One Step Closer, Still One Step Behind

A piece in Sunday’s St. Petersburg Times called “The Future of Judaism” reads, in some ways, like a breath of fresh air. It’s an interview with Arnold Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (where Conservative Rabbis are ordained), and in it he discusses intermarriage in some very reasoned terms:

The challenge facing Jews is to welcome non-Jewish partners, make them part of the Jewish community, reach them with Jewish teaching and Jewish ways of life…

Okay, so far so good, but here’s where we take a step back:

…and hopefully convince a significant number of them not only to raise their children as Jews but to become Jews themselves. …Our task is to find ways of welcoming non-Jewish partners and family members at the same time as we can encourage them to fully join the covenant.

Here’s our prediction (you heard it here first): Just as the Conservative movement finally realized that vocally promoting in-marriage as the “solution” to intermarriage was counterproductive to the goal of welcoming more intermarried families, in a few more years the movement will also (again belatedly) realize that promoting conversion as the “solution” to intermarriage is also counterproductive to the goal of welcoming more intermarried families.

Don’t get us wrong. Nobody is more supportive of Jews-by-choice than JOI, and we have programming like Empowering Ruth specifically for the support of Jews-by-choice. But it is unfair to Jews-by-choice and to interfaith families to conflate the two issues.

Becoming Jewish is a personal decision that should be made by those who find meaning in the Jewish religion and/or peoplehood, not a communal policy to address demographic trends. Likewise, we know of countless interfaith families who are raising strongly-identified Jewish children where it would be outright rude to ask the non-Jewish parent to convert, because he or she is still practicing another religion.

It’s one thing when a rabbi asks a non-Jewish spouse about conversion because the rabbi knows that spouse, understands where he or she is “at” in their Jewish journey, and senses that the timing is right. It’s another thing altogether when the rabbi simply states from the pulpit “non-Jewish spouses should convert.” We trust that very few Conservative rabbis actually make such pulpit announcements, so we wonder why the movement leaders feel it appropriate to do so from the “pulpit” of the mass media?


  1. In a sense, I agree with the article, but I don’t think it goes far enough. Jews should be more educated prior to entering an interfaith marriage as to why Judaism and other religions do not mix. Too many Jews look at their religion as a culture rather than a set of guidelines that they should follow. That sets the stage for them to discount the value of their own faith. When they enter an interfaith marriage, it is usually the faith of their non-Jewish spouse that takes over. (According to a survey published in the Jewish Week, only 15% of the grandchildren of intermarried couples still feel an affinity to Judaism. That’s frightening.)

    An interesting book to read is “Interfaith Families” by Jane Kaplan. She interviews over 150 people in interfaith marriages and they relate the difficulties in their own words.

    I wrote a book called “The Decision” which goes into depth as to the disconnect between Judaism and Christianity through actual theological sources, but within a story of an interfaith couple and the difficulties that they face as their religions clash. My book is unsettling to those involved in interfaith marriages, but it spells out much about Judaism that should be taught.

    I had a neighbor who passed away recently at the age of 98. He has two children and many grandchildren. He raised his children as Reform Jews, without an attachment to the Jewish acts, and only Jewish culturally. Every single one of his grandchildren were marrying outside the faith. He would constantly say that if he had a chance to do his life over he would have raised his children Orthodox. He himself started to lead an Orthodox lifestyle from several years before his death, but he knew his grandchildren were on a path of being lost to the Jewish faith.

    Comment by Reuben Bibi — January 29, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

  2. Reuben, thanks very much for your comments. We’ll have to agree to disagree on a couple of points.

    First, if your primary recommendation is simply that Jews should observe Orthodox Judaism, well, that’s a message that has not resonated with a majority of Jews since European emancipation over 150 years ago, and American Jewry for much longer. Currently, only about 15% of American Jews are Orthodox. The percentage is only slightly higher in Israel! When living in a free and open society, and given a choice, most Jews will not choose Orthodoxy. I think we have to provide more realistic recommendations.

    Luckily, Orthodoxy is not the only way Jews can be connected to their Judaism. However, when Jews have no connection to being Jewish at all, it doesn’t much matter if they are intermarried or not. The 98-year-old man you describe was presumably married to another Jew, yes? Likewise, when Judaism matters, it will survive even where there is an intermarriage, and many times it will even thrive.

