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Sunday, April 19, 2015

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What should we do about intermarriage?

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Rabbi Dow Marmur

A growing number of members of our community are terminal Jews. Even if their children and grandchildren are halachically Jewish, their commitment to Judaism may be waning. One of the main reasons is intermarriage. As individual Jews, we’ve never had it so good, yet the threat to our collective survival is formidable, although – or because – we now live in freedom and relative prosperity.

That’s how I read two articles by Prof. Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary in the online magazine Mosaic. A subsequently published and much debated report by the Pew Research Center about Jewish life in the United States can be seen as confirmation of his bleak prognosis: the intermarriage rate there between 2000 and 2013 is 58 per cent.

Though we’d like to believe that the situation in Canada is less acute, the trend is the same.

Wertheimer points an accusing finger at American Jewish leaders, among whom “any concerns are swept under the carpet and the talk is of cherishing ‘diversity’ and doing everything to foster ‘inclusiveness.’” He believes the organized community can do much more to help Jews to marry Jews by providing better opportunities for socializing and by making greater efforts to encourage non-Jewish marriage partners to embrace Judaism.

But he’s critical of the practice in liberal communities of trying to accommodate intermarried couples. He implies that in the not-too-distant future, only the Orthodox will survive as Jews in the Diaspora. Though currently in the United States only some 10 per cent describe themselves as Orthodox, their number - particularly among haredim – is likely to remain steady or increase, because their children marry Jews, marry early and have large families. 

One of the respondents to Wertheimer’s original essay was Rabbi Eric Yoffie, immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism. He’s refreshingly optimistic about the future of the Jewish People, despite the intermarriage rate, because he has faith in the outreach efforts of his movement.

Rabbi Yoffie argues that the liberal stance is the best way to integrate non-Jewish spouses, if not by conversion then at least by encouraging them to bring up their children as Jews. Castigating and isolating them is bound to have the opposite effect to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom and gloom.

Other respondents presented variants on the same theme in the endearing, yet perhaps naive, American belief that every problem must have a solution. Those who celebrate the freedom and the opportunities that Jews nowadays have in the Diaspora in general and the United States in particular have no desire to return to any form of ghetto, even if it would reduce intermarriage. Some think that such a return, even if it were possible, would greatly inhibit Judaism from flourishing as it does now.

After all, the Pew Research Center report shows that there are, in fact, many more Jews in America today, at least by self-definition, than previously thought. Opportunities for serious Jewish studies at universities and other institutions in the Diaspora, coupled with the rich and varied activities in the major Jewish centers, provide much of the encouraging evidence.

Thus Doug Rushkoff, author of Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism: “As I see it, Judaism is in the midst of one of its greatest-ever renaissances. The quality and depth of Jewish worship and study has never been stronger or more varied than today. Anyone who wants to learn, find a community, or engage in the world Jewishly can do so – and on his or her own terms.”

Perhaps if we were more enthusiastic about the achievements in contemporary Jewish life and less obsessed by its problems, we might find it easier to attract those who at present manifest their marginality by marrying “out.” The best way of responding to the challenge of intermarriage may be to agonize less and celebrate more by way of positive reinforcement.

A story has it that the biblical Abraham, on his way to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac, is intercepted by Satan, who, in his clever way, tells Abraham that if he kills Isaac, it’ll be the end of the Jewish people. To which Abraham replies: “My task is to do God’s will. Jewish survival is God’s problem.”

The best way to deal with intermarriage may be for us not to preach against it, but do God’s will as best we can – and leave the rest to God.    

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