On the Awkward Question of Intermarriage

Prefer to listen? I read this letter for the Jewish Geography Podcast:


Dear Josep,

There’s been a great hullabaloo recently over an Israeli Education Ministry decision not to include a certain book in the high school curriculum. The book is called Geder Haya (or “Borderlife” in English) by Dorit Rabinyan, and the reason there was such controversy over it was that it depicts a romance between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab.  Apparently it also depicts Israel from a harshly critical left-wing perspective, but of course the Israeli left and the international media enjoyed latching on to the allegedly racist nature of the decision, claiming that the book was being “censored” because of a desire to “prevent exposure” of the concept of romance between a Jew and an Arab and thus “discourage intermarriage.” The Education Ministry later backtracked slightly and decided to include the book in an advanced curriculum for students specializing in literature.

I haven’t read the book, and I think everyone is making a big deal over nothing here. Leaving a book out of the reading curriculum for high school is not “censoring” or “banning” it. A Tale of Two Cities isn’t in the high school curriculum either. In fact, in my day, there was a novel in the curriculum specifically approved for religious high schools that depicted a romance between a haredi IDF soldier and a secular woman, which included a forbidden sexual encounter. I am far more inclined to believe that the decision had nothing whatsoever to do with the romance aspect of the book.

But, I decided to take this opportunity to open yet another can of worms. It’s true: according to Jewish tradition, Jews are not allowed to marry non-Jews.

On the surface, I know that it looks bad. How could we claim to treat all human beings with equal respect, and then turn right around and say that we would never marry a non-Jew? Isn’t that a little… elitist? Or maybe racist? And particularly when we’re talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, isn’t love the ultimate answer? Jews and Arabs riding off into the sunset together?

On... camels? "Cable Beach Sunset Camel Ride" by Binarysequence - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
On… camels?
Cropped from “Cable Beach Sunset Camel Ride” by Binarysequence  [CC BY-SA 3.0]
One might even argue that the fact that we have this rule about marriage is part of the root of the conflict. They would say that it expresses the view that other groups are not worthy of marrying into our families and becoming part of them. After all, don’t we call ourselves the “Chosen People”?

Okay, so let’s start sorting these worms out here, shall we?

What Does “the Chosen People” Mean?

First I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean. The “Chosen People” doesn’t mean that we believe that we are inherently superior in any way to other people.

What does it mean to be “chosen” for something?

Let’s say you have a broken chair and you decide to fix it yourself. You head to a nearby hardware store and stand in front of the aisle of tools. When you choose a tool, you may choose it because of its price, or quality, but primarily, you are choosing it because it’s the one you need for the job. The fact that you chose a screwdriver over a hammer does not mean that the screwdriver is inherently superior to the hammer. It just has a different purpose and different qualities that make it better suited for the job.

See where I’m going here?

God needed a job done. He needed a nation to spread knowledge of Him through the world. He chose the Jewish people for it.

Why?

All God says on the matter is that we are the heirs of Abraham. Meaning, there was this one guy who discovered God, and he devoted his life to spreading knowledge of Him. God promised this guy that his children would fulfill that particular role for humanity. In other words, He didn’t choose us for being inherently superior. He chose us because of His love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who walked in His ways and showed a great loyalty to Him and to the cause of spreading His message. He granted them eternity through us.

Various sages and historians have assigned particular traits to us, with more or less truth to them, that may have made us particularly suitable for this role. But ultimately, the plain truth that is apparent in the text of the Bible is that God chose us because Abraham chose Him.

That’s it.

So… no. Believing that we are the Chosen People does not mean that we believe we are superior. It means that we believe we have a specific job to do in this world, and the Torah is our guidebook on how to do that job.

Does that mean that there aren’t any Jews who interpret it to mean that we are superior and the goyim are inferior? No, it doesn’t. I’ve said it many times before: people can twist any idea or ideology to justify their bigotry. But the idea in and of itself is not a statement about inherent worth.

So What’s the Problem with Marrying a Non-Jew?

I have to say that this question is something I have dealt with on all kinds of levels and from all kinds of angles. It is a deeply difficult question, and not because it is difficult to answer intellectually.

The intellectual answer can be summed up in two words: Jewish continuity.

I believe that Judaism is more than a nation or a religion. Judaism is also an idea. An idea and a mission. And I see it as one of my primary life goals to pass down that message to future generations. As I’ve mentioned many times before, education is of utmost importance in Judaism. Continuing the legacy of Judaism, the practice and the study of the Torah, is extremely important to us.

