Once again, Jewish identity is on the front-burner, and Jewish patriotism is under siege, with the news of two intermarriages involving public figures. Last weekend, Brooklyn Congressman (D, of course) Anthony Wiener married a non-Jew (a Muslim woman), with Bill Clinton himself presiding over the festivities. Wiener, a Charles Schumer acolyte with the same brashness and love for the camera as his mentor, has always been a “pro-Israel” congressman and aspires to be New York City’s next Mayor. Should his intermarriage play any role in determining his political future ?
A cogent argument can be made that it should play no role, especially in a country that pursuant to the Constitution has no religious litmus test for electoral office. An official should be judged, the argument goes, based on his conduct in office, or his positions, integrity, values, intelligence, etc. Nevertheless, I disagree, because people vote for a public official because they identify with him/her, and feel that person can best represent their values and goals. Can a Jew who betrays his people by marrying out of the faith be trusted to look after the interests of the Jewish people ? I don’t see how. Notwithstanding that they could do it, I am not sure I would trust them to do it. And even though people vote for candidates who ostensibly will be the best representative of the polity and not of their particular ethnic group, the reality is people are inclined to vote for those who are considered role models, or at least reflective of the norms and ideals of their lives and the interests of their more parochial class. That is life among the diverse constituencies in New York City, where ethnic politics is a reality.
More troubling is the recognition that a Brooklyn Congressman – Brooklyn, of all places, and a person who is unabashedly Jewish in his affect and speech patterns – would think that intermarriage today is so accepted and conventional that it should not be deemed controversial at all. That sad state of affairs should distress all of us, as it indicates the transformation of American Jewry in just 50 years – from rejection and abhorrence of intermarriage to the ho-hum, even unremarkable response of the Jewish (especially non-Orthodox) world today.
That humdrum, desultory reaction informs the secular Jewish coverage of the impending nuptials of celebrity intermarried couple number two, Chelsea Clinton to Marc Mezvinsky, the Jewish (described as “Conservative”) son of two former (D, of course) Congresspersons. It is not the first such marriage of Jews into high-powered, influential non-Jewish families: leaping to mind are the marriages of Al Gore’s daughter to a Jew named Schiff (since ended in divorce) and Caroline Kennedy’s marriage to Edward Schlossberg, still going strong.
Today’s Jerusalem Post carried an absolutely inane piece entitled “Jews Wring their Hands Over Chelsea Clinton’s Nuptials” (http://www.jpost.com/JewishWorld/JewishNews/Article.aspx?id=181609), the hand-wringing over the question of “will Chelsea convert ?”
To which the response of normal Jews should be, “and if she does, so what ?” Does she have any intention of committing to the Jewish people, of living a Torah-centered life ? Will she observe the commandments in any substantive sense ? Does she feel any grief over the destruction of the two Temples that we will commemorate this coming Tuesday on the Ninth of Av ? Indeed, Chelsea may have more religious sensibilities than her beau, which begs the question: why doesn’t he convert ? If his Jewish identity is so tenuous and means so little to him, then why impose the charade on her ? Be a man, and charade yourself.
And in the charade that much of modern Jewish life (outside the world of Torah) has become, note these priceless questions from the above-referenced article, that apparently concern at least one Jew (the writer): “Will there at least be a rabbi co-officiating? A huppa? A glass?” Who in the real, live, thinking, breathing, Jewish world could possibly care about that ? Having a rabbi “co-officiate” at an intermarriage is like having Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swear in the next American President on Capitol Hill, January 20, 2013. It is a traitorous act that obviously demeans the (steadily meaningless) term “rabbi.” Does a “huppa,” the symbol of the Jewish home, have any relevance when the home will not be Jewish ? Does “breaking the glass,” a reminder of the churban (destruction of the Temples and Jerusalem), have any significance when the marriage itself is a churban – and when the mother of the bride is determined to weaken the Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem today and G-d-forbid precipitate another churban ? What a macabre joke.
But the approach itself is reflective of a growing attitude among non-Orthodox Jews – both publicly and privately – that intermarriage is a reality, and we must accept it, and participate, and attend in the hopes of “influencing them for the good,” so they remain “part of the Jewish people,” “giving money to Jewish causes” and perhaps having a Menorah next to their tree, fast half a day on Yom Kippur and eat matza at the Pesach seder – in other words, the all symbols and no substance that unfortunately characterizes too much of Jewish life, especially among the non-Orthodox. So, make the best of it !
Reality check: for the sake of decorum, we shy away from the statistical reality of Jewish life. Forget the 50% intermarriage rate, give or take a few percentage points either way. It means nothing and says less. The real rate is more devastating: among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate hovers close to 70% ! No wonder their rabbis and leaders say we must accept it, and reach out, and embrace sham conversions, and the like. No wonder they blame the “openness of American society;” that is far more comforting than to look themselves in the mirror at the devastation they have wrought in the Jewish world. No wonder non-Orthodox Rabbis are often hired or fired based on their comfort level with performing intermarriages. And no wonder Anthony Wiener assumes – perhaps even correctly – that his intermarriage will play no significant role in his political future.
On a recent TV panel with two non-Orthodox rabbis, I realized that their perceptions of conversion itself are flawed almost beyond repair. They maintained that conversion requires immersion in a mikveh for men and women, and circumcision for men. My attempts to explain that those are the procedures of conversion, not the substance, fell flat. The substance of conversion is an acceptance of Mitzvot and a willingness to be part of the fate and destiny of the Jewish people. When that commitment is manifest and complete, then the procedures of conversion can be carried out. I might as well have been talking Swahili; there was certainly no realization on their part that their doctrines and teachings have inevitably and ineluctably led their flock to this national catastrophe.
The irony is that this is no criticism at all of Chelsea Clinton or the new Mrs. Wiener, neither of whom have done anything wrong. It is the Jewish spouse in each case who is committing the crime against the Jewish people, a crime that cannot be washed away by the sprinkling of holy water or the mumbling of a few incantations, or their Jewish equivalent. For sure, there are always people who point out that the children of the Jewish mother is Jewish, and therefore ripe for outreach, and even the children of the non-Jewish mother can be “raised Jewish.” But this is a pipedream, and waste of resources. One can jump out of a plane without a parachute and still survive, but it is not something that is anticipated and planned for.
Jews eschew intermarriage because marriage creates a home that will embody and transmit the unique values and ideals of the Jewish people as received from G-d. It is our role as G-d’s witnesses that have merited us His grace and protection since our national origins more than 3800 years ago, and that role cannot be embraced by one who does not share those premises, that commitment, and that sense of privilege or identity. Serious, committed converts are a blessing to the Jewish people, as well as a challenge to the genuineness of the born Jew. To the extent that Jews tolerate intermarriage is ultimately a reflection of their own commitments, and the seriousness with which they perceive the above-mentioned divinely-ordained role. When intermarriage becomes commonplace, and “Jewish” writers dismiss concerns as narrow-minded and mock the genuine grief that traditional Jews feel over the impending loss of any Jew, they have unfortunately revealed the shallowness of their own commitment, and the insecurities they feel about their own Jewish identity.
Just two more reasons to mourn this coming Tish’a B’Av, and two more reasons to redouble our efforts to promulgate the ideals of Torah far and wide so that intermarriage remains anathema and becomes increasingly rare, and all Jews embrace the beauty of a divine system that demands that we be a “light – not a blight, which is intermarriage – onto the nations.”