Bold Essay Offers Fresh Approach to Intermarriage

The following essay, “Loving the Stranger: Intimacy between Jews and Non-Jews,” offers both a moving personal testimonial and a profound new understanding of Jewish intermarriage. Dr. Rachel Baum, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies & Hebrew Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, writes, “Is it possible that marrying a non-Jew might help us understand Judaism better. See something against a new background, which we couldn’t see in the sea of sameness? Is it possible that we, above others, embody most profoundly Judaism’s injunction to love the stranger?” The essay is collected in a new book, “Encountering the Stranger: A Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue,” and is an important addition to the intermarriage conversation. We’re honored to excerpt it here for the first time anywhere:

Loving the Stranger: Intimacy between Jews and Non-Jews

I am a Jew. There is no branch of Judaism that would deny this, despite my maternal grandmother’s marriage to a non-Jew, despite my having celebrated Christmas throughout my childhood, despite my occasional affection for bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches. I am a Jew, because my mother is a Jew, and her mother before her, and her mother before that.1

Am I a good Jew? I admit that I bristle at the question. Yet the question, “Is person X a good Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc.?” lies at the heart of much conversation within and among religious communities. Many debates within religious communities can be understood as disagreements over what it means to be a good member of the community. What is essential to the community, what must one have or be in order to identify with that community?

The branches of Judaism define its essence differently. Halacha (the body of Jewish religious jurisprudence) is central to Orthodoxy; Jewish ethics is of fundamental importance to Reform Judaism. Yet the determination of what makes a “good Jew” is not limited to religious Judaism, but extends to secular Jewish culture as well. And here, despite the differences between the religious and the secular, there is a surprising amount of agreement on the challenges facing the Jewish community.

From this vantage point, I am seen as a “good Jew” because I am a professor of Jewish Studies, and specifically a Holocaust scholar; because I volunteer my time within the Milwaukee Jewish community; because I belong to a synagogue; because I belong to the Jewish Community Center; because I give to the Jewish Federation annual fund; because my children attend Sunday school and Hebrew School; because I celebrate the Jewish holidays.

I am a bad Jew because my husband is not Jewish.

I experience these two sides to my Jewish identity in irreducible tension. The “badness” that my husband is not Jewish is not mitigated by my positive Jewish actions, but rather adheres to our family, like a scarlet I: Intermarried.

Intermarriage is the bogeyman of the Jewish community, the event that is most feared. Given that institutional antisemitism has been largely eradicated in the United States, intermarriage is experienced as the most serious threat to the survival of the American Jewish community. When the 1990 Jewish Population Survey reported that over half of American Jews were “marrying out,” the community responded by promoting programs to encourage “continuity,” asking potential donors to consider whether their grandchildren would identify as Jews.2

That the non-Jew is seen as a threat to Jewish survival is, I would argue, significant to any interfaith conversation between Jews and non-Jews. While there are religious objections to intermarriage, what is so striking is the relative agreement among all the denominations of Judaism that intermarriage is a problem and that the best relationship for a Jew is with another Jew. Thus, even Jews who do not observe halacha participate in the cultural condemnation of intimate relationships between Jews and non-Jews.

This outlook is significant, because it suggests a resistance to the non-Jewish other that exists despite the religious tradition of openness that several contributors to this volume note. Intermarriage is often siphoned out of interfaith conversations, as if a Jewish community’s perspective on intermarriage has no bearing on how it thinks about non-Jews. This essay addresses that blind spot.

While some people claim that the traditional Jewish attitude towards intermarriage is racist, that contention is unnuanced and cannot stand scrutiny. The Jewish concern with intermarriage is not about “blood”; marriage between a Jew and a convert to Judaism is acceptable. Even for the Orthodox, a marriage between a Jew and a person converted halachically to Judaism would not be considered an intermarriage. At the same time, it is disingenuous to suggest that the Jewish fear of intermarriage has nothing to do with how the community sees non-Jews. It is of great significance that much of the Jewish world remains in fear of its children being too intimate with non-Jews, lest they marry. If we are to look for ways that the faith communities can open themselves, one to the other, then we must move away from the patterns of thought that create fear of the other–and fear of intermarriage.

