One of the inevitable results of living simultaneously in two societies appears to be a certain rate of intermarriage. In fact, this is not a new Jewish problem: in the far distant past, it featured clearly on the Israelite and Jewish agendas. At a certain point in time, it more or less disappeared within the Jewish community; then, in the wake of modernization and integration into the modern western world, it started to re-emerge as an issue. In the last generation, it has become one of the main questions on the Jewish agenda, challenging long-held suppositions, and causing widespread, impassioned debate within the Jewish world. In a sense, then, it can be called an old-new problem, or a new problem with ancient roots. It is to these roots that we must turn first.
The Torah is full of intermarriage. Some of the key personalities in the Torah, such as Joseph and Moses married ‘out’ and the second rank of Biblical figures reveals other examples such as Judah and Shimon. Tradition assumes what the text does not actually reveal, namely that all of their spouses converted to Judaism, and lets these generations off with the reasoning that prohibitions on this subject were only established with the revelations at Sinai. Our main source for the prohibition against intermarriage is the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). Here we are told the following regarding the seven nations of idolaters in the Land of Israel:
Strictly speaking, the prohibition is specifically against marriage with one of the seven pagan nations that inhabited the land when the Israelites entered. Nevertheless, it was repeated with regard to all pagan groups in later sections of the Bible. For example, the prophet Malachi says:
The episode concerning intermarriage that has most become burned into the collective Jewish memory occurred in the early generations of the Second Temple period. When Ezra the scribe returned from Persian Babylon and found that many of those Jews who had returned prior to him had intermarried with the local inhabitants, he realized that the situation was intolerable and had to be changed. He started to mourn and prayed to God for forgiveness for the people’s sin:
As a result, Ezra decreed that those who had intermarried must send their partners away. In a dramatic speech to the Jews of Jerusalem, he gave the order:
The book of Ezra finishes with a long list of the Jews who had intermarried and were obliged to send their wives away, starting with the priests, the leaders of the people and continuing down to the ordinary Jews.
There is no question that this episode is seen as a turning point in Jewish history. We are told that the Jews swore eternal loyalty to the Torah, which was read out to them in a series of dramatic public readings. More than with regard to any other event in Jewish history, the connection here between intermarriage and collective sin was made completely clear.
There would be no return to such a situation in all pre-modern Jewish history. The rabbis of the post-Second Temple and Talmudic periods took steps to ensure that this danger to the Jewish collective would be safely contained. The Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah gives details of dozens of rabbinic decisions to separate the Jews and non-Jews, and to ensure that there was no unnecessary integration between the Jews and the members of other communities.
The lines were drawn. In many periods a feeling of ‘us and them’ developed in which the non-Jews were regarded not merely as people of different practices or of rivals in religious faith, but as enemies in a cosmic struggle for truth and an earthly struggle for survival. The enemy was all around and it was considered necessary to set clear limits on interaction with them. This, of course, tallied with the corresponding feeling of non-Jews, particularly Christians, that mixing with the Jews was problematic and must not be encouraged. Thus the Jewish psyche was forged out of a feeling that marriage with non-Jews was a sin that had to be avoided at all costs. Those who intermarried must cast off their spouses or leave the Jewish people forever.
Of course, this is not to say that converts to Judaism were not accepted. They were, as long as they were sincere and understood the implications of their actions. There are many stories throughout history of righteous converts who joined the Jews, but the borders were clearly defined with regard to marriage. There was an inner ring inside Judaism defining the limits of marriages that Judaism considered acceptable. Anything inside that ring, such as an incestuous relationship, was deemed unacceptable. Similarly, there was an outer ring defining the limits of acceptability that was drawn tightly around the Jewish community: marriage with all non-Jews was outside of it.
With this set of clear demarcations, Judaism entered the modern age, an age in which, in the Christian lands of the west, the traditional boundaries which had formerly separated Jews and non-Jews started to fall. Precisely at this time, we perceive that traditional religious belief was beginning to grow weaker among many of the Jews who were encountering the ideas and realities of the outside world. The temptation to convert grew strong, and the nineteenth century in particular saw hundreds of thousands of Jews converting and marrying ‘out’.
At first the number of Jews who wanted to remain Jews but to marry non-Jews was small; but as the Jews became increasingly accepted and the laws limiting Jewish participation in society were slowly eliminated, the temptation to convert became weaker. Already in the mid-nineteenth century, some leaders of Reform Judaism were rethinking the traditional ban on intermarriage and beginning to accept the idea of marriage to non-Jews as long as the children were brought up as Jews. The early decades of the twentieth century saw the number of intermarriages soaring in most parts of western and central Europe, making it a serious issue for the Jewish people and their leaders.
The decimation of European Jewry amid the enormous rise of anti-Jewish hatred throughout the western world (including the situation in the 1930’s in England and the 1940’s in America) may have slowed down the rate of intermarriage. Many moralists have tried to draw from the Holocaust the lesson that Jews who assimilate and intermarry can never succeed in avoiding their fate, which is to be seen and judged as Jews forever. For them, intermarriage is doomed to failure. Despite this, there are many who believe that the current situation in the world is indeed different.
The last generation has seen a return to the pre-war situation of ever-increasing rates of intermarriage. It is easy to point to the main reasons: the belief in romance, which promotes emotional connection as the sole criterion for a relationship; the irrelevance of Jewish theology to many contemporary Jews; ignorance of tradition and history, and the relaxation of communal prohibitions and sanctions have all contributed their share to the problem.
The Conservative movement has followed the Reform in making conscious decisions to accept non-Jewish spouses into their congregations. Their main argument is that it is preferable to try and win new adherents for Judaism and the Jewish people from among the circle of the intermarried. Pushing them out of the community will weaken the Jewish people in the long run. Encouraging them to re-enter the community and to find their place there is likely to create a basis for a strong, meaningful Jewish life for at least some of the intermarried. This, they argue, is the productive way of dealing with the problem.
It should be clear that there is no movement which actually encourages intermarriage. The question that they all have to deal with is how to respond to reality. In the non-Orthodox world, this outlook with its important practical implications has thus tended to replace the response of outrage and collective shunning that was the usual communal response - at least, until fairly recently - in more traditional circles. It has been pointed out that, in the non-Orthodox world, outrage has given way to outreach. The Orthodox world, on the other hand, generally maintains the traditional attitudes and sanctions on this subject.
Intermarriage remains a problem for most of the Jewish world. Let us now examine it with regard to a particular community, and the students’ attitudes towards this situation.
The aim of this activity is to understand the way in which Judaism relates to the question of intermarriage and the reasons for this; and to consider some of the implications for the contemporary Jewish community.