A reader tips me to this very good Emma Green piece on the crisis in Conservative Judaism over intermarriage. Unlike rabbis in Reform and Reconstruction Judaism, rabbis in Conservative Judaism — which is more willing to make concessions to modern life than Orthodox Judaism — have refused to perform interfaith marriages. Today, though, with Conservative Judaism fast shrinking, more and more rabbis are bucking this rule. Excerpts:
While evidence suggests that intermarriage is linked to less Jewish engagement, people tell different stories about the causes. “There’s a huge sociological elephant in the room,” said Daniel Gordis, an American Conservative rabbi who helps run Shalem College, a liberal-arts college in Israel. “Jewish identity is not clearly that sustainable in the absence of two parents who are Jewish.”
Gordis holds a view that is common in Conservative and Orthodox circles: When a young Jew marries a non-Jew, it is often a sign that they’re not very committed to Judaism and won’t be that engaged once they’re married. Most American Jewish Millennials have become integrated into the communities around them—they “are the most financially successful, the people with the most political access, the most culturally integrated,” Gordis said. “But they are also by far the most Jewishly illiterate Jewish community that has ever existed.”
Some rabbis hold the opposite fear, though: that refusing to oversee interfaith marriages and penalizing diverse families in ritual participation drives people away. “The rabbinate has these internal discussions that are almost in a vacuum,” Rosenbloom said. “They don’t want to hear what the laity has to say … but the laity are voting by their unhappiness when we refuse to marry their children, and their children are voting by not coming back to our synagogues after we’ve rejected them.”
The rise of intermarried Jewish couples has prompted some rabbis, like Lewittes, to reimagine their roles as religious leaders—with job descriptions that aren’t primarily focused on the observance of Jewish law. “My success as a rabbi will be measured to the extent that I can help people access their own authentic understanding of themselves as Jews,” Lewittes said.
Orthodox and Conservative Judaism consider intermarriage not simply a bad idea, but in fact a violation of Jewish law:
“To bless an intermarried union is … to in some way betray the very thing that I’ve given my life to, which is to try to maintain the Jewish tradition,” said David Wolpe, the senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “It may be beautiful, it may be loving, it may be worth celebrating on a human level. But on a Jewish level, it’s not fine, and it can’t be made fine.” Although rabbis would have to “have a heart of granite” not to feel sympathy toward young people who are in love and want to get married, “I don’t necessarily feel that someone else’s need is my obligation,” he said. “Someone else may need a rabbi to bless that union, or may want a rabbi to bless that union. It doesn’t mean that I have to do it.”
He’s right about that. But one Jewish critic points out that the Conservative movement has for decades been issuing rulings that violate Jewish law — including, recently, approving same-sex marriages — so why draw the line in the sand here? It’s okay for Jewish men to marry Jewish men in synagogue, but not for a Jewish man to marry a Gentile woman? Really?
There are a lot more Jews in America than you may have thought — an estimated 6.8 million, according to a new study. But a growing proportion of them are unlikely to raise their children Jewish or connect with Jewish institutions.
The proportion of Jews who say they have no religion and are Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture is growing rapidly, and two-thirds of them are not raising their children Jewish at all.
Overall, the intermarriage rate is at 58 percent, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is 71 percent.
Christians can — or should — be able to relate to this. Mary Eberstadt has written about how the passing on of Christianity across generations depends greatly on the religiosity of the family. It has been well established in social science research that the stability of religious identification depends on the stability of the family and its relationship to religion. Intermarriage between faiths — or between a believer and a non-believer — makes it more likely that the children of that marriage will practice the religion.
The question, then, facing Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other religious believers living in the modern West is whether or not they can raise their children counterculturally, so that they reject the contemporary cult of individualism and egalitarianism. Here’s what I mean.
