General Topics

Marrying Out

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Marrying out of Judaism is such a major issue and I’ve received so many emails recently asking my opinion that I have to bite the bullet and address it.

It is irrelevant to look back to Biblical Judaism and think that because King Solomon did it (some 700 non-Jewish wives and 300 concubines), therefore it can’t be a problem. Judaism has moved a long way since Biblical times. Ezra (merely 2500 years ago) made it a matter of law, and pretty clear, that if one wishes to preserve the future of the Jewish people then marrying someone who shares one’s commitment is essential.

The reason has absolutely nothing to do with race. Anyone from any race is welcome through conversion. Neither does it relate to some mythical or improbable nonsense about non-Jewish genes. Marriage out is regarded as unsatisfactory simply because of the reality that in the vast majority of cases (but by no means in every) the process will weaken Jewish identity. And if the mother is not Jewish, then the children will be not be considered halchically Jewish.

All religions have objected to marrying out. Some refuse to give a religious ceremony. Others make conversion, or at least a commitment to educating the children their way, a condition of the marriage. It’s not only between different religions. There are even cases where Jews have been forbidden or discouraged from marrying other kinds of Jews. There were two bans issued against marrying Hassidim two hundred years ago. Some Hassidic groups even now refuse to allow intermarriage with others, and I know some Sephardi communities who regard marrying an Ashkenazi as the ultimate betrayal!

Once upon a time, marrying out of Judaism inevitably meant abandoning Judaism altogether and this is why there are stories of parents mourning the loss of a child. But nowadays a great deal of Jewish opposition to marriage out is not religious at all so much as social. What will friends/the rabbi/grandparents say? Often it is the least religious parents, who showed no interest in Judaism, who are most affected and disturbed. They are the ones who would come asking me to intervene. But what could I say if a child was brought up to think of Judaism as a social club? Why shouldn’t he join a bigger one? (As young bachelor rabbi in Glasgow, I tried to make this point by saying that I’d prefer to marry a non-Jewish girl who cared about God, morality and spirituality, rather than a Jewish one who did not. You can imagine the uproar that caused.)

The fact is that nowadays marrying out is not necessarily a flight from Judaism. For Jews from religious families, it is most often the result of the accidental encounter, circumstances and moments in an increasingly open society that encourages mixing across the barriers of religion, class and race. It is less likely to occur if one is brought up in, and stays within, a confined milieu where marriages are arranged and young couples grow up within a kind of tribal support structure. But for most Jews, that is neither the life they are born to nor the life they choose. After years of trying and failing, for whatever reason, to find a suitable Jewish mate, something definite, if imperfect, can seem a safe harbor instead of tossing around lonely and unsatisfied. And the fact is that some sectors of Judaism seem positively to welcome it.

However, nowadays marriages often do not last long. Three former pupils of mine who married out (clearly I had failed to persuade them of the beauties and advantages of Judaism) subsequently divorced and married Jewish girls the second time round and are fully integrated into the Orthodox community.

I also know of couples where one of the partners converted, either before or after marriage, and is now totally Orthodox and contributes phenomenally to Jewish religious, academic and social life, a wonderful addition to Judaism and a “Sanctification of the Divine Name”. Even if originally the motive for conversion was imperfect, as the Talmud says “From doing it for the wrong motive you come to do it for the right one.”

I must admit, however, that in most cases it doesn’t work that way and all the statistics confirm that marriage out weakens the commitment to Judaism even further. But the very fact that there are exceptions means we should look to that possibility and not put up insuperable barriers. When a young couple are in love, often there is nothing one can do. Strong opposition is counterproductive and may drive them further into each other’s arms.

Of course, one doesn’t have to go to the other extreme of pretending there is no issue. I’m not saying parents shouldn’t express their anxieties, nor am I saying it doesn’t matter. Even less am I saying that one should actively go out to encourage it, to bump up our numbers. Religion ought not to be about numbers.

But I do believe the response needs to be positively creative, not just negative. It is important for parents to assert their values, but then they need to be consistent and consequent, and actually show that abandoning Judaism matters in more than social convention. But if that doesn’t work?

I like to think my children have been persuaded by their upbringing that Judaism has something to offer. But in the event that they found a non-Jewish partner I know I would never renege on my love for them or not try to see the good, instead of retreating in anger and pain and thus lose a child altogether.

This is not being disloyal to Judaism. It is asserting the universal idea that there is good in most other human beings and perhaps we should try harnessing that good creatively. I want to tell parents not to despair. They should keep in touch and perhaps over time bring a family into Judaism instead of turning one away. This is about tactics, not ideology.

The way we survive is by being strong within ourselves, not by building barriers that symbolize negativity for kids to escape from.

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