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Interfaith Marriages: Are We Moving from Surrender to Celebration?

by Shmuel Rosner

January 20, 2014 | 4:38 am

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for
Reform Judaism, advocated for “audacious hospitality”
in his keynote address at the Reform Biennial in
San Diego, Dec. 12, 2013. Photo courtesy of the URJ

A.

At the 2013 Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, the President of the Union, rabbi Rick Jacobs, devoted his keynote speech to a topic he called “the genesis of our future”. The speech, more than an hour long, actually addressed many topics. But there was a common theme to them all: “Big waves require more skill and courage to ride - but if ridden artfully, they enable us to go faster and further than ever before”. Rabbi Jacobs proposed to reimagine a Judaism that can ride the waves of the present to guarantee for a Jewish future.

He first mentioned the Pew study of American Jews about 20 minutes into the speech. The leaders of American Judaism cannot “ignore the facts”, Jacobs said. What facts? Of course, the Pew data contains many facts from which to choose. But the leader of Reform Judaism, as was natural for him to do in such a celebratory gathering, picked the ones suitable to his cause. Pew revealed that “we are not just the largest stream of American Jewry, but larger than all the other streams combined”. It also revealed that “in spite of the many Orthodox outreach efforts, including Chabad, to bring less observant Jews into greater observance, the data reveal no real success”.

Jacobs was not shy about his goal in highlighting these specific data – rather than talk about the fact that Orthodox Jews score higher on every measurement of active Jewish life. “The time is long overdue for us to stop using Orthodox Jewish practice as the baseline against which we define our own Jewish practice”, he said. A fair point. A point we should consider as we turn to look at Jacobs’ way of talking about interfaith marriages.

B.

The Pew data is pretty clear when it comes to interfaith marriages in the Jewish community. First – it is clear from the data that such marriages are very common, to the extent that most young Jews today (especially so if we discount the Orthodox) end up having non-Jewish spouses. Second – it is clear that intermarried families have weaker ties to organized Jewish life and are less prone to actively practice Judaism. Jacobs is naturally right to mention the “creativity, leadership, and service of hundreds of thousands of interfaith families… [that] enrich our congregational lives”. They obviously do. Yet when the numbers speak – rather than anecdotes – it is also obvious that the Jewish people lose the participation and engagement of many more hundreds and thousands of families in the course of the process of assimilation through marriage.

Looking at the Pew data, Prof. Steven Cohen pieced together the multi-generational chain effect of intermarriage. The picture he paints is grim: just 43% of the children of intermarried parents grow up to think of themselves as Jews – that’s Pew data, not an educated guess. Of these children, already a minority, just 17% marry Jews. This means that if you go one more generation down the line – assuming the numbers don’t change - fewer than 9% of the grandchildren (17% X 43%) of intermarried couples will be marrying Jews. The vast majority of those grandchildren, Cohen says, will have “two non-Jewish parents, and one Jewish grandparent”.

Of course, trends can change. People can choose to be Jewish even if their parents aren’t, or they can follow the one Jewish grandparent over the three non-Jewish grandparents. They can be raised by mixed families and still have high levels of Jewish observance. Still, for trends to change, there needs to be a reason for them to change- either external forces that make interfaith marriages less common, or internal policies and initiatives that achieve success in bringing about such change.

C.

In order to seriously attempt to bring about change, two things need to happen. First - admission that change is necessary. Namely, acknowledging that there is a problem. Second – a set of policies which will try to solve the problem. Yet the numbers of the Pew study seem to have done little to move the community toward admission and the necessary planning ahead.

Of course, the acknowledgment of a problem has to be the first step, and here rabbi Jacobs' speech makes for an interesting case for examination. That is, because Jacobs doesn't see a problem, but it is not entirely clear why. In the speech itself, the rabbi suggests two possible explanations, and these are the same explanations that we often hear from other leaders as well.

D.

One is the practical explanation: Interfaith marriage "is a result of the open society that no one here wants to close. The sociology is clear enough; anti-Semitism is down; Jews feel welcome; we mix easily with others; Jewish North Americans (researchers say) are more admired overall than any other religious group. So of course you get high intermarriage rates - the norm, incidentally, in the third or fourth generation of other ethnic groups as well". Last week, speaking to the Forward, the rabbi put it even more succinctly as he said: "I’m not encouraging intermarriage. I’m not encouraging gravity. It’s a reality".

In other words: you can't call interfaith marriage a problem, or treat it as a problem, because interfaith marriages of Jews are like gravity – unchangeable. It is something we have to learn to live with.

E.

