Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Intermarriage: The Debate Goes On

from the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

From the desk of …                    
 Rabbi Barry Schwartz

Intermarriage: The Debate Goes On

Every Shabbat morning a group of members of Adas Emuno gather for Torah study, and for the last year we have been making our way through the entirety of the Hebrew Bible (called in Hebrew the Tanakh). A few weeks ago we started reading the Book of Ezra, only to discover that when this esteemed religious leader returned to rebuild the Temple after its destruction by the Babylonians, he encountered rampant intermarriage and inveighed passionately against it.

The debate over intermarriage in Judaism is more than two thousand years old, and showing no signs of letting up. Today there is hardly an American Jewish family that is not touched by it in some way. The latest brouhaha erupted this past December when the UJA-Federation of New York released a report calling for a major new initiative to welcome interfaith families into the Jewish community. A prominent professor from the Jewish Theological Seminary blasted the endeavor in the pages of the New York Jewish Week with a piece entitled “New Outreach to Intermarrieds Makes Wrong Assumptions.”

Professor Jack Wertheimer challenged the underlying premise of the report that large numbers of intermarried families remain aloof from Jewish life because they do not feel welcome. He argues instead that the “staggeringly high” rate of non-affiliation among interfaith families is due to their own choice. He pointedly cites the Federation’s own finding that only 18% of intermarried families in the NY area “feel it is very important to be part of a Jewish community” as compared to 95% of the in-married. And, sadly, we know from the most startling statistic of the National Jewish Population Study of 1990 (the last comprehensive survey) that only 28%, barely one in four children of intermarriage, are being raised as Jews.

In light of these harsh realities Wertheimer was apoplectic that the chairman of the Federation task force asserted that “we are not endorsing interfaith marriage or condemning it.” He calls such “stunning non-judgmentalism” a “devastating commentary” on our times. Echoing Ezra more than two millennia ago (and large segments of the traditional community today), Wertheimer terms intermarriage “bad for the Jewish people and for the perpetuation of Judaism.”

While acknowledging that there are real cases of unambiguous commitment by interfaith families, he insists that we realize that they are the exception to the rule. Wertheimer concludes that we must continue to vigorously oppose intermarriage because it runs counter to our religious and communal imperative to perpetuate Jewish life.

For now I will withhold my own differing view in the interest of stimulating more discussion.  Do you agree with Wertheimer or do you have a different view? What should be the proper response by the American Jewish community to intermarriage and to interfaith families? How do we acknowledge reality while preserving community?

I invite you to contribute to the discussion by posting a comment here on our congregational blog, or by emailing me at  RabbiSchwartz at adasemuno.org.

The debate on how to respond to intermarriage, which continues to hover near 50% of marriages involving American Jews, is too important to ignore.  Yet even as we engage in this persistent and perplexing issue, let us remember that intermarriage is not just a theoretical question. It is a family issue, a personal subject. We embrace a significant number of interfaith families right here in our congregation, and if your extended family is like mine, dear ones much the same. Our response is bound to involve the head and the heart…  and so it should.

1 comment:

  1. This is an equitable and measured commentary on the debate, Rabbi Schwartz, and it seems quite obvious to me that there was intermarriage even after Ezra condemned it, and that some exogamy has been a part of Jewish life ever since.

    The problem is correctly framed as one of affiliation and integration, and issues concerning conversion are implicated as well.

    Perhaps instead of only focusing on why Jews marry non-Jews, we might also study why non-Jews marry Jews, and why they might want to become a part of a Jewish family, community, and history.