In Place of Assumptions, an Open Mind

In our ongoing debate over the challenges and opportunities found in interfaith relationships, one of the arguments we often hear is that when someone marries outside of the faith, the chances of Jewish continuity drop significantly. The theory is that with a non-Jewish spouse, the children won’t have a proper Jewish education, and they will grow up without a clear indication of their religion. Therefore their children will have an even lesser understanding of their Jewish roots. We tend to blame interfaith families for not engaging with the Jewish community or providing their children with a Jewish education, but at the same time we refuse to let them do so in our institutions.

We know that’s a nihilistic view that needs to change. And so does Shari Rabin.

Shari is a junior at Boston University, majoring in religion with a focus on religion in America. She writes a blog called the Chutzpah Chronicles for the website On Faith, in which she records “her observations and intellectual meanderings.”

In her most recent blog post, she writes about meeting the seven other participants in her summer internship in Jewish studies (she doesn’t say for what organization). As everyone starts to introduce themselves, one thing becomes strikingly clear – she was the only person in the room who was “100 percent” Jewish, that is, with two Jewish parents. In a room full of people preparing to spend the summer in a Jewish internship, two were not Jewish, and four were the children of interfaith marriage. The realization that interfaith families are increasingly the norm challenged one of her most basic assumptions about Jewish life. Shari wrote:

My family’s strong opposition to intermarriage has also ingrained in me a certain internal narrative in which intermarriage leads to confusion leads to disaffection leads to abandonment of Judaism. But the fact that 4 out of the 5 Jewish interns spending the summer doing intensive Jewish studies research come from such backgrounds has shown me that this is not always the case.

It’s often been remarked upon that converts are the most dedicated Jews. And I think that for my fellow interns and other dedicated Jews from interfaith families, there is a similar reason – Judaism for them is something exciting and chosen that they don’t take for granted. I am still convinced that marrying another Jew is the best thing for Jewish people, but I have learned to be a little less pessimistic about interfaith families.

It’s a good day when someone can look at the world around them and see opportunities instead of barriers; when they can put aside assumptions and approach things with an open mind. Shari grew up thinking interfaith marriage was an end to Judaism, a nail in the coffin. But during those introductions, she saw people excited and dedicated to learning about and preserving the Jewish faith. That optimism is what drives JOI, and in the end, we think that’s what will help grow our Big Tent and strengthen the North American Jewish community.


  1. Are you now saying that people who aren’t even Jewish under any definition are the future of the Jewish people?

    Comment by Dave — June 29, 2008 @ 9:46 am

  2. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements identify those of patrilineal descent as Jewish. Even many among those who are not of these movements will acknowledge those of patrilineal descent as Jewish but not halachically Jewish under halachic guidelines. And if folks don’t stop challenging their Jewishness there will be no reason for them to claim that lineage.

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — June 29, 2008 @ 9:10 pm

  3. “Jewish” and “halachically Jewish” are the same thing. While it is true that non-halachic denominations will consider those of patrilineal descent or who hd nonhalachic conversions as Jews, they do so only within the confines of their own denominations.

    They don’t have the right (nor do I believe they claim they do) to change the definition of “Jewish” for everyone and for all denominations and the entire Jewish community. This is why so many converts to nonhalachic Judaism ultimately (re-)convert to Orthodoxy…b/c they recognize their non-halachic conversions were not conversions to Judaism, but were only specific to that nonhalachic denomination.

    It is not fair to a person to convince them they have converted to Judaism when in fact they have not. It only sets them up for a painful realization down the line.

    Comment by marc — June 30, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

  4. Here is yet another place in which we disagree. No one movement has the right to claim hegemony over the other movements or make claims for all of Judaism. Where is the data that suggests that “many converts to nonhalachic Judaism ultimately (re-)convert to Orthodoxy”?

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — June 30, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

  5. Not sure there are studies on this, which is why I did not quote a percentage. I only know that having spent a year in Israel a few years ago, where my wife was in seminary, out of a school of 50 or so girls, almost 20 had to undergo some type of conversion or ritual immersion.

