For most of their history, the Jews have rightly been regarded, by foes and admirers alike, as a zealously endogamous people. Indeed, Jewish marital exclusiveness has been one of the persistent motifs of anti-Semitic literature from antiquity to the present. Some antagonists have attributed the Jews’ insistence on marrying among their own to arrogance, others to a stubborn misanthropy. More recently, it has been seen as a symptom of insufficient civic attachment, even a lack of patriotism.
To outsiders of a more sympathetic cast, the Jewish fidelity to the norms of endogamy is more readily understood as a means of insuring group survival. A small religio-ethnic minority, the Jews have depended upon families to transmit a strong sense of identity across the generations and thus to withstand the allure of majority religions or cultures. Adherents of a faith that commands them to serve as bearers of a specific conception of monotheism, they have also been particularly sensitive to the dangers of dilution through syncretism. Beginning with the biblical text itself, Jewish religious writings warn of the potentially subversive link between exogamy and religious assimilation. “You shall not intermarry with them,” the book of Deuteronomy admonishes the Israelites. “Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods.” The corollary of intermarriage, the Bible instructs, is the attenuation of Israel’s adherence to monotheism.
To be sure, no rules are followed universally, and so, over the course of history, Judaism necessarily developed means for creating Jewish families in cases where individual Jews engaged in sexual and marital liaisons with Gentiles. The primary such means was through the conversion of the non-Jewish partner. (In Jewish law, converts have the exact same status, both religiously and ethnically, as native-born Jews—which incidentally is why the term “intermarriage” is reserved only for the union of a Jew with someone born to parents of another faith who has not converted to Judaism.) Absent such a conversion, no interfaith liaison stood a chance of winning acceptance within the Jewish community. Indeed, Jews who broke the taboo were usually stigmatized by Jewish society and shunned by their own families.
As with so much else, all this began to change as, over the past 200 years, Jews acquired the right to participate as equals within modern Western nations. The emergence of a “neutral society” (in the phrase of the late historian Jacob Katz) meant that ascribed identities, including those deriving from ethnicity and religion, ceased to carry the force they had had in the Middle Ages; with the collapse of social barriers, people of diverse backgrounds tended to mingle more freely, and rates of intermarriage jumped accordingly from one generation to the next. By the mid-20th century, in the years immediately preceding the Holocaust, between a quarter and a third of Jews in the large cities of Western and Central Europe were marrying Gentiles.1
Still, even under these circumstances, the articulated norms of the Jewish community held. One would be hard-pressed to find examples of Jewish spokesmen eager to lift the taboo on intermarriage, let alone to view such marriages as inevitable. Quite the contrary: high rates of intermarriage continued to be regarded as symptomatic of an alarming process of communal self-dissolution.
That is what makes recent developments on the American Jewish scene seem unprecedented—to say the least. That rates of intermarriage are spiraling is by now well-known: a study conducted in 1990 jolted the community with its finding that those rates, rising steadily since 1960, had reached the stunning level of 52 percent. But neither is this an entirely new phenomenon: other Jewish communities have gone down the same road. What is new is that high rates of intermarriage are increasingly regarded as inescapable, and beyond prevention.
Recently, the largest-circulation Jewish newspaper in the country carried an opinion article pronouncing, with equanimity, that “the Jewish taboo on mixed marriage has clearly collapsed.” Around the same time, and more startlingly, the New York Times published a photograph taken at the nuptials of a male rabbi and a female Protestant minister, a rite that was itself blessed by an assemblage of priests, ministers, and rabbis, all standing together under a Jewish wedding canopy. What this powerfully suggestive photograph tells us is not just that many American Jews, including at least some of the rabbis among them, have abandoned long-standing communal norms but that they, again including at least some of the rabbis among them, seem to have replaced those norms with an entirely new set of beliefs about what constitutes an authentic expression of Judaism—and what, if anything, lies beyond the limits of such expression. Long in the building, the intermarriage crisis is now propelling a massive transformation of American Jewish life.
