Identity, Intermarriage, and the Larger Picture

Rabbi Amitai Adler
April 12, 2013
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The crisis we have been increasingly experiencing over the past century or so in regard to Jewish identity is only the sharpest outgrowth of a much broader crisis concerning halachah, interpretation, and the structure of Jewish society in modernity– a crisis which has been building over the past three or four hundred years, if not even longer. In our times, those who are aggravating this crisis lie on both sides of the spectrum of movements: in the non-halachic movements of the left wing, which, in rejecting halachah altogether, deprive us as a people of a core structure to define and uphold Judaism and Jewish society, and a common place we can come together to frame answers for the issues that we must deal with as a people; and in the increasingly fundamentalist Haredi movements of the Orthodox world, which in their rigidity, paranoid isolationism and xenophobia, and ever more ossified conception of halachah, make what should be a flexible and nuanced system with ample room for multiple viewpoints and compromises into a (literally) black-and-white dictatorship of the chumradiche (the tendency to legal stricture).

There is no discussion of conversion without discussing intermarriage: by far the majority of people these days who convert do so to marry a Jew or because they have married a Jew, and the issue of converting children is deeply interlinked with intermarriage and questions of Jewish identity. In regard to those conversions not relevant to intermarriage, the only real issue is to ensure that all are done halachically correctly– and that all the movements, Orthodoxy included, needs to establish agreed-upon standards as to the universal minimum requirements for conversion, so that all properly done conversions will be recognized, no matter which movement they emerge from…which will require some compromises from both right and left.

But as to intermarriage and the conversion issues relevant to it: I think intermarriage does the Jewish People no favors. We solved the problem of what to do if one falls in love with a non-Jew a long time ago, by creating the halachot of conversion. There is little reason to think that solution is insufficient. With intermarriage tends (not inevitably and in every case, but more often than not) to come a weakening of Jewish identity, both literally in the halachic invalidity of many children of intermarriage, but also in the different sense of “blending” religions (which is just the politically correct way to say “invalidating Judaism by transgressive syncretism”), or ever-increasing secularism as a way to avoid dealing with the theological and social-traditional problems of intermarriage; all usually complicated by failure to adequately Jewishly educate the children of said marriages (which itself is only one facet of our current overarching and horrifying crisis in Jewish education).

And we in Jewish leadership do our people no favors by ignoring that what they do is transgressive– that it is, ultimately, choosing selfishness over communitarian obligations. I am not suggesting that we be cruel, or close shul doors in anyone’s face: just that we be honest with ourselves that this is not okay. If people do it, they do it: we cannot stop them. But we can at least not enable and reward them.

It’s not that I am unsympathetic to the situation in which those who may choose intermarriage find themselves: twice in my life, I fell in love with non-Jewish women, had successful relationships with them, and would have married them, had they been willing to convert. They were not, the relationships ended, and I had my heart broken. But it was a risk I knew was there, and despite the pain it caused, I never regretted what happened, because I understood that, as a Jew, I had responsibilities (and in the end it worked out very well, since I ended up finding my most amazing rabbi wife!). To be a Jew is more than just the delights of Shabbat and festivals, the joys of family and community, the spiritual enrichment and nourishment of Torah study and prayer: we have duties.

In this, we are no different than any other society: no society confers only privileges of membership without demanding responsibilities also be shouldered. And, much like any other society, not all those responsibilities are always pleasant. But that doesn’t make them less necessary or important. Indeed, sometimes it is the obligations most difficult to fulfill that are the most important ones. But responsibilities like endogamy or conversion– yes, and also responsible halachic compromise from all quarters, to ensure that all properly executed conversions are recognized, regardless of movement politics– and observance of other fundamental mitzvot, are essential to the integrity and continuance of the Jewish People.

When I teach about Judaism to introductory students, I like to clarify matters by disabusing them of the notion that Judaism is a religion.

Religions, like Christianity, for example, are purely matters of belief. One is a Christian if one believes in Jesus as messiah and/or part of the godhead, and in both his role as savior and the hypothesis that one is in need of his salvation from something; and secondarily, if one accepts, in some form, the validity of the Christian scriptures. But to be a Christian need not, by definition, have anything to do with one’s culture, what languages one speaks or values, one’s personal history, or the history of one’s family or nation. And the only thing that binds a person to Christianity is belief: so long as one believes, one is a Christian; if one no longer believes, one is no longer a Christian.

But this does not describe Judaism. I strenuously emphasize that, rather than a religion, Judaism is a socioreligious ethnicity: it is an identity that combines elements of religion, of culture, and of nationality/ethnicity (I use the term ethnicity in the culture/social sense, not in a racial sense)– combines those elements inextricably and completely. The removal of any of these elements from the mix destabilizes the whole.

I am a halachic Jew not because I believe that the halachah is Torah l’Moshe mi-Sinai (given to Moses at Sinai, i.e., directly ordained by God), but because the enterprise and framework of Torah she’b’al peh (Oral Torah)– whose core is the halachic process and tradition– has been the successful universal baseline framework holding the Jewish People together for the past 2000 years or so. We are Rabbinic Jews: that is who we are, and who we have been since time out of mind. And though there have been communal and movemental differences aplenty, and halachic disagreements beyond count in the era of Rabbinic Judaism, nonentheless, if not everyone has agreed on how the game was played, at least everyone was definitely playing the same game (the Karaites, obviously, being the exception that proves the rule).

