Is Op­po­si­tion to In­ter­mar­riage Xeno­pho­bic?

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Paul Golin

Re­cently I gave a pre­sen­ta­tion at a JCC, the mar­ket­ing of which in­cluded the state­ment, “In­ter­mar­riage is good, pe­riod.” One of the newly in­ter­mar­ried cou­ples in at­ten­dance came up to me af­ter­wards to con­fide the difficulty of their sit­u­a­tion. One half of the cou­ple was not Jewish, while the other half hailed from a dis­ap­prov­ing mod­ern-Or­tho­dox fam­ily. The event at the JCC was the first of­fer­ing they’d seen from the Jewish com­mu­nity that pre­sented in­ter­mar­riage as pos­i­tive. And my first thought was, “Still?”

Grow­ing up in the early 1980s, the rabbi at my Con­ser­va­tive sy­n­a­gogue took ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to ser­mo­nize against in­ter­mar­riage as the destruc­tion of Amer­i­can Jewry. His ef­forts did not pre­vent my own in­ter­mar­riage, but they did guar­an­tee that I wasn’t com­ing back to that sy­n­a­gogue once I was in­ter­mar­ried.

To­day, the ex­plicit de­mo­niz­ing of the in­ter­mar­ried has mostly sub­sided in lib­eral Jewish com­mu­ni­ties, but the in­sti­tu­tional priv­i­leg­ing of in-mar­riage over in­ter­mar­riage re­mains. Or­tho­dox and Con­ser­va­tive rab­bis are pro­hib­ited from of­fi­ci­at­ing at in­ter­mar­riages un­der any con­di­tions; Reform rab­bis can choose to of­fi­ci­ate but only about half will do so. The Reform sem­i­nary will not ac­cept in­ter­mar­ried ap­pli­cants and the Re­con­struc­tion­ist move­ment en­coun­tered sig­nif­i­cant push­back last year when it made the morally cor­rect de­ci­sion to ac­cept in­ter­mar­ried rab­binic stu­dents.

Only my ad­mit­tedly much smaller move­ment, Sec­u­lar Hu­man­is­tic Ju­daism, un­abashedly cel­e­brates in­ter­mar­riage, with all our rab­bis of­fi­ci­at­ing at in­ter­faith/in­ter­cul­tural wed­dings and sev­eral of our rab­bis in­ter­mar­ried them­selves.

The anti-in­ter­mar­riage stance within much of the or­ga­nized Jewish com­mu­nity (or “pro-in-mar­riage” stance as they might see it) is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly un­ten­able in light of the grow­ing num­bers of in­ter­mar­ried Jews.

And yet, changes in at­ti­tude to­ward it lag be­hind the re­al­ity of most Jews. Why? Jewish re­li­gious pro­hi­bi­tion against in­ter­mar­ry­ing can’t be the full ex­pla­na­tion, when so few Jews are re­li­gious. Nor can a loss of Jewish iden­tity ex­plain this mys­tery. De­spite the fact that a hand­ful of Jewish so­ci­ol­o­gists have been wor­ry­ing for decades that in­ter­mar­riage leads to as­sim­i­la­tion, a 2013 Pew survey found more Jews in Amer­ica to­day than at any time in U.S. his­tory, in part be­cause so many in­ter­mar­ried house­holds are rais­ing their chil­dren with a Jewish iden­tity. “In this sense,” the au­thors of the Pew survey later wrote, “in­ter­mar­riage may be trans­mit­ting Jewish iden­tity to a grow­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans.”

What this sug­gests is that the sec­ond jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for fear­ing in­ter­mar­riage also fails to hold wa­ter. For the past half-cen­tury, as more Amer­i­cans of other back­grounds have fallen in love with and mar­ried Jews, the ar­gu­ments against in­ter­mar­riage — whether “be­cause God” or “be­cause so­ci­ol­ogy” — seem in­creas­ingly tribal and in­su­lar. In­deed, it’s time to rec­og­nize that xeno­pho­bia is a part of the ob­jec­tion to in­ter­mar­riage, and to open up an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion about it.

Xeno­pho­bia is the fear of that which is for­eign or strange, usu­ally ex­pressed by an in­group to­wards an out­group. It stems from the fear of loss of iden­tity, and the be­lief that mix­ing with oth­ers will di­lute that which is uniquely ours. And it’s sim­ply un­de­ni­able that the fight against in­ter­mar­riage can be so cat­e­go­rized.