Given the depth of this crisis, it is remarkable how long it took to become the focus of sustained attention. Data, it seems, have been but rarely collected, and then only to be pooh-poohed. When a 1971 national survey found that 31 percent of the Jews who had married during the preceding five years had Gentile spouses, the findings were ridiculed as exaggerations—and then ignored.2 Needless to say, their accuracy was confirmed by subsequent surveys.
But only in the past decade, after the release of the 1990 demographic study, has the sheer scope of the problem come to be a subject of widespread discussion. Although some have subsequently questioned the method by which the figure of 52 percent was arrived at, and other studies have uncovered wide variations from one community to the next,3 there is general agreement that intermarriage rates are at an all-time high, ranging somewhere between 43 and 52 percent.
No less significantly, both the 1990 study and later surveys have also provided sobering data on life after intermarriage, and specifically on the degree to which exogamous families identify themselves as Jews. In brief, such families tend to participate in the life of the Jewish community at far lower rates then the inmarried, and are considerably less likely to join synagogues or other Jewish organizations, to celebrate Jewish holidays, to enroll their children in programs of Jewish education, or to contribute to Jewish charities. As with religious involvement, so with ethnic involvement: in a recent survey conducted by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen, barely 20 percent of intermarried Jews agreed with the statement, “I have a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world.” And as for their own social connections, they are less likely than are endogamous Jews to have Jewish friends or even to live in close proximity to a Jewish community.
What is behind at least some of these trends is hardly a mystery. Until as late as the 1950’s, various forms of discrimination continued to obstruct social contacts between American Jews and their neighbors. Entire industries were largely closed to Jews; “covenants” prohibited homeowners in posh neighborhoods from selling to Jews; elite institutions of higher learning imposed strict quotas on the number of Jewish students they would admit for undergraduate and professional study; and private country clubs and recreational facilities refused to admit Jews as members. So dramatically have these circumstances altered that even to recite them is to risk sounding ancient. Not surprisingly, the collapse of barriers has facilitated mobility, and mobility has facilitated intermarriage.
But there is more: today, the American ethos not only sanctions intermarriages across religious and ethnic lines but subtly encourages them. They are, after all, symptomatic of increased tolerance and equality, the twinned ideals that in our age seem to trump all other competing values. How better to show the harmonious mingling of America’s heterogeneous population than through the union of individuals of diverse backgrounds? Indeed, it is often those who resist the trend who are now on the defensive, called upon to explain what could possibly be wrong when people from different religious or ethnic groups fall in love and marry. As the journalist Philip Weiss, himself an intermarried Jew, noted deprecatingly of Senator Joseph Lieberman’s nomination to the presidential ticket of the Democratic party, “He wants to lead the people; he just doesn’t want his children to marry any of them.” (Actually, Lieberman would later, inaccurately, deny that Judaism forbids intermarriage.)
Given this attitude—not to mention the prevalence of intermarriage itself—it is hardly surprising that many Jews, and especially younger Jews, no longer consider it particularly important that they seek out a Jewish mate. A 1998 Los Angeles Times poll found a mere 21 percent of single Jews stating they would marry only someone who was Jewish; 57 percent said the religion of a prospective spouse would not matter at all. Another survey—of some 16,000 participants in a youth program called the Israel Experience4—found a significant rise over the years in the percentage who see “nothing wrong” with intermarriage. Still more dramatically, young people who had recently celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue were asked in 1995 whether they “think it is OK for Jews to marry people of other religions”; nearly two-thirds answered affirmatively. These last two groups of young people are among the more actively engaged in Jewish life.
Attitudes are shifting among older Jews as well: this past year, a survey conducted annually by the American Jewish Committee found fewer than two out of five agreeing with the statement, “It would pain me if my child married a Gentile,” and only 15 percent would urge rabbis to refuse to officiate at interfaith weddings. Fully half claimed that “it is racist to oppose Jewish-Gentile marriages.” Strikingly, it was the oldest cohort of this population, those over age 65, who were the most open-minded on the question, a pattern that may well reflect what they see happening among their own and their friends’ children.
Even in the Orthodox community, where rates of intermarriage remain low, there is a growing reluctance to oppose such unions, at least publicly. Organizations like Lubavitch routinely honor intermarried Jews at public functions or permit entertainers who are themselves intermarried to perform at such events; neither would once have been thinkable. One Orthodox publication recently featured an article by a Jewish celebrity who thought nothing of mentioning his Mormon wife.