Two positions dominate the debate about intermarriage: first, the tide of intermarriage must be stanched in order to save the Jewish community; second, intermarriage is a fact of modern life, and those who are intermarried should be welcomed into the community to encourage their chances of identifying as Jews. These two perspectives are often subject to debate as if resistance or acceptance provides the only options vis-à-vis intermarriage.

I want to add a different perspective: The Jewish community needs to think creatively about intermarriage so that the community can thrive – not simply so that it will thrive with the addition of intermarried families, but so that it will thrive by upholding a dynamic understanding of its own identity. The American Jewish community is in danger of ossifying Jewish identity, and nowhere is this clearer than in the debate about intermarriage.

The Jewish community’s conversation about intermarriage is based on a number of assumptions about the individual, the nature of community, and the experience of marriage itself. These presuppositions are assumed, but not spoken; they underlie how the community thinks about itself in relationship to non-Jews, particularly the existence of non-Jews within the Jewish community. For Jews to think differently about the non-Jewish other will require a new understanding of identity, of what it means to be Jewish, and of the nature of communal belonging and human connection.

For much of the mainstream Jewish community, Jews who “marry out” are seen as essentially different from in-married Jews, regardless of their Jewish behavior. To be intermarried is to be ontologically different, Jewishly speaking. While halachically Jewish, the intermarried Jew is seen by most mainstream American Jewish organizations as somehow less Jewish, less part of the community, even if he or she expresses a desire to be included in that community.

The notion that to be intermarried is to be by definition a “bad Jew” is at the heart of the Conservative movement’s decision not to allow the intermarried to work in its schools or camps as teachers, rabbis, cantors, educators, or executive directors. The 1991 statement by the United Synagogue Commission Department of Education informs members of the Conservative movement “that our schools are not permitted to employ individuals as educators in either administrative or teaching positions who are intermarried. While as a movement we are ready to reach out to the non-Jew who has married a Jew, we have never been prepared to accept intermarriage as desirable. We should not permit anyone who has intermarried to hold educational positions and thus serve as negative models for our children.”3

Highlighting this point, Joel Roth and Daniel Gordis note that intermarried Jews should not serve as elected officials in synagogues because “they are more than passive members of a halachically improper marriage—they made an active decision to enter into that relationship, a relationship which we consider of paramount danger to the Jewish community. That they should understand the fact that their marriage must affect their status in the Jewish community is not unfair or unethical; it is obligatory and desirable.”4

Thus, at the heart of the Conservative responsa (the body of rabbinic responses to questions of law) is the idea that intermarriage is a choice by which a Jew has decided to hurt the Jewish community, and therefore he or she must accept the consequences. There is, to be sure, a halachic prohibition against intermarriage, but the Conservative position goes beyond halacha. Nowhere does it state that Conservative Jews who violate other aspects of halacha, who are not shomer Shabbat (those who observe the Sabbath laws) or do not observe kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), place themselves on the outskirts of the community, or should be prevented from contact with the children of the community.

Nor are intermarried Jews simply told to keep their relationships private or to promote in-marriage when teaching children. There is something intrinsically wrong (one might say “bad”) about the intermarried that suggests that young people must be protected from any contact in which they might experience the person as not bad. Nor is any distinction made between intermarried couples who have a Jewish home and those who do not, or between intermarried couples who are raising their children as Jews and those who are not. At the heart of the Conservative movement’s decision is a belief about the very state of being intermarried, outside of any particular religious choices a couple might make.

While dissenting from the Conservative movement’s views about intermarriage, I find validity in the claim that intermarriage makes the Jew ontologically different. Our very being is altered through deep connection with others who are different from us. The possibility—at times even the desirability—of such alteration is the very basis of dialogue: we are not the same people after the dialogue as we were before. Dialogue changes us, reshuffles our identity. Precisely this reshuffling is what the Jewish community fears.

