General Topics

Marrying Out


Recently I have been asked once again to intervene in situations where a young Jew wants to marry a non-Jew. It is such a difficult position to be in. Love is a beautiful emotion and on the other hand, marriage is such a complex, difficult, and challenging state. Of course it is immensely rewarding when it works. Being Jewish is so important to me and so is being human. Everyone is upset with everyone else. It becomes a battleground. What can I do? What can I say? I have been facing this problem ever since I entered the rabbinate 45 years ago.

In my youthful arrogance, I used to reply to parents that if all they showed of Judaism to their children was a social club with hardly any positive Jewish experience, then why shouldn’t their children want to join a bigger social club? After all, I had seen in the Jewish school I attended how so many parents wanted the school to inoculate their children so that they would not marry out, but Heaven forfend they should come home and want to be more observant.

But things were more nuanced in reality. I came across young men from observant homes who married out too. Someone I knew from a very Chasidic family fell for a woman in a bar in Moscow, and that was that. Another was trapped by pregnancy into an inappropriate marriage. So often circumstances or accidents determined the course of a person’s life; where he went to university or work, or who happened to know someone who knew someone. There were other exceptional circumstances. I met young men and women who were physically or mentally challenged, with little chance of finding a Jewish partner, yet had been fortunate to find someone on the outside who was willing to take care of them and perhaps love them too. Wouldn’t I want a Jewish paraplegic to find solace with a nice non-Jewish lady?

The sympathetic me wants to say that we must not treat such occurrences as the end of the road. The days are gone when parents sat in mourning for a child who married out, as if he or she had died. One must stay close to one’s flesh and blood, regardless of what decisions they make. After all, marriages tend to last less than they did. The child could return home or make a more appropriate choice the second or even third time around. If one retains a sympathetic connection, this might impact on the children who, ironically or unfairly, in the case of a Jewish woman marrying out, remain Jewish. Although it is true that statistically the children of mixed marriages are far less likely to be positively committed Jews, there are exceptions.

I might want to point out the examples I know of personally in which the non-Jewish partner not only converted but became a far better and more learned and committed Jew than the majority of born Jews I have met. I would argue that incorporating other talent, new genes into the pool might be beneficial. I could point to the Biblical Ruth, the Judean and Maccabee kings who brought non-Jewish women into the fold.

But then the hardliner enters the debate. Without any doubt, marrying out weakens the bonds with one’s religion and community. As a result of Jews from wealthy families marrying out, I have often seen fortunes that might have benefitted Jewish charities fall into the hands of those who had no interest in supporting Jewish causes. We Jews are so few and our history so fraught, our support so limited, losing millions through murder or forced assimilation that we cannot look dispassionately on those who leave our ranks. And there are a whole slew of issues: who spends time with which family, how the children are raised, and which of their parents’ different families, religions, and values impact differently. How one side may be totally unreceptive or even antagonistic to the sensibilities and history of the other. Yes it may sometimes work, but more often than not it doesn’t, or it leads inevitably to the loss of the Jewish component.

By the time they ask for my help, it’s invariably too late and arguments fall on deaf ears, or on hearts so heavily invested there is no room for doubt.

Nevertheless, the role of the rabbi is to defend Judaism. It is for the parent to defend and protect their child. If leadership regards marrying out as just another mild hazard of modernity, are we not failing our communities in withdrawing what few inhibitory factors are left in our heavily acculturated diaspora communities where over 50% marry out and leave?

As a rabbi, I have always taken a lenient and inclusive approach to the less committed. I have justified this by saying that the majority of Orthodox rabbis take such a rigid and uncompromising line that I know they have driven many away that they might have salvaged. Surely someone needs to offer an alternative approach, just as Shamai and Hillel presented different ways of defending the faith. Yet the fact is that for every ten I have seen welcomed into the fold through easy conversions or sympathetic exceptions, perhaps only two have stayed the course.

Here in New York there is another phenomenon. In this most pro-Jewish of cities outside of Israel, there are thousands of nice Jewish boys who swear they cannot find a nice Jewish girl. And there are thousands of nice Jewish girls who claim they cannot find nice Jewish boys. Why? It doesn’t make sense! Neither does claiming that all Jewish girls are materialistic nags and all Jewish males are spoilt mummy’s boys. They can’t both be right. My own eyes and experience tell me they are not! But where there is no responsibility or expectation, and when the availability of immediate gratification is so prevalent, it seems inevitable that, without inhibition or social pressure, we will continue to see the majority disappear while the minority puts up the barriers, survives as committed Jews, and indeed expands.

Logic says fight! Emotion says be kind. My religion encourages me to be sympathetic and supportive as much as it insists on adherence to the letter of the law and discipline. As a parent, I wouldn’t want to lose my children, no matter what mistakes they made. I am fortunate I was not faced with this situation, nor with children rebelling and abandoning my way of life. Still, it is hard to preach what goes against my instincts, even if I fear the consequences.