Law professor Mark Movsesian writes about how none of the students in one of his classes could even understand why a florist should have the right to deny wedding services to a same-sex couple. To help them understand the issues in play, he posited a case in which a religious florist declined, out of religious conviction, to provide flowers for an interfaith wedding. Movesesian writes:
In posing this hypothetical, I was not so interested in how the case would come out under current law. Rather, in good law-school fashion, I was trying to show the students that these are complicated questions and that they need to consider both sides. Much to my surprise, the students were uniformly unsympathetic to the florist. There should be no right to decline services in this situation, they told me. The florist was not acting reasonably and in good faith.
Now, multiculturalism comes very naturally to kids in this generation—they all support diversity. So, I pressed them. Didn’t they see that genuine diversity requires respect for difference, that difference implies boundaries, and that boundaries necessarily exclude? Couldn’t a member of a minority community believe, in good faith, that her community faced assimilation and decline to act, in her commercial dealings, in a way that promoted it? Wasn’t that a concern worthy of respect? No, they told me. The florist in my hypothetical case should have no right to turn away the interfaith couple.
Conservatives often assume that controversies like Masterpiece Cakeshop reflect changing sexual norms and an intolerance of resistance. That’s correct, in part; one definitely senses a “you-lost-get-over-it” sentiment on the other side. And yet, the students’ reaction to my hypothetical case suggests that something else is going on as well, that the dispute is not about sexuality as such. Rather, it’s about not allowing people to draw moral distinctions that exclude others and hurt their feelings, no matter what the justification. That’s what the florist was doing in my hypothetical case—and that, I think, was what bothered the students.
This really matters. It tells us that these students do not recognize any reality higher than the desires of individuals. There is nothing in our popular culture that supports sacrificing “love” — the desire of one autonomous individual for a romantic union with another consenting autonomous individual — for the sake of a higher value, like, say, fidelity to one’s religion, and the felt responsibility to keep it alive in future generations. But it must be done. The stakes are clear.
Before I met the woman who was to be my wife, I was starting to fall for a non-practicing Jewish woman I knew. I think she had the same feelings for me. She was beautiful, smart, funny, charming — really, a delight in every way. I really wanted to go out with her. But I forced myself not to act on my feelings, because by then my Christian faith had become of central importance to me, and I knew that it would be very difficult to sustain a marriage (if it got to that point) with only one of us believing in the Christian faith, or God, period. Plus, how do we raise children to be Christian if only one of us is? What would I tell the kids about their mother? What if their mother felt that they should have exposure to Judaism, not simply so that they knew this was part of their heritage (which would be a good thing), but such that they considered it a possible religious path for themselves — something that would mean apostasy from Christianity? I could not live with that.
There were far, far too many problems and compromises in that future. I knew that if we fell in love, we would have every immediate incentive to minimize or even to deny those problems, believing that love would conquer all. So I never asked her out. It was the right decision — and I would say that even if I had never married anyone else — but in that moment, it was not an easy decision.
I can see how a childless couple who have two different faiths (or one with no faith at all) could make it, with difficulty. I don’t see how they can realistically hope to pass on one of those faiths to their offspring. Don’t get me wrong, I believe it can happen — but I think the odds are very much against it. There are these key quotes from the Green piece:
Now, marrying someone who is not Jewish is “not an expression of their diminishing desire to stay rooted in their Jewish lives and values,” she added. “It’s something they’ve experienced as being entirely consistent with … who they understand themselves to be as Jews.”
“It is extremely important for the Jewish community, especially in open American society, that there are different paths to take that are right for different people,” she said.
What is a Jew? What does it mean to be a Jew? Can people today have a radically different understanding of what that means, and still be Jews in a meaningful sense? Are there objective standards here, or is a Jew whatever people who think of themselves as Jews say a Jew is? These are not abstract questions. The survival of the Jewish people as Jews is at issue.
And, for Christians, though we are not a people for whom membership in the religious community is a matter of blood, the survival of our own faith is put at risk by the same forces. Is a Christian (in general, or of a specific branch of Christianity) whatever an individual who wishes to identify as Christian says it is? Or are there rules of orthodoxy that cannot be ignored or refuted without the religion becoming something other than itself? How does intermarriage affect the way we answer this question?