No wonder, then, that communal spokesmen have increasingly come to liken widespread intermarriage to an act of nature. Being for or against it, declares the sociologist Egon Mayer, “is like being for or against the weather. It is a demographic and social reality.” This helplessness has in turn infected policy.
Essentially, that policy follows two separate tracks. The first, which travels under the catch-all rubric of promoting “Jewish continuity,” involves a conscious effort to make Jewish life more compelling to Jews themselves, so as to retain the allegiance of young people. In particular, the field of Jewish education has won new allies and attracted serious funding that has revitalized programs ranging from formal schooling to youth movements, summer camps, and Jewish centers on university campuses.
Much that is constructive has come from these initiatives. But as a strategy to address intermarriage, they disable themselves by proceeding through indirection. In the hope, no doubt, of developing such enthusiasm for Jewish living that young Jews will not even consider looking elsewhere, rabbis, religious educators, and organizational leaders do not even discuss the subject of intermarriage openly, much less criticize those Jews who do intermarry or make a case against the practice based on group interest and/or religious belief. Whether they are deterred by fear of antagonizing the vast population of intermarried Jews and their families, or by despair at the prospect of earning a fair hearing, is not clear. But the silence itself is deafening.5
The second course of action, and the one that largely concerns me here, focuses directly on the “needs” of the already intermarried. A broad range of institutions have formulated new policies and programs designed to bring these “interfaith” families into involvement with Jewish communal life—to encourage them to join synagogues, enroll their children in Jewish schools, become members of Jewish organizations, and contribute to Jewish charities.
Given the sheer number of such families, it is hardly surprising that communal institutions would seek to reach out to them. After all, to concede the loss of so many Jews and their offspring would be to write off a huge segment of the American Jewish population. Nor is intermarriage a mere abstraction. Almost all adult Jews can name close friends or members of their immediate or extended family who have married out, and Jewish grandparents routinely face the need to balance their desire for closeness with their children and grandchildren against the fact that many of these grandchildren have little, if any, connection with anything Jewish. In other words, very large numbers of American Jews have a strong emotional stake in the phenomenon, and want their institutions to respond to it in a way that will allay their anxieties.
As for the specific approaches that have been proffered to achieve such “outreach,” they range across a spectrum.
At the more traditional end, the Conservative movement and the relatively small number of Orthodox institutions that deal with the intermarried expect such families to respect communal boundaries and play by Jewish rules. What this entails in practice is drawing a clear distinction between the rights and responsibilities of Jews and those of Gentiles. The latter, for example, are welcome in a synagogue, but may not take a public role in religious services or in synagogue governance. It is made clear that only through conversion to Judaism in full accordance with the provisions of Jewish law will someone not born Jewish be treated as a Jew. And “not born Jewish” includes a person whose father is Jewish but whose mother is not, the latter constituting the traditional rabbinic criterion for identification as a born Jew.
Still, even within this relatively bounded approach there is controversy. At what point must a child, born to an intermarried Jewish father and a Gentile mother, convert to Judaism in order to participate in the life of the synagogue—before the child is enrolled in religious school, or upon reaching the age of bar or bat mitzvah? And when such a child does come of age, should the non-Jewish parent be permitted to utter a public prayer during the relevant religious service, particularly if that parent has taken an active role in raising the child as a Jew? Such questions challenge anyone seeking to balance two contradictory goals: encouraging the positively inclined to identify themselves unambiguously with Judaism while clearly demarcating the lines separating Jews and Gentiles.
A second approach, favored primarily by the secular agencies of the Jewish community, eschews such demarcation. Instead, it aims to help interfaith couples decide how they would like to relate to Jewish life. Conversion is not even discussed in such settings. (“That’s just not where these families are at,” reports one “outreach worker.”) Rather, community centers and other agencies offer introductory lessons about Judaism, accompanied by “therapeutic rap sessions” meant to aid couples in negotiating the dilemmas of living in an interfaith household.
