A Brief Argument for Intermarriage

Intermarriage, the marriage between a Jew and a gentile, is one of the most contentious issues in the Jewish world today. Although roughly 50% of Jews intermarry, and 70% of non-Orthodox Jews, Jewish leaders, rabbis, and thinkers view it as a major problem for the survival of the American Jewish community. They portray the problem as one in which Judaism always takes a back seat to American secularism or the gentile partner’s religion, and after 1 or 2 generations the descendants of the mixed union no longer identify as Jewish, nor are they halakhically Jewish. While these projections frequently come true, the problem is largely one of Judaism’s own creation. The solution to the problem isn’t to double down on condemnations of the intermarried, but rather to reexamine the basic beliefs that led to the religious ban and cultural taboo and find ways to work around the problem. Far from being the death knell of the American Jew, intermarriage can be an opportunity to grow the American Jewish community and make it a more welcoming group for non-traditional Jews and their families.

The ban on intermarriage is ancient and can be found in the Torah. In Deuteronomy 7, God forbids the Israelites to marry the people of Canaan because “they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and the Lord’s anger will blaze forth against you and He will promptly wipe you out.” Ezra echoes a similar belief in chapter 9 of his book. However, Ezra’s concern is as much for ethnic purity as it is religious purity. These issues then are the root cause for the ban on intermarriage: maintaining religious and ethnic purity.

There is a problem here for liberal Jews. Most certainly do not subscribe to the idea of ethnic purity, and many are similarly unconcerned with whether their children follow the Torah in its minutiae, which Deuteronomy 7 goes on to command as a means to maintain the separation between the Israelites and Canaanites. The idea of ritual purity is anathema to the majority of liberal Jews, and most believe in the American vision of a free and pluralistic society, not in segregating different ethnic and religious groups from one another. If there are liberal Jewish rabbis or leaders who oppose intermarriage it is always for the sake of maintaining Jewish identity/Judaism into the future, not because they are concerned with ritual/ethnic purity. If we accept that maintaining Jewish identity is important, but we also accept that pluralistic societies are a good thing, a ban on intermarriage coupled with narrow definitions of Jewish identity are counterproductive.

The question is not how to end or reduce intermarriage, but rather how to maintain Judaism and Jewish identity in a society where intermarriage is inevitable. The most important change that must take place is the definition of who is a Jew. Some Jewish denominations have already begun this process, particularly the Reform Movement and the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Patrilineal descent must be accepted without qualifications. By doing this, the Jewish community can ensure that the children of intermarriage will be Jewish regardless of who the Jewish parent is. Through accepting any Jewish descent as the basic qualifier for Jewish identity, the Jewish community can actually expand its numbers over time through intermarriage rather than shrinking due to the alienation of patrilineal Jews, intermarried families, and their descendants.

Relatedly, synagogues and other Jewish institutions should be explicitly welcoming and accepting of intermarried families, particularly the gentile spouse. This will necessarily include performing their weddings, but it is not limited to that. While many synagogues will welcome the non-Jewish spouse to participate in many aspects of community life, there are frequently limitations on their membership and participation. These restrictions on gentile spouses in the Jewish community frequently send the message that they aren’t really welcome in or a part of the community. When one spouse feels alienated, the other spouse will be less inclined to remain a part of the community. Best case scenario in these instances is that they drop religious involvement altogether. Worst case scenario: they join a church where the Jewish spouse will be overtly welcomed and included in all aspects of community life, and the children are raised as Christians.

Of course, there will be objections to this radical departure from tradition. What about competing loyalties in families that observe Christian and Jewish holidays?  Won’t it be confusing for the child to be raised with two mutually incompatible religions? How can we be sure this won’t just lead to assimilation? And this definition of Jewish identity won’t be recognized by the Orthodox and might cause problems with being recognized in the State of Israel.

To begin addressing these problems, we’ll start with the problem of recognition by the Orthodox. Quite simply, Orthodox opinion is irrelevant for liberal Jews. If the Orthodox were willing to compromise with liberal Jews on certain things, there might be a discussion to be had. But the Orthodox believe they are right without qualification and dismiss liberal opinions out of hand. For this reason, liberal Jews shouldn’t concern themselves with Orthodox opinion regarding Jewish identity and intermarriage any more than they would on gender egalitarianism and LGBT inclusion in the synagogue.

The one instance where Orthodox opinion matters is recognition of Jewish identity by the State of Israel. Currently, the Orthodox Rabbinate controls matters of Jewish identity in Israel. So long as this remains the case, alternate understandings of Jewish identity will suffer. It’s therefore imperative for liberal Jews of all liberal denominations to work together to end Orthodox hegemony on matters of Jewish identity and practice in Israel.