Within the halachic tradition, there is a massive amount of room for differing interpretations– even radically different interpretations. But that framework of halachah assures us that we are held together, that some shape and structure is given to delineate and clarify the Jewish People as an entity, by the fact that we have certain obligations to ourselves, our people and community, and to God, which translate out to definitions and guidelines of how to observe, what to do, how to be (and methodologies and parameters for how to carefully and responsibly change or amend these things when necessary): basic fundamentals that all can share and understand clearly, most notably that of identity.

When we remove the halachic framework from Judaism, and do not replace it with anything of equal consistency, complexity, and strength– nothing that provides a common frame of reference and debate, with generally accepted minimums precisely defining the responsibilities and duties of Jews and Jewish leaders– what emerges is a Jewish community that becomes increasingly diffuse, vague both in terms of identity and in terms of the significance of identity, since there are no common understandings of what the responsibilities of being a Jew are.

If we are no longer to be Rabbinic Jews, fine: that may be an acceptable solution. But in such a case, there must be something to replace what we discard– some framework and system that preserves our traditions and links to the past, provides basic minimums of behavior, and a reasonably consistent pattern of how to understand our obligations and responsibilities as Jews to our people, our Torah, and our God. And if such a suitable replacement exists, I have never seen or heard of it.

And until such an alternate solution comes to light, and is agreed upon by all (or at least most) of the Jewish People, it is simply insupportable to reject our halachic duties altogether, en masse, and instead simply decide that it is enough to feel Jewish, or think Jewishly, or that proper Jewish behavior is whatever a person happens to decide it is at a given time. Such deconstructed, anarchic individualism might be in theory enough to provide some illusion of preserving who and what we are, were all Jews thoroughly and deeply learned in Jewish text, tradition, and interpretation. But not only has that never been the case, it is today about as far from the case as might be.

Of course, the truth is that the damage is already so vast, I am unsure it can ever really be contained again. What we ought to be focusing on is damage control: that means that the Orthodox must be willing to discuss reasonable halachic compromises and common terms and requirements for accepting non-Orthodox conversions even if using emergency halachic contingencies to do so (a course of action long since wisely recommended by Rav Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, some thirty or forty years ago); and that means that the left-wing movements currently enabling intermarriage, if they are unwilling to even make attempts to curb and amend this behavior, should at least do away with the utterly counterproductive and insupportable doctrine of “patrilineal descent,” and require that their Jewish members who intermarry have their children converted at birth, if the birth mother is not halachically Jewish. But the current situation is untenable, as the disregard of Jewish individuals for their duties as Jews not only creates issues for themselves and their spouses, but the (metaphorical or literal, as one prefers to interpret) sins of the parents are visited upon the children, something inexcusable considering how enormously simple and quick converting a baby is.

We need to deal with this situation of intermarriage and identity sooner rather than later. We need to deal with the related problem of some conversions on the far left being invalid halachically; and the ever more common problem on the right of halachically valid conversions being invalidated and unaccepted for no reason save xenophobia and sinat chinam. And we need to begin dealing with the crisis of halachah that lies behind all of this. If we do not, we risk the majority of the Jewish People fading into the anonymity of secular assimilation, and the minority devolving into a twisted, authoritarian caricature of Jewish tradition.

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Rabbi Amitai Adler is a Conservative rabbi. He is a teacher and writer, and serves as the Director of Jewish Thought for Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living, in Glencoe, Illinois. Rabbi Adler lives in Deerfield, Illinois, with his wife, Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler.

1 Comment

  1. “We solved the problem of what to do if one falls in love with a non-Jew a long time ago, by creating the halachot of conversion. There is little reason to think that solution is insufficient.” Rabbi Adler, the outflow of members from the synagogues of your denomination, which most people attribute to a relative lack of welcoming to interfaith couples, suggests otherwise. If you are right that “endogamy… [is] essential to the integrity and continuance of the Jewish People” then the future of our people is dim, given the ongoing reality of intermarriage.

    I urge you and interested readers to consider the powerful comment of Meridith Phillips on my post on the Interfaith Family Network Blog, “Sadness and Hope” http://www.interfaithfamily.com/blog/iff/intermarriage/sadness-and-hope/:

    “Here is where I sit: My son is three. He is the product of a loving marriage between his Conservative raised Jewish Mama and his Gentile, Atheist father. My husband doesn’t believe in God and isn’t going to convert. I would never ask him to. He does, however, admire the Jewish religion and cherishes our values, most of which fall comfortably within his values system. He supports us raising our son as a Jew, stood by me at our baby’s Bris even as both of our legs wobbled, and reads our son his Hanukkah books 365 days a year upon request because the kid loves Hanukkah the way his Mama loves Hanukkah!

    On the other hand, my husband is not one to allow himself to be treated as less than. He refuses to participate in being treated as lesser than, or the other. I wouldn’t want him to feel that way. I don’t want to belong to any group that sees him as inferior because just as I knew early on (Thanks to a torturous first grade year at Solomon Schecter) that because of my father isn’t Jewish, I was clearly inferior, I don’t want my precious boy who is trying to memorize the Shemah, says “Boker Tov” in the mornings and rocks a kippah with his Batman boots just for fun to ever feel lesser than, inferior or less than welcome. Neither my husband nor my son deserve to be treated poorly.”

    Fortunately more and more Conservative rabbis realize that they don’t want to lose Jewish families like Meridith’s by talking about intermarriage the way Rabbi Adler does.

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