“Intermarriage is a fact of life and we should be more welcoming when it happens.” That was part of the reaction of the chief executive officer of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to a recent controversial decision made by the leadership of the youth wing of the movement, United Synagogue Youth. At the annual international convention of USY last week, the board voted to relax its rules barring teenage board members from dating non-Jews.
The decision drew strong reactions with some suggesting that the media exaggerated the significance of the vote for sensationalism on the one hand, and on other, one young man authoring an article entitled, “Why I’m now a former Conservative Jew.” In it, he argues, “The addition of Hebrew words in the language which adopts the permissibility of interdating is truly laughable. Saying that recognition of all humans being created betzelem elohim serves as a justification for interdating and eventually intermarriage, makes about as much sense as me arguing I should be eating delicious bacon in my Sukkah because the Torah says v’samachta b’chageicha, v’hayita ach sameach (we should rejoice in our holiday and we should feel nothing but total happiness).”
One article on the issue declared that, “The [Conservative] movement is in the midst of a major identity crisis.” I don’t know enough to know if that is true. My interest is not in commenting on another denomination or their youth. Indeed, if anything, the passion and dedication of the USY youth leaders is commendable and hopeful though it does compound the concern that even affiliated youth can come to such a decision. My concern is for the attitude and trends towards intermarriage in orthodoxy.
It is not only the CEO of United Synagogue who sees intermarriage as a fact of life. Though the orthodox community may not be seeing more intermarriage in their nuclear families, there is hardly a family not exposed to or affected by intermarriage in their extended family in some way. Getting that call and being informed that a loved one is engaged to, or married to, someone outside our faith is incredibly painful. Trying to strike the delicate balance of communicating displeasure and terrible disappointment with their decision while maintaining love for them as a person is tremendously complicated and difficult to achieve.
While for centuries the response of Torah Jews to intermarriage was to sit shiva, disassociate, and ostracize those who married outside the faith, today not only is there no rejection, but there is often too much tolerance towards the intermarried and even gestures of welcoming, in an effort to maintain a connection and an avenue of Jewish influence.
Many poskim, understanding that intermarriage is becoming a fact of life, recognize that rejection will alienate and erase any possibility of interest in authentic conversion. Besides, in half the circumstances of intermarriage, the grandchildren will be Jewish and will benefit much more from the Torah influence and love of their family, rather than denunciation and estrangement.
A few years ago, I was standing with a friend who had recently moved from South Africa when we met someone who shared in passing that his wife was not Jewish. I vividly remember that when the person walked away, my friend was visibly shaken. When I asked him what was wrong he told me that coming from South Africa he had never actually met someone who married outside of Judaism and he was overwhelmed with sadness. At that moment, I too became terribly sad not because of having met someone who was intermarried, but rather because of the realization of just how numb and desensitized to intermarriage I had become.
One result of the growing number of intermarriage is a more casual attitude towards the phenomenon from our orthodox youth. When informally polled, most wouldn’t even consider distancing themselves from a friend who was dating a non-Jew and many don’t hesitate to say yes when asked if they would attend an intermarriage of a close friend. The more intermarriage grows and the closer it chas v’shalom hits to our homes, inevitably the more casual an attitude towards it we and our children will have.
I taught a class of high school boys this week and asked them for their reaction to the USY decision. While most were bothered by it, they struggled to articulate exactly why. I then challenged them with the following question: Why be Jewish at all? Why not just identify as a person, a kind human, a good American? Why differentiate ourselves? Why does being Jewish matter?
For the believer, the answer is obvious and simple. God created the world, He charged the Jewish people with a mission and mandate, and we entered a covenant in perpetuity to fulfill His commands and vision for our role in society. That answer is absolutely true and halevai it would satisfy all who ask. But what is the answer for those who waver and who are unsure? Why should a young Jewish man or woman who is unconvinced about either God’s existence or the divinity of His Torah, or who is confident in both but disaffected by the way religious Jews behave, continue to be Jewish?
For millennia, Jews didn’t have the luxury of asking why be Jewish. We had no other choice as our hostile host countries, through persecution and oppression, reminded us we were different. When we tried to retreat and segregate they didn’t leave us alone. When we tried to assimilate and integrate, they isolated us nonetheless. The United States, the great melting pot, has provided an opportunity heretofore thought impossible. A Jew in America can wake up one day, simply shed his or her Jewish identity, and society will welcome them with open arms, with no discrimination, and with no reminders of their roots and origins.
It would be easy, I explained to the teenage boys, to argue that we owe it to our grandparents who suffered through the Holocaust and lost so much in the name of Judaism to remain Jewish. But, as Rabbi Korobkin demonstrated so importantly in a recent article, teenagers and millenials are not moved, convinced or inspired by what they perceive as clichéd answers. Anti-Semitism as a motivating factor for Judaism is simply not compelling today and perhaps never was.
Which brings us back to the question, why be Jewish? Why does the world need the Jewish people? Why should young Jews feel a responsibility to continue, promote and drive Judaism forward? If you were in the room for that USY vote, what would you say?
If our goals are to both change the statistics of intermarriage and the growing comfort level we seem to be having towards it, we need to formulate compelling, meaningful and convincing answers to precisely this question. Our answers cannot be clichéd, judgmental, or trite. This question needs to be addressed at our Shabbos tables, in our children’s classrooms and from the pulpit. While I have thoughts on this issue, I prefer hearing your answers before suggesting my own. Together, we can make a difference by simply generating this critical conversation.