MONTREAL — Intermarriage is not necessarily such a bad thing, according to Edgar Bronfman Sr. In fact, he believes it can and is having a positive effect on modern Jewish life.
Edgar Bronfman Sr. is interviewed by McGill University professor Antonia Maioni about his latest book Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance.
“I’m not advocating intermarriage. What I’m saying is that intermarriage is here. It’s here to stay. Let’s make it work for us, rather than against us,” the former president of World Jewish Congress said in an Oct. 8 talk at McGill University.
The Montreal-born Bronfman, 80, suggested that the community should reach out to the intermarried and help them create Jewish homes, even if the non-Jewish partner does not formally convert.
“When I was 18 or 19, I was told my father would rend his clothes and sit shivah for me if I married out. I said that’s all right, as long as he doesn’t change the trust.
“I think those days are gone. Being Jewish is a choice today, not a condition.”
He said Jews must be “willing to compromise” on the intermarriage issue, and that includes changing Jewish law to recognize paternal, as well as maternal, lineage. He said that patrilineage was the norm among Jews until the 12th century and the time of Maimonides.
“We don’t have to worry about keeping the bloodlines pure nowadays. We have DNA,” he said.
In fact, Bronfman thinks non-Jews who show an interest in the community should be embraced. “I’m not talking about proselytizing. Jews are not proselytizers. It’s simply a question of welcome,” he said. “What’s really important is an openness to others… Judaism does not mean building a fence around oneself.”
He noted that a nephew married a woman of Asian and French background, she converted, and “they have a joyous Jewish life together and three Jewish children.”
One of his sons married a Catholic who didn’t convert until about 20 years later, yet they have a Jewish household and family, he noted.
Bronfman made a rare public appearance in Montreal to launch his latest book Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, at an event organized by the McGill Alumni Association. Bronfman, formerly CEO of the Seagram Company, graduated with a BA in history from McGill in 1951.
Among his philanthropic works today, he is chair of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and he met with local Hillel students while in the city.
The event took the form of an onstage interview between Bronfman and professor Antonia Maioni, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
With five children, 23 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, Bronfman said he can’t help but be optimistic about the Jewish future.
He urged Jews to look forward and not backward, and cautioned against using the Holocaust as the reason for being Jewish.
“I want to convince young people to be Jewish for positive reasons, not negative ones,” he said.
The use of the word “renaissance” in the title of the book is not to suggest he wants to see the restoration of an earlier age in Jewish history, he said, but rather to usher in a time when Jews are knowledgeable about and proud of the “incredible wisdom of their forefathers.”
“The problem is not that Jews are falling in love with non-Jews, it’s that Jews are not falling in love with Judaism,” Bronfman said.
His passion for Judaism, which was stirred relatively late in life, takes the form of learning and discussing the Jewish intellectual heritage, as well as its ethics and morality. He does not, he said, believe in “the God of the Old Testament,” nor does he care for prayer or songs of praise.
But he reads all the Jewish texts he can, from the Bible to Spinoza, and every Thursday afternoon at his office, time is set aside for a group Talmud study session. He finds it “fun.”
He has no quarrel with those who prefer a more spiritual Judaism, but he has no patience for denominational Judaism and believes these divisions are turning off young people.
He also has little regard for haredim. “They don’t work, the women become baby factories, they only study Talmud, I don’t know how they make a living.” He suggested they have to “adapt” to the modern society.
Israel is a nation and Judaism is an official religion in the United States, but Jews are basically a people, Bronfman argues, and a great one at that, “not just a religion.”
He does not see anti-Semitism as a problem today in North America, and while it’s “really bad” in Europe, it’s mainly directed at Israel. “I’m convinced that the rest of the world is just waiting for us [Jews] to be a little more gracious, forthcoming and welcoming,” he said.
If Jews do encounter prejudice, he advises them, “Don’t take it personally. It’s not aimed at you. Talk about what it means to be a Jew, and stand up for the positive…If you know who you are, you become steadfast, and the anti-Semites have a real problem.”
Hope, not Fear, published last year, is co-authored by Beth Zasloff, a woman in her 30s and former Bronfman Youth Fellow, and Bronfman said he enjoyed the intergenerational project
One of his delights these days is inviting young adults in their 20s over for dinner once a week to listen to their ideas.
Another project is the website MyJewishLearning.com, which he created to answer questions about Judaism.