It is so important to us that we have made unimaginable sacrifices to preserve it. When you carefully study our history, you realize that it is against every rule of nature that the Torah is still taught and practiced today. Generation after generation, the ruling powers tried their utmost to ethnically cleanse us, sometimes by attacking us as people, sometimes by attacking the Torah as an idea, and often both. Was it Divine intervention that preserved us? Was it extraordinary Jewish stubbornness? Perhaps a little of A and a little of B…

Point is: Judaism is something we really want to pass on to our children.

And the statistics are pretty clear on this. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, children with only one Jewish parent are much less likely to identify as Jewish than children with two Jewish parents, and they are also more likely to intermarry themselves. The result is that within a few generations, all traces of Jewish identity are gone. Assimilation is the primary cause of the decline of the Jewish population in the USA today. Not emigration, not persecution. Assimilation.

Obviously, there are exceptions. A non-Jewish spouse may be very devoted to raising his or her children with a strong Jewish identity. But from the perspective of a child, I can’t help but look at this situation and be like, “Well, if this Judaism thing is so important, why is my father/mother not Jewish?”

It’s Not About Worth. It’s About Life Goals

Let’s say there’s this average middle-class young woman, let’s call her Susan. And when people ask Susan where she’d like to be in ten years, she says “Living in the suburbs with two kids, a dog, and a steady hi-tech career.” Legit, right? Now let’s say Susan meets this great guy, let’s call him Michael, and they start dating and fall in love. Now, when people ask Michael where he sees himself in ten years, he says “Living in the slums of Nairobi teaching math to the local children.”

So, we have a problem here. Susan and Michael have incompatible life goals. If they want to make it work, one of them is going to have to give up one of these goals. Either Susan’s going to have to give up on her idyllic comfortable life in the suburbs to rough it in Africa with Michael, or Michael’s going to have to give up his dream of making a difference to poor people in Africa and live an average (and probably in his opinion boring) life in the suburbs. And it’s not that simple, either. Giving something up for love comes with a price: you may find yourself living with a lot of resentment, feeling that your partner is holding you back from being who you were meant to be.

Now, Susan and Michael might be able to find some kind of compromise–a few years in Africa, and then settling down somewhere civilized. But maybe not. Sometimes it’s just not possible to compromise. Either Susan or Michael may have to give up too much of her- or himself to live a life that suits the other.

And for me, and other Jews who believe that the continuity of the Jewish people and the Jewish message is of utmost importance, the question of the spiritual and religious future of my family is absolutely not up for discussion. Actually, it is possibly the most important thing to me when it comes to building a family.

I think it’s pretty unfair to ask a non-Jewish spouse to completely give up his or her own heritage and family traditions just because of my priorities. I would not want to ask that of him. I would not want to enter into that situation without knowing that he was completely on board with that cause, and practically speaking, that translates as him converting to Judaism.

It’s Not About Race, Either

As I mentioned in my post about the various Jewish cultural groups, ethnicity is not the issue. There are Jews of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, and we’re perfectly willing to marry converts of any origin, too. It’s not about race. It’s about religion.

But What About Love?

What if Michael and Susan are madly in love and just can’t live without each other?

I’m going to say something totally counter-culture and radical here. Ready? Are you sitting down?

There are things in life that are more important than romantic love.

This is a radical thing to say because the world at large worships romantic love. To a very unhealthy degree. “Love conquers all,” it claims. The butterflies and fireworks of the process of falling in love are presented as the highest heights of love–as if there is no greater or truer love than this.

It is a very powerful feeling, for sure. But it is far from what is most important in a romantic relationship–and in life in general.

True love is not those butterflies. True, deep, enduring love is the deep sense of trust and commitment, the continuous nurturing of the relationship, and the choosing–every day, under even the most trying circumstances–to make this life journey together.

I admit, this kind of slow, quiet, hardworking love doesn’t look nearly as exciting on the big screen. So Hollywood doesn’t do a very good job of representing it. And people grow up with the idea that the most important thing that’s ever going to happen to you is that you’re going to fall in love, and that that’s what really matters in a relationship. Unrequited love is seen as a terrible tragedy. Three words: Romeo and Juliet. Am I right?

