I read with great interest Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent Forward article, in which she contrasts the low LDS interfaith marriage rate and the relatively high Jewish rate while proffering areas for emulation to her Jewish readers. I believe there are two main reasons why Mormons tend to marry other Mormons, only one of which is mentioned by the author.
The first is our newly-expanded missionary program, which sends tens of thousands of young men and women all over the world to study and spread their faith. As Ms. Riley notes, returned missionaries generally maintain high levels of activity in the church. My wife and I were both sent to foreign countries, where we had to learn a new language and culture, study the doctrines of our faith, and preach to others during the prime of our lives. Given the level of desire and commitment involved, it’s not surprising that most former missionaries choose to continue their church service upon their return.
Jews have the Birthright program, but a 10-day stay in Israel designed to reinforce feelings of Jewish peoplehood and identity is hardly comparable to two years of intense missionary work. It would be unrealistic to expect them to achieve the same results in religious retention.
Although the Forward article was very interesting and insightful, the omission of temple marriage was glaring. The crowning ordinance of our faith is eternal marriage in the Abrahamic covenant, which can only be performed in our temples. In addition, only faithful Mormons can participate in this ceremony, which binds couples together for eternity. Mormons are taught from childhood not to settle for less than a temple marriage, and most active members don’t.
As I see it, there are two obstacles to lowering the intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews. One is the claim, which I still struggle to comprehend, that atheism and agnosticism are perfectly acceptable expressions of Jewishness. If they are, then there is not a compelling reason to find a marriage partner who is a member of a particular religious faith.
The second obstacle has to do with Jews’ reluctance to seek to convert non-Jews. Let’s take me as an example. If I were dating a non-Orthodox Jewish woman and agreed to raise our children as Jews, why should she decline my marriage proposal? I’ve lived in Israel, speak Hebrew, love Jews and the Jewish community, and blog for a Jewish website. As long as our kids would be raised as Jews, what difference should it make to her what my religious views are since Jews don’t seek to change others’ beliefs? Mormons can’t have a temple marriage without another Mormon. Non-Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, can live a fulfilling Jewish life with a non-Jewish spouse.
Of course, it’s difficult to compare even the hand-wringing by both communities when their members marry outside the faith. When a Mormon marries a Lutheran, there may be deep disappointment that a temple marriage will not take place. However, there is no concept of a people that is being diminished by this marriage choice.
Ms. Riley has opened up an interesting discussion, one I hope will be held in many cities across the country between Jews and Mormons. The truth is that if non-Orthodox American Jews want to lessen their intermarriage rate without becoming Orthodox, the best thing they can do is to make their faith a proselytizing one. I have no doubt that the results would be astonishing.