The Genesis:3 Project
And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell.
The brand of religion in which I have lived my life is called Conservative Judaism. Honest, we had that name before it became associated with hyper-partisan politics, but that fact does not change the fact that we have no more chance to explain it than a contemporary high school sociology teacher has to place the nickname “Gay Nineties” in the context of 19th-century English usage. Oh well.
The name was chosen because we wanted to conserve the essence of traditional Jewish life in the new era of American social liberalism. We resisted efforts to re-form or re-construct all of Judaism, even as we declined to adhere to certain orthodoxies. If all of that sounds like a lot of word play, let me make it worse by reminding you that English is not the native language of Jews and Judaism. But the fact that the division of Jews into categories is defined by anglo-nuance is an indication of just how thoroughly we embraced American culture.
Until sometime in the last quarter of the last century, the intermarriage rate between Jews and others was tiny, so much so that the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan lifted it up as one of the secrets of Jewish vitality. (He wasn’t Jewish, just FYI. I tell you that because an Irish name is no indicator of religion these days.)
Now, just a generation later, intermarriage is not only no longer an anomaly, it is the norm. Fewer and fewer Jews marry Jews every year, though the percentages of in-marriages are greater the more cloistered a life the Jews in question live. That is, someone who refrains from work and commerce on Saturday, eats only kosher food, studies sacred text in the original languages and lives within an easy walk of a vibrant synagogue is much, much less likely to marry someone for whom those deep faith commitments are not integrated into their daily life, even if they drink the same beer, root for the same sports teams and vote for the same candidates. But the number and percentage of Jews close to that end of the immersion spectrum has declined and will continue to decline by all predictions (except for some orthodox predictors).
Is it a bad thing that Jews intermarry? From the time of Abraham, through the social revolution of Ezra the Scribe, through the expansion of dietary strictness of the rabbinic sages, through the dispersion of tightly-knit Jewish families into the expanding outposts of trade and culture, through the tentative opportunities for entry into enlightened societies to Senator Moynihan, the answer was a clear “yes.” Even today, when Jews and their non-Jewish partners are warmly embraced (okay, not always warmly) by Jewish families, it is rarely a matter of indifference to Jewish parents if their children marry other Jews.
I will own it – it is not a matter of indifference to me, and not just because as a Conservative rabbi I am obligated to hold to that position.
But the dire predictions of a catastrophic collapse of Judaism if we let too many of “them” in has not come to pass. Jewish life is different now, to be sure, and some of it has become unfamiliar across generational lines. But it turns out that Jews mostly like being Jews and that their life-partners love them not despite their Jewishness but, at least in part, because of their Jewishness. Who’d’ve thunk it?
Both the umbrella organization of Conservative-identified synagogues and the association of Conservative-identified rabbis are reconsidering their stances on intermarriage and the families that are formed when one takes place. Should they be welcomed, and if so, how? Are there litmus tests that distinguish a new iteration of Jewish family from a purposeful exit from the community? Should a rabbi, representing Jewish authority, officiate at such a wedding? (Still no.) May the rabbi attend the ceremony as a guest? (Technically no.) May the rabbi wish the couple well? (Yes…carefully.)
It is easy to attribute this reassessment to the purely practical. If we chase away our children, we have no future, some say. Better to take them in on their terms than to lose them on ours.
That’s a defeatist attitude, and not how I choose to reflect on the question. Abraham had no confidence that his son Isaac – the only Hebrew of the next generation, and not exactly a firebrand – would carry forward an iconoclastic innovation if he was surrounded by a majority culture unfamiliar with his new heritage. Abraham made his servant swear to keep it all in the family.
But more than three millennia later, we who are the heirs to the chutzpah that confidently conserved (or reformed or reconstructed) Judaism either believe it worked or it didn’t. If our conservation worked, then the matter of intermarriage is an opportunity, not a threat. If it didn’t, then we will not correct with authoritarianism what we could not accomplish with persuasion.
I know that I am framing this issue differently than usual. The desirability, even the sanctity of the Jewish family is the usual starting point. I still believe that about the family, and I believe that Jews believe it overwhelmingly as well. Family is not the question. But sanctity? Unlike in Abraham’s time, that takes more than an oath.