Feast your eyes, ladies and gents. The "greatest love story of all time" is about a pair of whiny teenagers who commit suicide over each other.
Yeah, um, what does it say about our culture that the “greatest love story of all time” is about a pair of whiny entitled teenagers who commit suicide over each other after knowing each other for less than a week?

Yeah. So. No. The “balcony scene” is not the part that matters. The part that matters is the little, everyday moments of life together. Little moments where you choose to connect. Like when you put down your riveting thriller with only ten pages left because you noticed that your partner looks sad. Or when you stay up at night with the sick baby to let your partner sleep. Or when you are rattling on about something that’s worrying you that your spouse cares nothing about, but she listens anyway because she knows it’s important to you.

And these are things that you actively choose.

You can’t really choose who you fall in love with. You do choose who you stay in love with. True, enduring, forever-love is a choice.

Look. I know that’s easy to say. And that’s why this is such a deeply difficult question. I have had close friends and family fall in love with non-Jews. And when you don’t believe in the importance of Jewish continuity, or you do not see it as a personal responsibility, it makes no sense whatsoever not to be with someone just because he or she isn’t Jewish. If I didn’t feel this way about Judaism, I would have no problem at all with intermarriage. And yes… making the choice not to be with someone you love, because it isn’t right for you for whatever reason, is really, really painful. Especially when that reason has nothing at all to do with that person’s worth or compatibility with you as a human being. I know. It’s a really, really hard decision to make.

But people have to make choices like this all the time in relationships. Heartbreak is an occupational hazard.

Is Love the Answer to the Arab-Israeli Conflict?

I think this is a very sweet, but naive way to view the conflict. Again, this isn’t Romeo and Juliet! We’re not going to toss aside our differences and live out the rest of our years joyfully eating hummus together just because some of our kids fell in love with each other.

I do think that facilitating more contact in neutral, nonthreatening conditions may bring about positive change. Polls show that Palestinians who have regular contact with Israelis tend to be more moderate, and I imagine the opposite is true, too. But it is very tricky to implement this when there is a strong opposition in Palestinian society to what they call “normalization,” and Palestinians who engage in dialogue must do so at great personal cost.

Furthermore, I don’t think romantic love is the only kind of love that is helpful in building bridges. My dear friend Abi has been very involved with online peace communities and has forged some deep and important friendships with people “on the other side.” (You can read an article she wrote about one particularly powerful experience with this here.)

So… yes and no. Love is definitely part of the answer, but it is only a small part. (Don’t ask me what the rest is. If anybody knew, this conflict would have been over decades ago…)

Well, in any case, the author of Borderlife has received an enormous amount of attention in light of this so-called scandal. Her book is flying off the shelves so fast, her publisher ran a reprint. And a fellow author being successful is always good news to me, so here’s to that!

Much love,

Daniella

4 thoughts on “On the Awkward Question of Intermarriage

  1. Daniella, Thanks, once again, for clarifying my thoughts on a difficult subject. Now, when a friend asks me about this issue, I will point them at this blog, because it says it so much more eloquently than I could.

  2. It might help to note that the idea of marrying outside your faith is fairly new in Christianity, as in “within the last 100 years” new. And in Islam, men can marry out but women can’t. Mormons restrict intermarriage and have the lowest rate of intermarriage of all American groups.

    Anyone who knows Mormons know that they have a very demanding (and time consuming) religious culture. I think the issue is that Judaism also has a very demanding religious culture, but it’s largely not-observed by most (meaning 90%) of American Jews. In absence of a “real reason” not to date outside 98% of the American population, most American Jews can’t explain why they should limit their dating pool or refuse to marry someone they love.

    I meet people all the time who are 1/2 Jewish, 1/4 Jewish and who have little Jewish identity and no Jewish practice. This makes me sad but I have to remind myself that every person has his or her derech haShem (path to G-d) and we don’t know how this story ends. My job is my own derech haShem.

    We are an eternal people. How we treat those who intermarry now (and their families) will affect how their children and grandchildren think of Judaism and the Jewish people. This should give us pause and encourage us to take the long view.

    1. Yes, that’s true. The liberal in me would say that the fact that intermarriage happens now in other faiths is a welcome development, but there you go; I’m kind of a split personality when it comes to stuff like this.

      It is definitely of utmost importance to relate to those who intermarry with respect and love, and give them a sense that they are valued and wanted, regardless of whether their children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren remain part of the Jewish people.

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