My theory on the unforeseen Consequences of Intermarriage emphasized how decline in support for Israel among American Jews over the last half-century tracks neatly with the spiraling rate of intermarriage among American Jews. We are now in the second and third generation of the offspring of intermarriage, those who have weaker Jewish identities and thus a weaker attachment to Israel or anything substantively and objectively Jewish. My thoughts provoked some outrage, especially among the intermarried or their parents (inevitable but understandable), but also took predictable forms of protest.
The usual arguments were trotted out. Opposition to intermarriage is “racist and bigoted.” A meaningless error (attributing one poll to the wrong pollster) was deemed to have discredited the entire piece. Typically, the Nazis invaded the discussion, one writer asserting that whoever the Nazis would have murdered as a Jew (a person with one Jewish grandparent) is therefore a Jew. Some interpreted the mere reporting of the facts as gloating when, on the contrary, the facts are depressing and worthy of copious tears. Straw men were constructed, as if my secret objective was to claim that non-Orthodox Jews are not really Jews or otherwise to prop up the “Haredi” Rabbinate.
Oy. Nonetheless, each contention deserves refutation because each is constantly raised in any discussion of sensitive Jewish topics. To claim that the prohibition of intermarriage is “racist and bigoted” is to maintain that the Torah that bans it is “racist and bigoted.” Since, as Rav Saadiah Gaon declared almost twelve centuries ago “Our people is a people only by virtue of the Torah,” to negate the Torah’s view on the matter is to vitiate any sense of Jewish identity at all. The Torah’s ban on intermarriage is neither racist nor bigoted but rather perceives the purpose of Jewish identity as the repository of a set of divine ideas, values and practices that are the heritage of the Jewish nation to be taught to the world. The mandate of Jews marrying Jews is not designed to foster purity of our blood – that is insane and immoral – but rather to ensure that marriages build homes that propagate those ideals. To be sure, righteous converts in every generation, and certainly today, disprove those accusations, as we welcome wholeheartedly outsiders who embrace those ideas and practices.
And can be finally put to rest the polemical but offensive notion that Hitler decides who is Jewish? Perhaps for some it carries an emotional wallop but dig beneath the surface and it is quite repugnant. Hitler was a genocidal maniac, one of the most evil creatures who ever walked this planet. He is not a posek. He does not decide questions of Jewish law and to assign him that privilege gives him a posthumous victory. He would not only have destroyed millions of Jewish lives but the Torah as well. Note that Hitler also killed non-Jews who sheltered Jews. Their astonishing kindness, self-sacrifice and martyrdom did not make them Jews but righteous Gentiles, a most worthy status in its own right.
Note further that non-Orthodox Jews born of a Jewish mother are as Jewish as any Jew. Despite the persistence of the counterclaim in the non-Orthodox world, I have never heard or read anyone who holds differently. A sinning Jew remains a Jew and even an intermarried Jew remains a Jew. That is not at issue.
The contention that is most revealing is the ubiquitous reference to ethnic Jews as opposed to halachic Jews and it explains the confusion, perhaps even some of the discontent, of the intermarried. To illustrate the problem, think of a child of an Italian father and an Irish mother. That child rightly sees his heritage as Italian/Irish. If a naysayer came along and claimed that the child, for whatever reason, has forfeited his Irish background, he would rightly look at this as bizarre.
But Jews have a dual identity – a nationality and a religion – the result of “I shall take you to be My people and I shall be a God for you” (Sh’mot 6:7). Both facets of that identity are crucial and neither can survive the disappearance of the other. Certainly, this is a major problem in Israel where the Israeli and Jewish identities are mostly conflated but for some conflict and are even antithetical to each other. In the exile, the Jewish ethnic identity alone deflates over time like a balloon that loses air until it becomes a caricature of true Judaism. Devoid of the Torah, it cannot endure, and thus demands that special accommodations be made for it.
Are there intermarried Jews who feel a kinship with the Jewish people in a positive way? Of course, and there were prominent leaders of American pro-Israeli organizations who were intermarried. (Their children, of course, do not possess their fathers’ passion.) The same is true for converts. Daniel Chwolson, a 19th century scholar, converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity to become a professor in St. Petersburg, and routinely interceded with Czarist authorities to protect Jewish interests, including shechitah. Nevertheless, one can hardly expect loyalty to the Jewish people from those who marry or convert out of the faith, and statistics (and common sense) bear that out.
Finally, lest it be thought that criticism was universal, privately I received enormous support, mostly of the “duh!” variety, from rabbis and other Jews of all stripes. That includes people who asked me why I would write about something so obvious – “everyone knows” intermarriage is a disaster for the Jewish people. Alas, everyone doesn’t know, and as George Orwell put it, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
Intermarriage is an ongoing catastrophe for the Jewish people. It has obliterated Jewish identity, weakened support for Israel among its practitioners, and drastically reduced the Jewish population. There is no short-term solution, not least because so many Jews insist on seeing it as desirable. Jewish education is an obvious bulwark against assimilation, even if it is not a panacea. What we can do, though, is stop pretending that the intermarried and their offspring are the same as all Jews, with the same affinity for Israel, Torah and Jewish values, whose views matter in the grand drama of Jewish history, and therefore are a boon to the Jewish people. Even the loudest protesters know that is not true.
Perhaps rabbis and parents should again raise this issue, even in the Orthodox world where intermarriage is rare but increasing. And all Jews should begin to reckon with the ultimate question: why be Jewish? If being Jewish means nothing or whatever anyone wants it to mean – essentially the same thing – then why? More than anything else, the failure to answer that question satisfactorily has engendered the explosive growth of intermarriage in the past half-century.