    The statistic about grandchildren of intermarried grandparents is widely-quoted and highly deceptive. That’s because the cohort of intermarried grandparents being measured were married many decades ago, when intermarriage really was “marrying out.” There was no acceptance of intermarried couples in the 1960s and 70s, within any Jewish denomination. We live in a very different community today. Other statistics show there are literally hundreds of thousands of intermarried households that are raising Jewish children effectively.

    Still, many interfaith marriage are between two people who are very loosely tied to their respective faiths. In those cases, it is certainly possible that Judaism won’t be relevant to their children. That’s where we see an opportunity for the Jewish community to reach out, but the message has to be about WHY Judaism and the Jewish community is relevent to their lives. I don’t think those compelling messages include “Convert or else” or “Orthodoxy or else”. I think our messages need to focus more on the joys of Jewish living and less on the fears of Jewish extinction.

    Comment by Paul Golin — January 29, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

  3. Paul, I think you’ve mischaracterized Reuven’s point, which was that Jews who choose to marry non-Jews should receive a strong education prior to the marriage on why Judaism is incompatible with what might be a competing faith in the household. If not,then it is very likely that Judaism will, overtime, not be the faith of that household.

    His anecdote about the older man was merely illustrating that the failure to teach children about substantive Judaism leads to them leaving Judaism over a few generations. The man’s own lament at not raising his kids Orthodox also makes sense, since older demographics are more connected to religion, and it becomes more important to people as they age and see the direction of their children. I’m not saying that raising kids Orthodox is the only way to keep your grandkids Jewish, but you have to admit that it certainly cuts down on many of the variables that would otherwise result in an intermarriage. Further, given the extremely low intermarriage rate ammong Orthodox kids, it is also a parent’s best bet, if they are willing to commit to the change in lifestyle, which does not have to be as dramatic as most people fear.

    Indeed the growing baale teshuva movement on college campuses and among post-grads is a testament to thefact that Orthodoxy can indeed compete very well in a free marketplace of ideas and religious theologies. Anyone interested in learning more need only checkout or similar websites.

    Comment by marc — January 30, 2008 @ 11:43 am

  4. Paul, Marc’s comment, that people need more education as to what their own religion is about is what I was getting at. Accepting non-Jews as a marriage partner would be an issue if you intend to push Judaism as the dominant religion in the home.
    Consider that traditional Judaism says that G-d created a certain world order based on the Bible. Christianity says that the world order of the Jews is passe, and has been replaced by their religion. Picture a child who is raised in the home of an interfaith couple, or even a home of a convert who still cannot forego the celebration of the Christian holidays. Both religions are now accepted as valid along with that basic premise of what each religion is about. For a child to be taught this fundamental basis of each religion is telling the child that, ultimately, Christianity supercedes Judaism.
    Just as you had criticized the survey showing that 15% of the grandchildren of interfaith couples identify with Judaism because our generation of interfaith couples is different, we also have to ask - Is it different enough to change those numbers? The truth is that we don’t know.

    Comment by Reuben Bibi — February 5, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  5. But Reuben, through our Mothers Circle program I have the names of literally hundreds of Christian woman married to Jewish men who are determined to raise Jewish children (without combining the two religions), and we know that they represent only a tiny fraction of the total population. It can be done; it is being done.

    And personally, I disagree with your basic premise. I believe that even in an overwhelmingly-Christian nation, when a child is raised exposed to both Judaism and Christianity [which is not how those families I just mentioned in the Mothers Circle are doing it], Judaism is the more logical choice at least half the time, if not more than half. That’s because both sides agree with the basic foundation of Judaism, whereas only one side believes in the part that supposedly supersedes it (among other reasons).

    But again, the percentage of intermarried households where both spouses actually believe deeply in their respective religions is very small. I haven’t seen statistics on how this specific segment raises their children, but when asking intermarried couples in general how they are raising their children, in every local study I’ve ever seen, many more say “Just Jewish” than “Just Christian.”