One of the strategies to dissuade couples from intermarrying is to point out the challenges of living with difference. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin go so far as to suggest that people with different religions cannot truly share the same values. In The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism, they ask “Why Shouldn’t I Intermarry – Doesn’t Judaism Believe in Universal Brotherhood?” The authors answer bluntly: “Our answer depends entirely on the values you share with us and your prospective mate. Do you care if the Jewish people and its distinctive values survive? If you do, then sharing common concerns and values, it is relatively easy for us to communicate on the issue of intermarriage. We have only one question: Does the person you are considering marrying also hold these commitments and values? If the answer is yes, marry that person. Judaism welcomes converts.”5

Of course, whether the non-Jewish spouse converts or fails to convert says little about the survival of the Jewish people. Whether the non-Jew is supportive of Judaism in the home matters, and how the couple raises their children matters, but Praeger and Telushkin cannot imagine that a non-Jew might be supportive of Judaism and his/her Jewish partner without wanting to convert.

Prager and Teluskin go on to mock the reader’s claims of love: “Unless you subscribe to such romantic notions as ‘love conquers all’ or that you can only love one person, it should be obvious to you that the more values and concerns which you share with your husband or wife, the greater the likelihood of a happy and successful marriage.”6 The authors cannot envision that anyone not blinded by love could see themselves having more values and concerns in common with a non-Jew than with a fellow Jew.

The Prager-Telushkin approach to intermarriage reflects an impoverished view not only of relationships between Jews and non-Jews but of love itself. They regard love as is a matching of similarities, a finding of oneself in the other. For Praeger and Telushkin, a successful marriage is built on identifying as many correspondences as possible—politics, musical tastes, values, commitments—and religion trumps because it includes them all.

For most people in long-term relationships, however, the experience is not only one of overwhelming sameness but also of difference. Similarities make companionship possible and enjoyable—appreciating the same leisure activities, sharing the same values and commitments, agreeing about how to spend one’s money. But significantly, marriage, gay or straight, also involves the experience of difference and the utter alterity of another person. The interplay between sameness and difference makes marriage rich. The key dimensions of this interplay include the experience of the complete otherness of someone who you had started to think was your own self, and sometimes, the relief of similarity when the other seems so alien.

Love risks vulnerability. One can be misunderstood or unappreciated by another or even lose oneself to the other or to the “us” of the partnership. Such risks, which are intrinsic to relationship, are akin to those facing the Jewish community in relationship with non-Jews. Each marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew is a microcosm of something greater: Jews and non-Jews facing each other.

Prager and Telushkin suggest that sameness can mitigate this fear, can make a relationship safe and secure, one without risk. It may be safest to fall in love with someone from your own community—not only for the Jewish community but also for other religious and ethnic communities. But as philosopher Annette Baier reminds us:

It is not very “safe” to love another. If safety is what one values most, the womb or the grave is the best place for one, and between the two, one will want the best approximations one can get to these places where one is sheltered from or beyond hurt. One will opt for places where one cannot respond emotionally to the emotions and other states of mind of others, cannot be pleased by their pleasure, disappointed at their lack of pleasure, hurt by their indifference, angry at their failure to be angered by insults, saddened by their choice to withdraw rather than forgiveably harm, and so on. There is no safe love.”7

Baier’s words remind us that the risk of love is the risk of responding emotionally to others, the risk of being affected by them. In the debate about intermarriage, these relationships have been reduced to the discourse of “assimilation,” where the Jewish partner is simply overrun by what is generally figured to be his or her Christian companion.

This fear of intermarriage creates a culture of anxiety that revolves around Jewish emotional engagement with non-Jews. Jewish parents are told that if their children socialize predominantly with non-Jews, they risk having them fall in love with non-Jews and marrying them. Despite Judaism’s traditional welcoming of the stranger, the community fears the stranger among us, the stranger who is no longer strange.

Cultural critic bell hooks explains that fear often supports the status quo. While she is not writing specifically about the Jewish community, her words speak to the issue at hand: “Fear is the primary force upholding structures of domination. It promotes the desire for separation, the desire not to be known. When we are taught that safety lies always with sameness, then difference, of any kind, will appear as a threat. When we choose to love we choose to move against fear – against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect – to find ourselves in the other.”8

At the same time, I cannot ignore the reality of the risks to the Jewish community. If all intimate relationships bear the risk of losing oneself to the other, then certainly the more fragile half of the partnership, here the Jewish partner, risks more. But Judaism has already taken that risk, has already decided that the benefits of being part of non-Jewish culture outweigh the danger to a traditional Jewish life. Judaism has already changed through the encounter with modernity, through the encounter with non-Jews. To suggest “yes, that, but no more” is disingenuous. Judaism is either a pure system, untouched by the non-Jewish world, or it must face the complexity of “finding itself in the other.”