A more extreme variation on this model of outreach employs many of the same features but, instead of being studiously neutral, actively seeks to help couples smooth the bumps in their relationship. “The right thing to do,” a rabbi heading a program portentously called the Jericho Project (it seeks to break down the walls separating the intermarried from the rest of the Jewish community), “is not to be judgmental about a decision that has already been made. . . . The question is, ‘How can we help you work through it?’ ” Why a Jewish institution should sponsor a program designed to make intermarriage less stressful is left unexplained.
A third model, which has largely triumphed in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, goes further still, blurring the definition of who Jews are. Proponents of this type of outreach meet interfaith families more than halfway, offering them, in the critical words of Rabbi Michael Wasserman, “authentication as Jewish families [and] easier access to the rituals by which the Jewish community defines its boundaries.”
The decision on “patrilineality” taken in 1983 by the Reform movement is a case in point. As I have noted, the traditional definition of a Jew is one who is born of a Jewish mother or who has converted in conformity with Jewish law. Now, with the stroke of a pen, tens of thousands of children born to Gentile mothers were arbitrarily deemed Jewish by virtue of having Jewish fathers, while grown Jewish men entering into marriage with Gentile women were relieved of worry about the Jewishness of their progeny. A similarly radical step with no traditional sanction has been the decision of individual rabbis to officiate at interfaith marriages—a step often defended as a means of maintaining contact with the newlyweds in the hope of competing for their future allegiance.
In recent years, several even more quixotic solutions have been devised. Convinced that there are large numbers of “unchurched” Americans actively searching for meaning who could be attracted to Judaism, some rabbis and communal leaders advocate programs of “proactive” conversion, public campaigns to market Judaism to any and all takers. Barely concealed behind such ambitious missionizing plans is a more modest goal: winning over the Gentile spouses of Jews, a population that has already had some exposure to the Jewish heritage and theoretically may have some incentive to convert. But other outreach advocates assert that most Gentiles married to Jews have little interest in converting, and therefore it is wrong to proselytize them.6 Instead of seeking converts, Egon Mayer argues, the Jewish community should accept unconditionally any Gentile in an interfaith family as a fully functioning member of the Jewish people, a status for which no conversion should be necessary.
The premise of outreach is that if only Jews remove barriers to the integration of non-Jews, the latter—and especially their offspring—will opt to join the Jewish community. Outreach efforts have now been in place for over two decades. What do we actually know about intermarried families and what they want for themselves?
According to the most rigorous study to date, conducted by the sociologist Bruce Phillips during the mid-1990’s7—that is, fifteen to twenty years after many outreach programs were instituted—fully a third of such families identify themselves entirely as Christian or as “Christian-centric.” Almost another third consists of dual-religion households that incorporate some of the rituals and holidays of both Christianity and Judaism into their lives. A mere 14 percent fall into a category Phillips describes as “Judaic,” meaning, for him, that “the balance of religious observance is clearly in the favor of Judaism” (emphasis added). Thus, whereas 86 percent of such nominally “Judaic” families light Hanukkah candles, 60 percent of these same families also have a Christmas tree.
In short, the overall conclusions of Phillips’s study offer little comfort to advocates of outreach: in mixed-marriage families, Christian observances are almost always more prevalent than Jewish ones, and “the burden of Jewish connection falls upon the Jewish partner who must ultimately go it alone.” Put more directly, the large majority of intermarried families are not prepared to embrace Judaism wholeheartedly or to identify themselves unambiguously as Jews.
This conclusion comports with the findings of an earlier study by the Jewish Outreach Institute, according to which 73 percent of intermarried couples celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah and 68 percent of Jews married to non-Jewish spouses did not fast on Yom Kippur. It also punctures two cherished beliefs. One concerns the potential market of “unchurched” or “interfaithless” families in search of a new religious message: since only 10 percent of interfaith families fall into this category—and they are secularists—it seems that “unchurched” Gentiles are no more eager to embrace Judaism than “un-synagogued” Jews are in quest of religious alternatives to Judaism.8 The other concerns the role of women: although the Reform movement (preceded by the Reconstructionists) redefined Jewish identity so as to insure that children of Jewish fathers would be treated as no less Jewish than children of Jewish mothers, Phillips found that “Jewish women are more likely to raise Jewish children” than are Jewish men: a sociological truth implicitly recognized by the rabbis nearly 2,000 years ago.