But rabbi Jacobs also offered in his speech something that is somewhat different – not just the sober view of the realist who doesn't expect gravity to stop, but the view of the idealist who embraces interfaith marriage as a blessing: "It is not just sociology that demands that we be serious about welcoming interfaith families. It is theology as well. We have a sacred obligation to open our doors, to add to our ranks, and to make sure that progressive Judaism has a growing, not a shrinking, voice in proclaiming what Torah must mean for our time and for our world. It is a veritable gift of God to have the opportunity of a millennium: more non-Jews who want 'in' than Jews who want 'out.' That has never happened before. We dare not squander this gift out of fear of what new voices may say and where new opinions may lead".


With this rabbi Jacobs doesn't just surrender to what he believes are the forces of nature, but rather embraces these forces as positive.

F.

There are two possible reasons to be positive about interfaith marriages among Jews.

One – if you believe that you can't change it, you might think that the better approach to it would be to embrace it. This is a tactical position stemming from one's disbelief that battling the phenomenon can change the trend. If you can't change the trend and have to live with it, you might decide that pretending that it's positive would be the best way to reduce its possible damaging effect. Some of rabbi Jacobs' words point us in that direction, but of course he could never publically admit to having such an approach as it would destroy the credibility of his tactic.

Two – you truly believe interfaith marriage to be an opportunity for the community to have a better future, more diverse, more inclusive, more absorbing, larger in numbers and richer in culture. Jacobs also seemed to suggest that this is what he truly believes. Yet this can also be a very good way to masquerade one's belief in reason one (the reason above).

G.

Last week, in my exchange with Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I laid out the following theory:

When the Jewish establishment began discovering how fast the institute of interfaith marriage is expanding, it responded with a battle cry. The idea was to somehow stop interfaith marriages among Jews. Obviously, the battle ended in defeat. 

Then came the next stage: the established Jewish community moved from battling to the acceptance of defeat. The idea was that "we can't stop it, so we might as well learn to live with it" or, possibly, even "make the best out of it".

Your book– I wrote to Katz Miller, who embraces interfaith families and even advocates raising children in two faiths - suggests that we might now be moving toward a third stage: that of open embrace. Not the embrace of no choice- a tactic that was used in hope that it will improve the retention rate of intermarried Jews- but rather an embrace out of belief that maybe there's something good going on for us here, and that we should be encouraging it rather than fighting against it or reluctantly learning to live with it.

H.

I don't know whether rabbi Jacobs' speech is a clear demonstration of this transition from sober surrender to cheery embrace. That is, because the signs in his speech are somewhat mixed. But his speech, along with Katz Miller's book, and other recent articles, have clearly convinced me that such a transition to a third-stage is in the making- that the community is moving from the realist (defeatist?) position of we-can't-win-this-battle to the optimistic (delusional?) position of we-don't-want-to-win-this-battle.

It is a crucial moment of transition. That is, because when you have a battle that you don't think you can win but still want to win, you'll keep searching for strategies that can help you win it (and I should apologize for the militaristic language – in no way am I trying to imply that interfaith families are the enemy of anyone). On the other hand, if you don't see a problem, you will quit the search. This will no longer be an acceptance of reality - it will be the common ideology.

I.

In its excellent editorial last week, The Forward dryly stated that "this approach has not proved sustainable". Rabbi Jacobs is surely familiar with the facts laid out in numerous studies, including the Pew data, but can still say that it was not successful only because the measures taken to make it successful weren't adequate – or he can argue that his definition of success is different from the one used by others ("those families are far less engaged in Jewish life", the paper says. Maybe engagement in Jewish life should be measured differently?)

This brings me back to Jacobs' comments on Chabad and the Orthodox. His comment that there is no notable success "bringing less observant Jews into greater observance" suggests that Jacobs sees little value in having the who-is-a-better-Jew debate. The data concerning failure could be spread around evenly. Some do not succeed in having more engagement; others don't really succeed in attracting more people. His comments proposing to "stop using Orthodox Jewish practice as the baseline" suggest that Jacobs is also impatient with the measurement tools. Ask different questions, look at different aspects of Jewish life, and you might see success where you now see failure.

J.

Moving from being tired of battling interfaith marriages, or being skeptical about the chances of success, or being lost as no strategy seems to succeed, or being embarrassed about the need to do it because it seems to contradict other values, or being conflicted because of personal experiences – moving from all these to "theologically" believing that interfaith marriages are good for the Jewish people  is a huge step toward having what Cohen once called "two Jewries". In this case, though, the "two Jewries" will not be the result of powerful trends that we have failed to change but can still try to. It will be a description of two ideologies that have a completely different view of the trend itself.

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