    The largest segment of “interfaith” couples is two people who don’t have very strong ties to either faith. They may say they’re raising their kids as “both” or “nothing,” which usually means Hanukkah, Christmas, Passover and Easter, all celebrated in secular ways that don’t look that different from Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. To them we’re trying to provide a Jewish “community” that can offer meaningful experiences without necessarily demanding religiosity up-front. (After all, more than half of all born Jews consider themselves secular, regardless of marital status.) Of course, while it’s not our end-goal, if they find meaning through a deeper connection to Judaism religiously, that’s great too. It’s an option we include among all the many options offered by the Jewish community, but it’s not the only entry point.

    The Jewish community gave up on those Jews who intermarried generations ago, who are the grandparents being measured by any statistics today on interfaith grandchildren. Judaism wasn’t even a competing option in most of those households. I feel very strongly that the 15% statistic or whatever it is on the grandchildren of intermarriage is going to rise exponentially over the next 10 to 20 years. Of course, only time will tell, but at least we’re out here trying to do something about it rather than writing people off just because they’ve intermarried.

    Comment by Paul Golin — February 5, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

  6. After your last comment, I think I understand better how to sum up the core points of our conversations.

    You mention that Jews from interfaith homes are, for the most part, practicing Judaism in their homes (which is corroborated by the book I recommended, Interfaith Families.) The Judaism that they are practicing, though, is more cultural, rather than religious. The understanding of what they are doing and why is just not there.

    Being Orthodox, I believe that the Bible is from God and all the commandments within the Bible are given to us by God for our benefit. The only way for them to be modified is for God himself to change them. (I’m not speaking of Rabbinic laws that were able to be modified under certain conditions.) Once a person starts to change the laws, then the first question is “What gives him the right?”. The truth is that we don’t have the right, no matter how many people may feel that following the laws are too difficult.

    Consider the laws in this country. We have a system of government where laws are introduced or modified by a legislative body. If the exit to a subway station was in the middle of the block, and my office were in the middle of the block directly across the street, it would be easier for me to J-Walk. I would assume that most people would do the same. But are they breaking the law by not crossing at the corner - a law that was enacted for their benefit? Does their breaking the law for their convenience now make it okay?

    It’s the same thing with the commandments of the Bible. We can’t arbitrarily pick and choose what we want to follow and what we don’t want to follow. Without the proper education of Judaism as it was decreed in the Bible, we don’t know what our obligations as Jews really are. (When you learn more about the commandments on a metaphysical level, you see how certain procedures that we do which seem nonsense actually follow laws of physics.) Whether we understand the laws or not, they are still laws. If we are Jews and believe that the Bible is from God, who are we to change them?

    If through God’s laws, only the child of a Jewish mother is Jewish, then we accept that. If the father is Jewish and the mother is not, then for those that are following Jewish law, the children are not Jewish.

    You are attempting to reach out to all families that have one spouse Jewish. You feel that the Orthodox have distanced themselves from those families as lost. That’s only partially true, because the Jewish spouse and the Jewish children according to the Bible’s laws are always accepted into the fold. It is the fact that those Jews have been taught that their non-adherence to the Bible’s laws are an acceptable form of Judaism that is rejected by the Orthodox.

    When it comes to Jewish Outreach, the Orthodox believe in it as well, but we have to know who we are reaching out to. Madeline Albright, who was born a Jew, would be the type of person for whom Jewish outreach would make sense. I look at a Kirk Douglas, and I will always consider him a Jew, though his son Michael, unless he converts properly, can never be sought after to be a member of our religion. Someone like John Kerry, whose father was Jewish and whose mother was not, (which is the same situation as Michael Douglas) is not someone I would consider reaching out to.

    I am explaining this from an Orthodox point of view, and I commend your concern for Jews in general. Any Orthodox person will tell you that the main trait that is looked for in any Jew is unity. During the time of 6 day war in 1967, ALL Jews, no matter what their religious affiliation, were united in their prayers for the state of Israel, and I truly believe that is what gave us that miraculous victory. In ancient times, during the reign of Achav and Jezebel, the Jews were not adhering to the laws as they were even involved in idol worship, yet they were united, and as a result, they were blessed with military victories.

    I hope your concern for Jews continues and that Jews find ways to work together to become one united people.

    Comment by Reuben Bibi — February 8, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

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