The most sobering findings of the Phillips study concern child-rearing. A quarter of children in mixed-married families are raised in both the Jewish and Christian religions; a third are raised exclusively as Christians; another quarter are given no religious upbringing at all; and only 18 percent are raised exclusively as Jews. Naturally, there are those who assert that a still greater investment in outreach and even more stretching of boundaries will win over a larger number of children. But the truth is that families desirous of raising their children as Jews have ample opportunity to do so already, and there is no vast army of the underserved just waiting for Jewish institutions to reach them.
To put it bluntly: the overwhelming majority of intermarried families do not appear to want their children to have an unambiguous identification with Judaism. More: dual-religion families—the second largest contingent of the intermarried—have begun to organize to rebuff those seeking to change them, making it clear that they wish to maintain only limited contact with Jewish institutions, and then only on their own terms. Some go farther still, denying the central premise of the outreach movement—namely, that an inter-faith family is “problematic.” As a recent letter in the New York Times put it, the true goal is to “celebrate the distinctiveness and authenticity of each faith and the value of nurturing both traditions in a mixed family” (emphasis added).
In line with such sentiments, a kind of “interfaith is beautiful” movement has now come into being, its essence captured in a new title: The Half-Jewish Book: A Celebration.9 The authors, an interfaith couple named Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst, believe the future belongs to them:
[T]he number of American half-Jews under the age of eleven exceeds the number of American full Jews under eleven. . . . So it is only fair to ask: Is this really a time for lamenting and denying . . . or is it a time to celebrate this unique, unusually talented, intellectually multi-faceted, and remarkably attractive subculture?
The authors opt for the latter. Their book regales readers with “half-Jewish” jokes (What do you call someone who is “half-Jewish/half-Jehovah’s Witness?” “The ultimate door-to-door salesman”); identifies a pantheon of sports and entertainment figures who are “half-Jews,” including Xaviera Hollander, the “Happy Hooker”; and, in the best tradition of middle-brow apologetics, lists the great “half-Jews” who have contributed to—or at least entertained—humanity. Noticeably absent is any discussion of what these figures have contributed to the “multifaceted and remarkably attractive subculture” of Judaism.
As Wendy Shalit has observed,10 an entire industry has cropped up to address such dual-religion families, aggressively marketing children’s books, greeting cards, and appropriately reconfigured ritual objects like ketubot, Jewish wedding contracts, specially designed to “keep alive a Jewish flavor” in interfaith homes. With their jaunty approach (a Christmas-Hanukkah card reads: “Happy Whichever”), these products send a message in synch with the country’s multiculturalist mood: the more diverse the combination of religious traditions and ethnic folkways, the better. Multiple allegiances, no matter how superficial and contradictory, are superior to one.
One of the chief outlets peddling this message is a website called interfaithfamily.com, sponsored by a Jewish organization that claims its mission is to “encourage Jewish choices.” But the website’s publisher, Edmund Case, is an ardent crusader against the idea that the proper “Jewish choice” is Judaism. Case has criticized Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement’s synagogue organization, for urging his movement to encourage conversion and thereby insinuating “that those who do not convert are less valued, less worthy, or deficient in important respects”; he has also castigated the Reform rabbinate for voting not to bestow synagogue honors upon Gentiles married to Jews. The religious movement that has made the greatest compromises in the name of outreach thus finds itself targeted for not going nearly far enough.
But this, too, is not surprising. Writing in 1993, the former executive director of the Reform rabbinate, Rabbi Joseph Glaser, ruefully noted that his movement had not “anticipate[d] the clientele aspect [of intermarriage], nor the vested interest of the outreach establishment.” In catering to the population of intermarried Jews and their families, synagogues and community centers created a new lobby. Congregations now often require their rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings, often alongside Christian clergy, and discourage them from speaking about or urging conversion. Agencies of Jewish philanthropy employ a large cadre of social workers to help keep intermarried families intact. In religious schools run by synagogues, teachers can no longer utter a word in favor of endogamy, or prevent Jewish youngsters from being exposed to the jumbled religious views of their dual-faith classmates who, often “confused about which religion is which” (as Bruce Phillips has reported), have trouble telling “who is Jesus and who is Moses.”
