JOI Op-Ed in JPost: Oversimplifying Intermarriage

When dealing with complex issues, it’s sometimes tempting to key in on only one element to simplify matters, regardless of actual cause-and-effect. For instance, political pundits often cite a statistic that shows the taller of the two Presidential candidates has won the popular vote in all but two U.S. elections going back to 1888. Some might look at that fact and extrapolate that the taller man won simply because he was taller. Obviously, though, this is specious reasoning – most voters consider myriad other factors before casting their ballots. Being tall may have played some role in developing that candidate’s persona (sociologists suggest a link between height and confidence, for example), but height does not cause election victory, as John Kerry can tell you.

There’s a similar issue in the debate over intermarriage in the Jewish community. JOI’s Paul Golin recently published a rebuttal in the Jerusalem Post to a report by sociologist Steven M. Cohen in which Dr. Cohen implies that higher levels of Jewish education—in and of themselves—can cause lower levels of Jewish intermarriage. Golin writes, “While many of his colleagues in sociology are developing more complex models for understanding Jewish behavior, Dr. Cohen seems to be removing as many factors as possible in order to laud the supposed triumph of Jewish education over intermarriage.”

There are other issues that Golin suggests are oversimplified in Cohen’s paper (available here in PDF), which divides the community into “Two Jewries,” the in-married and the intermarried. To suggest that you can divide all of Jewry by one characteristic is like suggesting that voters need only know which candidate is taller! (We’d certainly save a lot on political advertising.) But what if interfaith marriage isn’t the real stumbling block, it is just a result of much larger American trends, such as the value of freedom-of-choice to marry whoever makes you happy, the spread of Jews out of the traditional neighborhoods into the ever-expanding suburbs, the decline in anti-Semitism, the lack of meaning in much of the liturgy that contributes to Jewish disassociation by even in-married and single Jews…the intermarried Jew becomes a straw man when these other, larger trends aren’t even acknowledged or properly addressed.

Perhaps the best suggestion in Golin’s article is that we should “get past using in-marriage as the only measurement of success” in preserving Jewish heritage. Judaism is a purposely complex religion, because it acknowledges that life itself is complex. Let’s celebrate that complexity.

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