For decades, the fight has fo­cused on “strength­en­ing Jewish iden­tity,” pre­sum­ing Jews in­ter­marry be­cause they don’t have a solid con­nec­tion to the beauty of their her­itage. But it’s not Ju­daism per se that’s be­ing re­jected when Jews in­ter­marry. Pew found that al­most all in­ter­mar­ried Jews are still proud to be Jewish, and a ma­jor­ity in­cor­po­rate as­pects of Jewish life into their chil­dren’s up­bring­ing. In­ter­faith dat­ing and in­ter­mar­riage are a re­jec­tion of trib­al­ism and xeno­pho­bia, and should be cel­e­brated as such.

That’s not the pur­pose of any­one’s mar­riage, of course. The whole busi­ness of mea­sur­ing mar­riage as ei­ther good or bad for the Jews is morally cor­rupt. Mar­riage is an ex­pres­sion of love and com­mit­ment be­tween two peo­ple, not a state­ment about their Jewish iden­tity one way or the other.

The priv­i­leg­ing of one type of mar­riage over another con­tin­ues to cause great pain. When Jews come back to the rab­bis who bar or bat mitz­va­hed them re­quest­ing wed­ding of­fi­ci­a­tion and are turned away be­cause of their non-Jewish part­ner, no mat­ter how kindly the re­jec­tion, it makes a state­ment on be­half of the Jewish com­mu­nity: the de­sire to marry this per­son is wrong and the Jewish spouse is less de­serv­ing be­cause of it.

I’m told that the re­cent in­creased push­back against their anti-in­ter­mar­riage stance is leav­ing some rab­bis feel­ing “be­sieged,” as if it is they who are

the marginal­ized pop­u­la­tion, and not the ones do­ing the marginal­iz­ing. Rab­bis are still the voices of power in the Jewish com­mu­nity, and they should try to bet­ter un­der­stand what the push­back is about. On this sub­ject, the laity is out ahead of much of the rab­binate morally.

Still, I see an emerg­ing recog­ni­tion from some of our com­mu­nity’s most in­no­va­tive thinkers that “strength­en­ing Jewish iden­tity” is an out­moded ap­proach. It pre­sumes an in­her­ent Jewish­ness by birth and blood. In­stead, plac­ing the fo­cus on how Ju­daism works to make peo­ple’s lives bet­ter or to make the world a bet­ter place may be both a more ef­fec­tive and more eth­i­cal ap­proach. Rather than try­ing to po­lice Jewish be­hav­ior, in­clud­ing mar­riage de­ci­sions, we should be fo­cus­ing on how Ju­daism can pro­vide mean­ing and open doors at any point peo­ple might en­counter it, and for any­one who might ben­e­fit — in­clud­ing non-Jewish fam­ily mem­bers.

I’m one of the few in­ter­mar­ried ex­ec­u­tive direc­tors of a Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tion. My board pres­i­dent at the So­ci­ety for Hu­man­is­tic Ju­daism is Jewish through his adop­tion of Hu­man­is­tic Ju­daism, and Hu­man­is­tic Ju­daism’s adopt­ing him into our com­mu­nity and fam­ily. He is as Jewish and Jewishly knowl­edge­able as any lay leader I’ve met in my two decades of Jewish com­mu­nal ser­vice—and more im­por­tantly, he’s a men­sch. That he would not be ac­cepted as Jewish by the other de­nom­i­na­tions is, as I see it, their loss.

Like­wise my chil­dren are not ac­cepted as Jewish by the Or­tho­dox and Con­ser­va­tive branches of Ju­daism. They will in­evitably have to en­dure hurt­ful jabs like, “funny, you don’t look Jewish” or worse, that have turned away so many Jews of color and mixed-race/mixed-eth­nic­ity chil­dren of in­ter­mar­riage.

Un­less there is a ma­jor ini­tia­tive be­gun for en­gag­ing with and coun­ter­ing the xeno­pho­bia within our own com­mu­nity, most of the Jews lead­ing the fight for a more di­verse and in­clu­sive fu­ture won’t be do­ing it within or on be­half of the or­ga­nized Jewish com­mu­nity. And that would be a shame.


The priv­i­leg­ing of one type of mar­riage over another con­tin­ues to cause great pain.

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