All this, to address problems that multiply with every measure taken to address them: lingering frustrations between intermarried husbands and wives that issue in divorce rates considerably higher than among endogamous Jews, children who grow up torn and bewildered, extended families anxious on each side to assert their own religious prerogatives and not infrequently competing openly for the allegiance of children and grandchildren. The burgeoning needs of the intermarried and their families present rabbis, educators, and other communal leaders with a whole series of dilemmas, basically interpersonal in nature, that they are powerless to fix or often even to ameliorate. And what, in the meantime, about the needs of the community whose institutions and norms these leaders have been charged with upholding?
And so we come to the paradox at the heart of the intermarriage debate. Most Jewish leaders have become convinced that it is no more possible to prevent widespread intermarriage than it is to alter the seasons. Instead, the community has been trying to persuade people raised in other faiths either to convert to Judaism or to raise their children in a faith that is alien to them. But, no matter how low the bar has been placed, or how deep the self-abasement practiced by the bearers of Jewish norms, that effort has been a resounding failure. Worse, rather than strengthening Jewish life, which is the community’s ostensible goal, much of what has been done in the name of “outreach” has been diluting it.
Intermarriage in America today represents the reverse of what the biblical text admonished. Rather than being the cause of assimilation, it is often the consequence: the culmination of a long process whereby Jews have willingly surrendered ever more aspects of their distinctive worldview in order to ease their own Americanization. Long before large numbers of Jews regularly crossed social boundaries to seek spouses outside the confines of the community, they had erased the lines separating Judaism itself from other cultural perspectives.
This development has been described by the sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman as “coalescence”—“a pervasive process through which American Jews merge American and Jewish ideas, incorporating American liberal values such as free choice, universalism, and pluralism into their understanding of Jewish identity.” So widespread and natural is this process that most American Jews believe there are few differences between a “Jewish” perspective on the world and the perspective of contemporary American culture at large—a belief that requires one both to underestimate the depth of conviction among believing Christians and to cultivate an abysmal ignorance about Judaism.
As to the first, recently a well-known Jewish journalist urged rabbis to “remove the stigma from thirty-something Jewish women dating and marrying non-Jewish men” on the grounds that the women’s biological clocks were ticking and they probably would never bear children if they waited much longer. Since, the writer continued, these women, being Jews themselves, were likely to raise Jewish children in any event, and since their offspring would be accepted as Jews in Jewish law, why not lift the taboo? In the same vein, at a meeting of “young Jewish leaders” several single women stated that they would gladly marry a non-Jewish “soul-mate” provided he did not object to having his children raised as Jews.
Earlier I quoted a rabbi warning against “judgmentalism” when a decision to intermarry “has already been made”; here we have an admonishment against judgmentalism before the prospective couple have even gone on their first date. But what this line of reasoning also reveals is an appalling naiveté about Gentiles who marry Jews. To imagine, as many young women apparently do, that they will find a “soul-mate” with no attachment to the religion of his birth, and with no qualms about raising his children in a foreign religious culture, is to deny everything we know about unions of two people of very different backgrounds.
The vast majority of those who intermarry with Jews harbor powerful, if often unconscious, attachments to the religion of their birth, even if it sometimes takes the arrival of a child to awaken that connection. If they have not done so before, most Christian parents discover that they want their children to enjoy the experience of having a Christmas tree, eating a festive Easter and Christmas dinner, and perhaps attending church and religious school, just as they did as youngsters. Obliviousness to this fact on the part of Jews—one “webzine” directed at Generation X Jews confides, breezily, that “many Americans are already part of the way toward what might be considered a Reform Jewish attitude on life” and “simply don’t buy the Jesus concept”—is merely another symptom of what all too often turns out to be a fatal delusion.