    Teachers in the larger baale teshuva seminaries in Jerusalem have readily attested to us that around 50% of the girls in attendance each year need to undergo similar process due to a non-halachic conversion by them or on their maternal side…most of them did not know about this need until after arriving in Israel out of a desire to become more religious. I do not think the problem is as profound among young men in the yeshivas, at least I have no knowledge of it.

    Bottom line is that Orthdoxy is not a “movement.” To the contrary, it is stable…the proof of this is that it is perhaps one of the JOI’s biggest criticisms of it. I agree with you that, of the movements (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc.), they do not have the right to make claims for all Judaism, only for their own movement. Since Orthodoxy is not a movement, however, it operates under no such constraints. The onus is upon the newer movements to show why and how their changing of definitions live up to G-d’s intent. Remember that the one who seeks to change the traditional meaning of things bears the burden of proof, not the other way around.

    And certainly you would agree they can make no such claim that a nonhalachic convert should be accepted by the Orthodox! That would be violating your own rule that “No one movement can make claims for all Judaism” , right?

    Comment by marc — July 1, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  6. But i believe,as would most historians, that Orthodoxy is indeed a movement. That is why you see so many different “forms” of it.

    As for your anecdotal evidence, it is too anecdotal to be convincing.

    As for the issue of claim, as long as you are not making the claim for the state of Israel, then no non-halachic movement should make a claim on status for halachic Judaism. Israel, on the other hand, needs to represent all of the movements.

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — July 1, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  7. Wikipedia has this to say:
    “A new religious movement or NRM is a term used to refer to a religious faith, or an ethical, spiritual or philosophical movement of recent origin that is not part of an established denomination, church, or religious body.”
    By this definition, Orthodox Judaism would not qualify as a “movement” today. The other streams of Judaism, being relatively recent, would qualify. If you have some other authoritatice definition (Wikipedia is not the best source, I admit) I am open to seeing it.

    If different “forms” of Orthodoxy make it a movement, then Sunni Islam is also a movement, as is Roman Catholicism (Irish is different). Basically, every religion becomes a “movement” due to nuances and regional peculiarilities. In that case, the term becomes meaningless and thus useless.

    I guess it’s easy to dismiss anecdotal evidence when it cuts against you. This site very often uses anecdotal evidence to back its own positions, though…double standards only reveal weak positions.

    I’m glad you agree that no nonhalachic convert should be accepted as Jewish according to those who follow halacha and have the right to follow their own time-tested rules. Re: State of Israel, I was not commenting on it, but as you know, I do believe that its failure to uphold minimal halachic standards in issues of Jewish identity, marriage and conversion will be its undoing. Ultimately, Israelis need a baseline Jewish identity which will rally them to defend themselves when called upon and to continue to raise their children in a dangerous place. “Cultural identify” and other such soft attempts at defning Jewishness will only lead to further emigration of Jews from Israel (its brain drain of professors is already astounding) and increasing the demographic problem they face.

    Also, the founders of the State made a deal with the Orthodox at its founding. By what right can Israel’s leaders today go back on that promise, which was integral to the founding of the state in the first place? It’s like teh congress rewriting the Bill of rights b/c it just doesn’t seem relevent to them anymore…if they can muster enough votes for an amendment, fine! If not, leave it alone. Israel should treat its Basic Law in the same manner.

    Comment by marc — July 1, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

  8. even though Ms. Rabin is opposed to intermarriage, she at least has the common sense not to disrespect those whose backgrounds or current relationships differ from her own. she’s thinking outside the box, which is something more people (ahem…Marc and Dave) should try to do.

    Comment by h. — July 1, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

  9. I’m not sure what I said that was disrespectful. If h. can point to something specific, I will gladly apologize for it. I never mean to offend anyone.

    We can have an honest policy debate about nonhalachic conversion, intermarriage, etc. and their effects on the Jewish community in America and Israel that is intellectual without being disrespectful. But if we put caps on the intellectual process out of fear of offending, we’ll just come up with inferior results that are not intellectually honest. The stakes are pretty high, so we should discuss the topic openly. I care enough about the Jewish community to discuss these “hot” topics. I invite you to join in the conversation!

    Comment by marc — July 2, 2008 @ 10:26 am

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