More Action, Less Words: Mixed Marriages and the Future of Jewish Identity

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In an era of hyper individualism, few choose to live as Jews simply in order to belong to the tribe.

Wedding rings

A friend of mine, a professor at Princeton, likes to answer with a smile whenever non- Jews at social events tell her that they are married to Jews. “Thank you for diversifying our gene pool!” she says.

Besides being a charming icebreaker, it is a tacit acknowledgment of diversity’s inherent merits.

But despite the assumption that all diversity is healthy (in both cultural and genetic terms), Judaism has been – and remains – an ethnic religion, based not only on religious conviction but on peoplehood, culture and practices that spring from that culture.

In recent years, the debate over intermarriage has intensified, at times becoming quite heated.

Many, especially in Israel, argue that mixed marriages are a demographic disaster that will wipe out Diaspora Jewry; often, the term “silent Shoah” is raised. By contrast, there are those who welcome intermarriage and see it as an expression of Jewish integration.

In their view, intermarriage does not herald the demise of the Jewish people but rather an opportunity to broaden its ranks.

Yet both these schools of thought tend to forget that mixed marriages are not the problem or the solution, but the symptom. No matter how you perceive them, mixed marriages are a fait accompli in today’s Jewish world, as there is nothing preventing young people from linking their lives to partners of their choice. Thank God, we live in an era when this milestone event, deciding on a life partner, is not under anyone else’s control.

Complaining about mixed marriages after they have taken place is about as useful as griping about the weather or traffic. Today, more than ever, people are in control of their marital destiny. However, much can be done, both before young men and women find a partner, and after vows are exchanged, in order to keep them in the Jewish fold.

Choosing a life partner is never done in a vacuum. Who one marries is a decision that is influenced significantly at various points by one’s family, community and community leaders.

Indeed, studies have found a strong connection between young people being provided meaningful Jewish education throughout their lives and the decision later in life to choose a Jewish spouse.

With regards to mixed marriages, what is the adequate and responsible response, from a Jewish perspective? While I do not officiate as a rabbi in mixed marriages, I always do my utmost to reach out to Jews who married out and to their non-Jewish spouses. Instead of attacking and alienating these couples, we should draw them closer and welcome them into the warm Jewish fold. Specifically, we must focus on the children of these unions, and enhance their Jewish education. If in the past the emphasis was on marrying a Jew, today it must be on raising Jewish children. In some synagogues in the United States, it is even customary to recite a special blessing, thanking the non-Jewish parents for their devoted efforts to raise Jewish children.

It is worth noting that in many cases, these are not so much interfaith marriages as interfaithless ones: Jews marrying people of Christian (or other) origin who are in fact religiously unaffiliated. And while Jews in the past married out to escape from the Jewish community, today we are witnessing a fascinating phenomenon: Many non- Jews are ready, even willing, to be part of the Jewish community.

In an era of hyper individualism, few choose to live as Jews simply in order to belong to the tribe.

Those days are gone. Today, Judaism’s appeal to both Jews and their spouses is based on providing a path to a worthy and meaningful way of life, and a culture that promotes good social and human values, where holiness can be found.

At Hebrew Union College, where I have the privilege of teaching, a significant share of the American students who are training to become Reform rabbis, cantors and educators are not fully ethnically Jewish (converts, children of converts, or children of mixed marriages). However, this fact does not prevent them from being wholeheartedly committed to Judaism and the Jewish people, and preparing for lifelong service as leaders of and activists for all the children of Israel.

Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx is an associate professor of liturgy and Midrash at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.

This article first ran in The Jerusalem Post.