byproduct of our success. There is no point in rabbis resisting this reality. If we tried to fight intermarriage, we would make ourselves irrelevant.

As a rabbi, I aim to help others see how Jewish wisdom can infuse their lives with purpose, community and direction. When an interfaith couple approaches me, I extend myself and try to make Judaism accessible. While I do not officiate at interfaith marriages (the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly doesn’t allow it), I help the couples determine what kind of religious ceremony they might like and what clergy might officiate. I also encourage interfaith couples to have an aufruf at our shul. Our congregation sends email notices and recognizes the marriage in our newsletter. My goal is to make the couple feel welcome and comfortable in the shul community.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA

Fighting intermarriage is like trying to chase away darkness with a broom. light a candle and it goes away.

MODERN ORTHODOX

That rabbis should oppose intermarriage would seem self-evident from the statistics. Intermarriage leads to lower levels of Jewish affiliation, adult identification, observance and support of Israel. But children of intermarriages are a significant fraction of their generation. Intermarriage is the inevitable outcome of Jews meeting Gentiles freely in this open society; some will fall in love and want to marry. And loving another person and choosing to marry and create a family is a central Jewish value.

What can rabbis do? They can provide a powerful Jewish education network that includes vital experiences in synagogues, day schools, camps, teen youth movements and elsewhere (including Birthright and extended study in Israel). Not least, rabbis should offer caring, magnetic role models of how to be Jewish. Then children will grow up with powerful, enriched Jewish identities. They will choose a Jewish mate to ensure that commitment, or they will be so Jewish that they will get their non-Jewish soulmate to convert.

Intermarriage is not the problem; it is a symptom of weak Jewish identities, low expectations and mediocre, irrelevant communal life. Yes, the extent, momentum and consequences of intermarriage threaten Jewry with demographic collapse. But if the community and educational and religious experiences were vibrant, then intermarriage could fuel an expanding, vital American Jewry.

Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
Riverdale, NY

ORTHODOX

Is there any other job for a rav? What could be more important than arresting the persistent slide of the Diaspora community toward disappearance?

If a rav performs as he should, everything he does will serve to fight intermarriage. Behind the pragmatic formula of  “hatch, match and dispatch” stands the real goal of attaching Jews to their real Source of strength. If he succeeds, intermarriage becomes improbable or impossible. If he doesn’t, there is no magic bullet to prevent it.

You don’t fight intermarriage by bringing down the wrath of heaven. You do it by making Judaism more alluring and appealing to a young man (for instance) than the blonde, blue-eyed non-Jewish woman sitting next to him. Absolutely everything that a rav does—his spiritual guidance, his halachic decisions, his pastoral counseling—should enhance his flock’s appreciation of the beauty of Torah. If what he offers is identical to what his Episcopalian colleague down the street offers, other than a few Hebrew words and Fiddler on the Roof images, then he is not accomplishing his mission. No one in the haredi world preaches against intermarriage. They don’t have to.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA

SEPHARDIC

The role of the rabbi should be defined in positive rather than negative terms: not whether a rabbi should fight assimilation but what a rabbi can do to strengthen Jewish identity. I have presented the following challenge to diverse audiences: Convince a non-Jewish friend to become Jewish. The overwhelming response was: We suffer enough being Jewish, why would we drag a friend into this? This is where we have a problem. It is not seeking to marry outside the religion, but rather not finding an incentive to adhere to a religious identity other than the fact that you were born into it. Most Jews who are observant or who maintain a Jewish identity do so because of indoctrination, peer pressure or the exilic mentality of “Everyone wants to get me, so I should be strong.” Rabbis, parents and educators should ask and teach why it is amazing and beneficial to be Jewish. Once we find the answer, though, we should be willing to share it with people of other beliefs, not as a condition of joining the family but as an invitation to explore a beautiful way of life.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
Rockville, MD

CHABAD

Fighting intermarriage is like trying to chase away darkness with a broom. Light a candle and it goes away. Inspire young Jews, give them passion for their Jewish identity, show them a reason to care; then how could they possibly imagine life with a spouse who doesn’t share that core essence of their being? An impact on life’s most important decision—whom to love and marry—can be made only by providing a why. And I’m willing to listen to advice only when I believe it is motivated by concern for me, not fulfilling some agenda for the one giving it. Young people need to feel that a rabbi cares about them for who they are, unequivocally and unconditionally. Only then can meaningful teaching and inspiration occur.

So, the job of a rabbi? Live and breathe Judaism. A passionate Judaism. An intellectually demanding—and satisfying—Judaism. A Judaism filled with love and concern for each of our brethren. Make that Jewish life and practice accessible. Inspire the people around you to live, breathe and share it as well. And then intermarriage—along with assimilation, apathy, dwindling demographics and so much else—will no longer be something that requires fighting at all.

Rabbi Dov Wagner
Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at USC
Los Angeles, CA

5 comments

  1. Jonathan Schwartz

    Very important discussion. Love to see so many open-minded and forward-thinking Rabbis.

    Take a look at how Detroit is working to create a welcoming environment for Interfaith couples:

    http://myjewishdetroit.org/2016/07/tightening-the-bond/

  2. richard rothschild

    Please understand Chabad’s “core essence of [Jews’) being”. What is this “core essence”? It’s the unique ‘Jewish soul’, the literal part of God within Jews, transmitted by heredity and binding all Jews across time and within the generations: the mark of ‘the Jewish people’ or ,better put, Jewish race, a race superior to non-Jews who have to content themselves with inferior souls. Read Shemtov’s ‘On Intermarriage’ at http://www.chabad.org. Theirs is foremost a racial conception of Jews, independent of religion. A Jewish disgrace.

  3. Harry Freiberg

    When last I looked “rabbi” meant teacher, not preacher…

  4. What’s most interesting to me about this discussion is the two very different takes on the solution to the problem. The non-Orthodox Rabbis, be they Reform, Reconstructionist etc. essentially concede that inter-marriage is a done-deal. They are just addressing how to make intermarried couples and their families feel welcome in the Jewish community in the hope that they can keep some of them connected to Judaism.

    The Orthodox Rabbis on the other hand address the issue by stating that if Jews are raised in a vibrant Jewish community and inculcated with Torah and Jewish values from birth, inter-marriage will be a non-issue. If a Jew is raised to value what Judaism means and what a Jewish family is all about, how would they not want that for themselves when they marry and create their own family?

    Two diametrically opposed takes on this issue. I’d suspect that the future of diaspora Judaism will depend on the answer.

  5. Embrace, bring in welcome! Of course we should do all of those things! But we should also realize that a sacred Jewish ceremony is not relevant–and that is why I believe rabbi’s should decline to officiate at inter faith marriages–for one by his or her own choice who does not consider himself or herself a Jew
    By taking such a stand, we do not turn anyone away. We simply affirm that the ceremonies we perform have integrity. In other words they mean what they say. When the non-Jews we lovingly welcome, teach, council and nurture have this
    reality compassionately explained to them, most completely understand. They also understand that if they should at some future time decide they wish to formally become Jewish, then a rabbi officiating at a Jewish marriage ceremony becomes exquisitely meaningful.
    I only wish more of my Reform colleagues saw it this way.

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