As far as the problems of raising children with two religions, it’s probably not as big of a problem as people think. People who wish to marry people of other religious backgrounds are not overly concerned with religious dogma most of the time. Many of them are largely secular with only a cultural attachment to their childhood religions. There’s nothing inherently dangerous in celebrating Christmas with the children’s grandparents so long as Jewish holidays are also being celebrated in a way that is engaging for kids. What’s important is for the children to grow up with a strong Jewish identity, which relies on involvement in the Jewish community, celebration of Jewish holidays (including shabbat), and a Jewish education. This underscores the importance of welcoming communities for intermarried families and the need to end condemnations of intermarriage by liberal Jewish leaders.

Can anyone be sure this tactic won’t just lead to assimilation? No, of course not. But clearly the old method of condemnation, hand-wringing, and ideological confusion is not working. Rather than insist on policies and definitions based in a belief system few liberal Jews accept, we should be defining Jewish identity and communities in ways that reflect our beliefs. Acceptance, diversity, and pluralism are defining characteristics of many liberal Jews’ worldviews, and by using those values to expand the Jewish community and welcome more people into it, we can ensure the future of the American Jewish community.

“We affirm that Jewish culture and civilization can be enriched by their contact with other cultures. History shows that Jewish life has been most vital when openness prevailed.”

-Excerpt from IFSHJ Statement “Jews Among the Nations”

Outreach and Innovation Are Necessary for Growth and Survival

The Society for Humanistic Judaism is very small. Its affiliated congregations are also small, and many only have one or two shabbat services a month. In order for Humanistic Judaism to survive as a Jewish movement into the future, it must innovate and grow. The means to doing this will be long and complicated, but will necessarily include outreach to the unaffiliated and the intermarried, the creation of new congregations, and dynamic and engaging services and programs.

Humanistic Judaism could become the most popular denomination of Judaism. Its values and approach to Judaism largely align with the values of secular and unaffiliated Jews, but the target demographic of Humanistic Judaism is largely unaware of its existence. In order to reach those Jews, the SHJ must clarify and simplify its message to only a few sentences. It must then begin a large scale advertising campaign, particularly in areas heavily populated by Jews, using this message. This message should be sure to include information about the SHJ’s acceptance for intermarried, single, LGBTQ, and patrilineal or “part Jewish” people. Furthermore, the SHJ should make it clear that gentiles are absolutely welcome to join Humanistic congregations. In order to ensure the efficacy of the outreach campaign, outreach to gentiles will be necessary, particularly gentiles who already identify with Humanism or who are alienated from other religions, like LGBTQ people.

If or when the outreach campaign is showing signs of success, it would then be time to begin a policy of beginning new congregations in other areas. The SHJ could follow the example of the American Unitarian Association (now joined with the Universalist Church in the Unitarian Universalist Association) and begin a fellowship movement. This was an AUA policy of “church planting” where a representative would gather interested individuals in an area to come together to start a lay-led Unitarian congregation. While the results of this policy were mixed, it is undeniable that Unitarian Universalism ceased to be a strictly New England denomination because of this growth strategy. If the SHJ is going to grow, forming new congregations in new areas in conjunction with the outreach campaign will be a necessary component.

And lastly, the shabbat and holiday services, as well as the synagogue programs that are offered will have to be examined for their successes as well as their failures. Innovation will be necessary if the outreach campaign is going to have continuing results into the future. Adult education and other activities groups will be a key component in the success of Humanistic synagogues. Many Humanistic congregations only meet once or twice a month for shabbat services. Clearly, weekly services do not fulfill the needs of Humanistic Jews. Rather than force a weekly service that few people will attend, it may be better to get creative in order to engage the members and keep them interested. Perhaps each shabbat in the month is marked in a different way: one shabbat is a regular service, another is an erev shabbat potluck dinner, another is havdalah followed by snacks and games, and the fourth is a shabbat morning group meditation possibly with singing or chanting. By differentiating the activities as well as the times, the community will be better able to fulfill the needs of people with chaotic schedules and different interests.

Humanistic Judaism has a lot of potential. But in order for that potential to be actualized, the SHJ must be bold and innovative, and it must actively reach out to its target demographic. If it cannot do this, it will be doomed to remain small and uninfluential in the Jewish community.

The Children of Israel: Humanistic Judaism’s Devotion to Inclusivity and Diversity

A traditional name for the Jewish people is the Children of Israel. This has traditionally been taken literally to signify that the Jews are the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). Most Jewish Humanists acknowledge these figures to be mythical characters of ancient Israelite folklore; stories the Israelites told to account for the creation of their nation and their bonds to one another. But the symbol of the Jews as a large family is useful for the purposes of determining who is a Jew and what it means to belong to the Jewish people in Humanistic Judaism.

It must first be recognized that holding a familial understanding of the Jewish people should necessarily open up Jewish identity beyond the strictures of halakhic definitions. Family is more than bloodlines and legal definitions, and it includes the children of fathers as well as mothers. Anyone born of a Jewish parent should be considered fully Jewish, regardless of which parent it is. Adopted children should be considered as much a part of the Jewish family as children born to Jewish parents, without the need for pointless conversion ceremonies. The same is true for gentiles who marry Jewish spouses, assuming that they have no objections to becoming a member of the tribe. Any process which joins a gentile to a Jewish family should be enough to confer Jewish identity on that person if they wish to assume it. Similarly, any gentile who wishes to join the Jewish community with no previous ties to Judaism or Jewish people should be welcomed with as few barriers as possible. Jewish identity is not conferred through rituals and ceremonies, although they can be useful for public recognition, but rather through participation in the life of the community. Jewish identity is a communal, familial identity, and as such it is conferred through membership in the Jewish family, whether that be a literal family or the Jewish community.

