American Jewry — all but the Orthodox — long ago lost this struggle
e have come a long way. Once upon a time, the Jewish community viewed intermarriage as a calamity, to be fought vigorously. Those who married out were all but ostracized. Some parents whose children married out of the faith even sat shivah for them. To marry out of the faith was to commit national suicide, a goodbye to Judaism.
No more. American Jewry — all but the Orthodox — long ago lost that struggle. Ignorance and runaway assimilation have won the day. Those hoping to eradicate Jewish uniqueness have triumphed, and today the intermarriage rate is over 70%: Out of every ten non-Orthodox Jews who get married in the US, seven are marrying non-Jews. The prospect that children —and certainly grandchildren — of such marriages will be raised as Jews is practically nil. For such couples this is the end of the Jewish line.
What has been the response of the organized Jewish community? Though originally many Federations opposed yeshivos and day schools as being “un-American,” they have recently begun to support them in the name of Jewish continuity — a wise move, if a bit late. But in a contradictory decision, they have also moved the goalposts: Intermarriages are now accepted as a fact of Jewish life — labeled, in the politically correct euphemism of a recent letter from the Atlanta Jewish Federation, “multi-heritage relationships.” In this view intermarriage is no longer a problem; it is an “opportunity for Jewish engagement.” (This mangling of language is topped only by this mangling of Judaism.)
Abe Lincoln was asked how many legs a dog has if you call his tail a leg. He replied, “Four, because saying a tail is a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” Similarly, saying an intermarriage is a “multi-heritage relationship” does not change the fact of what it is.
Many Federations have now established “interfaith family committees” designed to keep such couples within the fold. Which would be worthwhile were they teaching subjects like Jewish history or Torah study or the joys of mitzvah living, and encouraging parents to give their children — if they are in fact halachically Jewish — a solid Jewish education.
But none of that is happening. Their task, in the meaningless words of that Federation letter, is to help the intermarrieds “discover joyous Jewish possibilities.” (Whether those include prayer or Shabbos or kashrus is highly questionable.)
A fascinating irony: By hanging out the welcome sign to intermarried couples, these committees actually encourage more intermarriage. Where the objections of family and Jewish society would have once given pause, he who marries out of the faith today is welcomed with open arms, together with his non-Jewish bride, and made to feel “comfortable.” (“We honor them,” writes the Federation CEO.) The secular community is thus doing something they don’t really want: delivering the future of American Jewry into the hands of the Orthodox, the only group left standing.
All this has led to absurdities. An American Jewish weekly recently ran an article titled “Simplify Planning for a Jewish Interfaith Wedding.” The title is a study in insipidity — how can an interfaith wedding be called Jewish? — and the article itself is an exercise in the ludicrous. With a straight face, it offers “tips from experts on how to find a rabbi who will co-officiate with a Christian minister or priest.” No problem. Just log in to their helpful “clergy referral service.” Want to “include elements from other religious traditions”? A website is suggested. All this will “make a wedding authentic and meaningful.”(This was not a Purim spoof….) Even more tragic is that the non-Orthodox Jewish leadership does not recognize this as farce.
Certainly we should try to bring those who marry out back into the faith , but that requires extraordinary Jewish wisdom and genuine Jewish learning — attributes with which, based on their history, secular leadership is not overflowing. Good intentions are commendable, but when a ship is sinking, pretty euphemisms and welcoming smiles are insufficient. It is not quite “an opportunity to use lifeboats.”
Only by intellectual honesty — such as by asking why the Orthodox do not suffer from intermarriage — might there be a tentative start at restoring a minimal Jewish life. Giving intermarriage new names is clever, but is whistling in the graveyard. It will not save Western Jewry from the ghosts of willful national suicide that hover all around it.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 766)