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The Interfaith Exchange, Part 3: Changes in the Jewish Establishment’s Attitude Toward Intermarriage

by Shmuel Rosner

January 15, 2014 | 3:55 am

Susan Katz Miller

Susan Katz Miller is an award winning Journalist. A graduate of Brown University, Katz Miller began her journalism career at Newsweek in New York. After working in the Los Angeles and Washington bureaus, she moved to Dakar, Senegal for three years. While there, she wrote travel pieces for the New York Times, was tear-gassed in the streets while covering an election, interviewed the President of Senegal for Newsweek International, and wrote Christian Science Monitor pieces from Benin, Togo, the Gambia, and Sierra Leone. On returning to the States, she became a US Correspondent for the British weekly magazine New Scientist. She then spent three years freelancing from northeastern Brazil. After her two children were born, she and her husband settled in the Washington, DC, area, and she founded the first blog devoted to interfaith family communities and interfaith identity, onbeingboth.com, and began blogging at Huffington Post Religion.

This exchange focuses on Katz Miller's book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (Beacon Press, 2013).

(You can find parts one of the exchange here and here.)

***

Dear Susan,

Thank you for your response. My last question relates to a theory I have, one which I wonder if you'll agree with. Here we go:

When the Jewish establishment began discovering how fast the institute of interfaith marriage is expanding (it was in the early Nineties when they did)- 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- which possibly began in the early 2000's (I describe this process in my book, in Hebrew, about American Judaism)- 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– along with some other books, articles, and statements- suggest 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 (such as yours) 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.

Do you generally agree with this narrative? And what does it mean for the future of American Judaism?

Thank you again for your patience with my questions,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,
 
In general, I think your theory does reflect the three historical stages of response to the reality of interfaith marriage: from resistance, to toleration, to embrace. Of course, with the tremendous diversity of Jewish movements and individuals, there are still, and probably always have been, people and institutions in each of these three stages. And some of them have no interest in moving along what I see as a progression. So putting dates on the different stages is difficult. But I think it’s important to point out that there were many who came to acceptance of interfaith marriage and the importance of welcoming interfaith families much earlier than the 2000s. I was fortunate to meet Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who fought for the acceptance in 1983 of patrilineal Jewish interfaith children by the Reform Movement. And I was also very fortunate to spend time at an interfaith families conference with sociologist Egon Mayer, who founded the Jewish Outreach Institute in 1987.
 
Now, many are working to embrace interfaith families. Interfaithfamily.com has worked for years on this issue. But there are still subtle differences in how, when and where these families are embraced, and that can have a big impact. Do you embrace an interfaith couple only after they marry, but not before? Do you embrace interfaith parents and children only if the parents agree to raise the children “exclusively Jewish”? And what does “exclusively Jewish” mean in a family in which two religions are represented, two sets of extended relatives?
 
Again, I believe that Judaism will benefit from the widest embrace: welcoming all who want to engage with Judaism. And doing so without exclusionary clauses. I now see more and more individuals and communities and organizations working towards this goal. It’s not a question of encouraging interfaith marriage. People fall in love across traditional boundaries of class, race, gender, culture and religion in America (and around the world). I think it’s important to acknowledge that for these families, intermarriage can be inspirational, and for our culture, these marriages can be healing. There are specific benefits, as well as challenges, to every type of marriage, and to every individual marriage. There are benefits and drawbacks to “endogamous” marriages as well. But marriage is the most intimate form of human interaction, and I don’t think it is anyone’s business to encourage or discourage particular sub-categories of marriage.
 
Do I think there is “something good going on” for Judaism as a result of interfaith marriage and interfaith families? Yes. And Being Both documents many of those benefits, from the perspective of clergy, teachers, parents and children. On the broadest level, I believe that interfaith families reduce religious misunderstanding and, ultimately, religious violence. This is good for everyone.
 
Is Judaism changing? Yes. Are interfaith families part of that change? Yes. But again, Judaism has never been a static entity. As a people, as a religion, as a civilization, we have changed through history, through geography, through contact with other cultures. And interfaith marriage has always been a part of our story, since Moses. I have confidence that Judaism, as a rich and vibrant and compelling complex of ancient practices and beliefs and cultures, will continue to attract my interfaith children and grandchildren. So I very much agree with all of those who argue that what is important is to create vibrant and compelling and innovative opportunities for Jewish engagement, rather than barriers.
 
Finally, I want to express my thanks for your very thoughtful questions, and for the opportunity to have this conversation on Rosner’s Domain.
 
Susan.
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