19 thoughts on “Marrying Out

  1. Great post as usual Jeremy.
    some thoughts:

    -the "accidental" out-marry-er (your example of the drinker at the Russian bar) has been forseen for all of History, and has always been well taken care of by the tyrannical insularity of reactionary Judaism – at the cost of all individuals' and communities' souls; kashruth as a social weapon, gang intimidation as problem reconciliation, etc.
    – Which in turn only worsens the OTD problem of frustrated people who don't want to live under Stalin, Genghis, and Al Capone. So it all depends upon which people you want to intimidate and which people you want to keep. Seems like squashing the soul, squeezing out the free-thinkers, and keeping the gestapo saluters has worked out pretty well for the Charedi Capos.

    The problem, of course, is the interface with Democracy and all the messy situations you find yourself in because of that. . . . interesting that Democracy is the only legal systems that affords other systems that want to destroy it legal sanction from being in turn destroyed because of their stance. Try it the other way around: A democratic nucleus inside a rigid halachic state. See how "tolerant" Halacha is of "deviant" sub-groups, especially as its power rises; even those that don't advocate its destruction – only the desire to live as they see fit. Oh, sorry, we already have that war. It's called Israel. And it's not new. Remember the Chashmonaim? I know, verbose, tangential, and vituperative. Kol Tuv

  2. Always a delight to get your uninhibited flows of conscious pain!

    It is indeed the continuing bullying of all human institutions (and religious ones seem to be especially prone which is all the more disturbing because one expects better from them) that seek to impose control, preserve their authority and power and put institutionalism over individuality. I deplore that. And that is precisely why I have always preferred to be a maverick, avoiding being part of an establishment. It has its price but its worth being able to look oneself in the mirror.

    Keep campaigning!

    Chodesh Tov

  3. Oh dear.This question bounces back again and again. And in a way, thank God it does.So maybe there's more hope than at first there appears..

    But at the end of the day you have to follow your own judgement and act responsibly to find a resolution that you decide you can live with for the rest of your life. And that the families can also live with. And pray that it's the right decision.

  4. "Another was trapped by pregnancy into an inappropriate marriage."

    Jeremy, you need a PC editor.

    Such an inappropriate sentence…

  5. Haha! That's the only inappropriate sentence you found in this post? (Not to mention all the other posts!) Sorry, but Jeremy only allows so much tampering with his way of thinking!

    The Editor

  6. I read quickly, but since I don't have much hope of tampering with Jeremy's thinking, I didn't want to look for any other sentences.

    I meant to add that actually although the topic doesn't exactly exercise me it is still quite heartening that 30 or so years after I read an article in the JC headlined 'Marrying Out' that I read with initial enthusiasm thinking it meant what you mean, and was depressed to find it was only about Ashkenazi and Sephardi marriages, times have moved on, a little.

    And another thing, is it really alright to discourage marrying out (of Judaism) just because of the numbers game? Shoring up the race with 'in' marriages might be practical but it's not defensible for any other, higher, reason, is it? (I know, you always go on about religious practicalities, I always go on about religious ethics. You obey every rule in the book, I ignore almost all of them. Do either of us practice what we preach? (Rhetorical question.))

    Btw, it takes me at least three goes to get past the robot filter but one this evening was something like jews123 and that one I managed to read and reproduce with no difficulty!)

  7. Sorry, I really am reading too quickly, it's after midnight here. The 'you' refers to Jeremy in the post above.

  8. "Which part was inappropriate, the trap, the pregnancy or the inappropriate????????"


    You are impossible. (I hardly know where to start, I will though, post to follow.)

    Shoshana is obviously not 'bullying' you enough.

  9. What is inappropriate about this sentence?

    "Another was trapped by pregnancy into an inappropriate marriage."

    "trapped" — suggests for him it was a trap, for her, what? a heaven sent romantic attachment, to someone who felt 'trapped'?

    "by pregnancy" — omits to mention that the pregnancy is not his, she is the one who is pregnant, and omits any suggestion that he had something to do with causing this pregnancy. (Or was that another 'trap'?)

    "inappropriate marriage" — suggests like the 'trap' that this is a one sided inappropriateness. Who wants to be married to someone who thinks they've married 'inappropriately'?

    I hope that clarifies the question of appropriateness, in the sentence.

  10. And how else was I to understand it? Your two examples that precede 'another' are male. 'Another' what? Gender? Chasid? Woman in a bar? Muscovite? I take it back though, if you were thinking of a woman, you don't need a PC editor, you just need to do whatever it is your usual editor tells you, more frequently, and then everything will be clearer.

  11. It's because you don't answer my more difficult questions that we get bogged down on the trivial points of grammar and whether what you say you intended is what you actually wrote. I originally asked about the justification for championing marrying 'in' on grounds of keeping up the numbers. In your post about the wall, you go back to ancient sources to illustrate the rarity of gender segregation, and you could do the same here to support conversions and marrying out. Is it fighting talk to ask for some consistency between blog posts?

  12. "I originally asked about the justification for championing marrying 'in' on grounds of keeping up the numbers."

    Sorry I seem to have missed that. Would you mind repeating and amplifying?


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