To find oneself in the other is not to give one’s self away. It is the language of fear and domination that must always see the other as a threat to oneself. Engaging with the other can return me to my self, made anew.

I see this movement in Jane Lazarre’s memoir, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons. Lazarre, a Jewish woman, has been married for over three decades to her African-American husband, raising two sons with him. Her thoughtful memoir traces the ways in which raising Black sons as a white woman called her to new levels of growth and consciousness. Lazarre is painfully aware that had she not fallen in love with her husband, her privilege as a white woman would have protected her from the experiences of racism that she now sees. She writes, “The fortunate accident of loving a Black man and becoming a mother of Black children has enabled me to see the world more truthfully.”9

Lazarre’s text focuses on the interracial nature of her relationship, the fact of her being a white woman raising Black sons. The reader has no idea if she donates money to her local Federation or belongs to a synagogue. But her Judaism is woven through the text and is clearly an essential part of her identity. She is first-generation, her father a Russian Jew from the ghetto who later became an American communist. Her sense of Jewish identity is part of what fueled her sense that she could relate to her sons’ experiences of being outside – and her realization that it was not that simple.

Lazarre’s experiences model how the love of someone who is different can enrich the Jewish community. She understands something now, through her loving relationships with people who are different from her, that she could not have understood before. Her sons are Jewish, and while they may not identify with the Jewish community in uncomplicated ways, they carry their Judaism with them. Should they marry Jewish women, their marriage would be an “in marriage,” although still not of the stereotypical sort.

Is it possible that those of us who marry non-Jews have the opportunity to learn something new as well – not necessarily about racism, as Lazarre learned from marrying her husband, but of difference and connection? Is it possible that marrying a non-Jew might help us to understand Judaism better, to see something against a new background, which we couldn’t see in the sea of sameness? Is it possible that we, above others, embody most profoundly Judaism’s injunction to love the stranger?

Perhaps I am a good Jew after all.

Yet having been in a relationship with a non-Jew for over two decades, I am no Pollyanna about the challenges. My in-laws are German, I am a Jewish Holocaust scholar, and I have experienced firsthand many of the challenges of intercultural dialogue. Earlier in my relationship, I wished that things could be different, that I would have fallen in love with a Jew, or that my partner would at least convert. Now, with the distance of age, and two children later, I am able to see the fruits of difference, the particular gifts my husband brings to our family, and the ways that the challenges have shaped me. I am the Jew that I am because of my love of a non-Jew. This realization has been hard-won, and writing it down feels too simple, too linear. So I will say it again: I came to know myself by knowing someone other.

This is, when all is said and done, my central point: that the Jewish community must rise to the challenge of modernity in all its complexity. The pluralistic world in which we live is not going away, nor do we want it to, and we must learn how to move within it gracefully. Not with fear. Not with hatred. Not by giving ourselves away. But with love and a willingness to engage fully with those whose differences challenge us.

1I begin the essay this way, intentionally echoing the final words of Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. Pearl saw himself as a cultural Jew, and he was married to Mariane Pearl, a non-Jewish Buddhist. It is with bitter irony that I note that Daniel Pearl’s bravery has been rightly lauded by the American Jewish community, which has claimed him as a Jewish hero. Yet had he lived, he would have simply been an intermarried Jew, considered on the outskirts of the community, and his cultural Judaism would have placed him among the “unaffiliated.”
2 By the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), United Jewish Communities (UJC), who oversaw the NJPS, would retract the 52 percent statistic, placing the true figure at 43 percent, but it hardly mattered, as a decade of programs dedicated to continuity were already in place. See Nacha Cattan, “New Population Survey Retracts Intermarriage Figure,” The Jewish Daily Forward, September 12, 2003. Online at
3 Cited in Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, “Issues Regarding Employment of an Intermarried Jew by a Synagogue or Solomon Schechter Day School,” approved by The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on September 17, 1997/ Online at
5 Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism (New York: Touchstone, 1986), p. 146.
6 Ibid., p. 147.
7 Annette Baier, Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 47.
8 bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (New York: William Morrow, 2000), p. 93.
9 Jane Lazarre, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), p. 69.

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