Ignorance and obliviousness extend just as fatally to many Jews’ understanding of their own traditions. “Basically,” instruct the (Jewish) authors of a new self-help guide for non-Jews dating Jews, “every Jewish holiday is just an excuse to get the loved ones together to eat”11—a leveling attitude that no doubt informs the insouciance with which, in many a “half-Jewish” home, the Hanukkah candles are lit next to a dazzling Christmas tree, and some customary songs are sung, without the slightest comprehension that Hanukkah celebrates the triumphant Jewish struggle against religious syncretism, as well as the fierce resistance of Jews throughout history to, among other things, Christianity. In short, far from being reconcilable, or reducible to a shared festive meal, Christmas and Hanukkah are perfectly and irreconcilably antithetical.
But how is anyone to know this if no one dares say it? In pursuit of their short-term interests, many leaders of American Jewry’s key institutions—its schools, synagogues, community centers, and federations of philanthropy—have persuaded themselves that openness and inclusiveness are keys to survival. How these institutions are going to survive in the medium or longer term, as they come to serve more and more people who no longer subscribe to their most basic purposes, is a question that few have brought themselves to confront, though the answer seems distressingly plain enough.
Plain, too, are the alternative courses of action that would preserve those same institutions. For all its homogenizing impulses, contemporary America is more tolerant and even indulgent of genuine differences than any society in history. The most esoteric and inward-directed groups are accorded a respectful hearing; how much more so, those plainly desirous of contributing to the common weal and of participating to the fullest extent possible in the life of society. But, for any community determined to ensure the survival of its own island in the pluralist sea, the very minimum required is that it be willing to assert without apology the absolute worth of its traditions and beliefs.
For the leaders of American Jewry, meeting this requirement would mean adopting an altogether new tack. It would mean speaking forthrightly and directly about where, and how, and why Judaism dissents from the universalist ethos of the culture at large. And it would especially mean speaking in behalf of the distinctive commandments, beliefs, and values for the sake of which Jews over the millennia—born Jews and those who have joined themselves to the Jewish people through conversion alike—have willingly, and gratefully, set themselves apart: apart from the blandishments of powerful majority religions and cultures, and apart from the temptations of “giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons.” But that, so far, is a task for which most of these leaders have shown little appetite.
1 In Communist countries, during the postwar era, intermarriage became the rule rather than the exception, but that was a product of the regime’s social engineering, designed to destroy Jewish group existence.
2 One noteworthy exception to the rule was Marshall Sklare, the leading sociologist of American Jews in the last generation, who frequently lamented the community’s “avoidance behavior” on the issue. See, for example, his “Intermarriage and Jewish Survival,” COMMENTARY, March 1970. See also David Singer’s “Living with Intermarriage,” COMMENTARY, July 1979.
3 In Denver the figure for intermarried couples under age thirty-five stood at 60 percent in 1997, in Orlando at 53 percent in 1993, in Atlanta at 51 percent in 1996. But in Los Angeles, the second largest Jewish community, the figure was at a more reassuring 24 percent in 1997.
4 These findings will appear in a forthcoming study by Erik Cohen of Bar Ilan University.
5 For an exception, see the two 1995 volumes by Rabbi Alan Silverstein, It All Begins With a Date: Jewish Concerns about Intermarriage and Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred.
6 It is worth noting in this connection that the longstanding acceptance of conversion as a wholly legitimate means of joining the Jewish religion and people gives the lie to those who view Jewish marital exclusiveness as “racist.” To complicate matters, though, the standards for conversion set by the more liberal movements within Judaism are not accepted by movements to their right as satisfying the requirements of religious law.
7 Bruce A. Phillips, Reexamining Intermarriage: Trends, Textures, Strategies. American Jewish Committee, William Petschek National Jewish Family Center and the Susan and David Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, 1997.
8 The incidence of conversion has certainly not kept pace with rising rates of intermarriage—quite to the contrary, in fact. Although no one has collected definitive data, it actually appears that rates of conversion to Judaism have plummeted precisely as the boundaries have become more elastic.
9 Villard, 305 pp., $22.95.
10 “Intermarriage, Inc.,” COMMENTARY, March 1997.
11 Vikki Weiss and Jennifer A. Block, What to Do When You’re Dating a Jew. Crown, 144 pp., $12.00 (paper).