By using such a broad definition of Jewish identity, Humanistic Jews affirm their commitment to the principle of inclusivity. Including as many people as possible who would otherwise be marginalized in the Jewish community is the best possible way to help the Jewish people thrive as a vibrant religious and ethnic group. It also allows for greater diversity in the Jewish community, both ethnically/racially and ideologically. It is important to remember that the biblical patriarch Jacob had twelve sons, all of them different in character and belief. As the Children of Israel, it is important for Jews to adhere to the principles of diversity and inclusion, which implies open boundaries for all who wish to join and inclusion of those who have been marginalized in the past and have different understandings of theology and Jewish religious practice.

The Society for Humanistic Judaism has already affirmed their commitment to this vision of Jewish identity based on inclusion and diversity. For the good of the Jewish community around the world, it is necessary for other Humanistic denominations of Judaism to do the same.

What is Humanistic Judaism?

Humanistic Judaism can refer to two different but related phenomena in contemporary Jewish life: the organized movement called the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ) and the more general humanistic approach to Judaism. In either case Humanistic Judaism stresses human responsibility and autonomy, a (generally) naturalistic worldview, and an engagement with and reconstruction of Jewish culture and traditions. The philosophy of Jewish Humanism expands beyond the organized body of the SHJ. Most Reform and Reconstructionist Jews as well as many unaffiliated, secular Jews adhere to a form of Jewish Humanism, even if they do not explicitly identify themselves as Jewish Humanists. The objective of this blog is to discuss the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism and my personal practice of Judaism as a Jewish Humanist. For the sake of clarity and future reference, basic terms and concepts are defined below, and basic presuppositions are stated.

Humanism: a philosophy of life which affirms the ability and responsibility of individuals to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity without supernatural intervention. A general outline of Humanism can be found in the Humanist Manifesto III. It is necessary to point out that Humanism is not a synonym for atheism. It is possible to believe in a non-interventionist or non-personal God and be a Humanist (e.g. deists and pantheists).

Humanistic Judaism (Jewish Humanism): a philosophy which underlies a progressive, naturalistic approach to Judaism, Jewish history, and culture. More specifically, a contemporary Jewish denomination. More information about the denomination can be found at shj.org.

Judaism is the Evolving Religious Civilization of the Jewish People: Jews are both an ethnic and a religious group. However, the ethnicity has been primarily defined and shaped by the religion since at least the beginning of the diaspora. While religion is the most important aspect of Judaism historically, it is not the only aspect of Judaism, and secular aspects of Jewish culture should be respected and fostered. History has shown that Judaism, as both a religion and an ethnic group, has adapted to changing situations over the millennia. The modern world is fundamentally different from the pre-modern world, and Judaism must be consciously reconstructed if it is to remain meaningful to non-orthodox Jews.

Jewish Identity: The halakhic determination of Jewish identity states that a person is Jewish if their mother is Jewish or if they convert according to halakhic standards. This definition leads to many problems, particularly in relation to intermarriage, non-orthodox conversions, and “patrilineal” Jews. The position of the Society for Humanistic Judaism radically breaks with traditional, and even the more liberal Reform, standards and declares: “a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.” This is the standard of Jewish identity which this blog will operate under, with one caveat: members of “Jewish Christian” groups are not Jews, but rather Christians. I take this position because of the history of antisemitism of the Christian church(es) and the many forced conversions, persecutions, and attempted genocides perpetrated by them against the Jewish people. While I recognize that there are some “Jewish Christians” who were born Jewish and converted to Christianity through these groups, the majority of them are not Jewish in any sense, and should not be treated as such.

Intermarriage: Intermarriage refers to the marriage between a Jewish person and a gentile. Most Jewish denominations see intermarriage as a problem to be solved, however, it is a manufactured problem. The Jewish people will continue if people find Jewish identity or Judaism to be meaningful in their lives. If the children of intermarriage are more likely to identify as non-Jewish, it is because of the exclusionary definition of Jewishness held by these groups. Jewish communities must work to include as many Jews as possible regardless of traditional standards and make Jewish life and community meaningful and worthwhile. Intermarriage is not the problem, but rather apathy and alienation in non-orthodox Jewish communities.

Israel: Israel is the home of the Jewish people and the only majority Jewish country on earth. Its survival as a Jewish country is necessary for the safety of the Jewish people around the globe. Although it is necessary for Israel to be a Jewish nation, minority rights must be respected; the Palestinians of the West Bank must have their freedom from the occupation; and Israel should be a democratic and secular country with religious, political, and civil freedom for all its citizens.