Jews, intermarriage, and the love that is actually quite comfortable speaking its name

Do Jews have a future?  Maybe, but only if we stop marrying goyim, says Jack Wertheimer, a professor at JTS, in a long article I found infuriating for reasons I find hard to articulate. Maybe you guys can help me be infuriated by it in a more fully worked-out way!

There is the confusion about causation and correlation, which annoys me as a mathematician:

The bottom-line fact is that in both religious and communal life, intermarried families participate at decidedly lower rates than their in-married counterparts. The 2000-01 NJPS offers ample evidence comparing the two populations. In the realm of religious engagement, four times fewer intermarried families than in-married families join and regularly attend a synagogue, and five times fewer keep a kosher home. The same trends obtain in the area of social and communal participation: three times fewer intermarried families report that two or more of their closest friends are Jewish, and four to five times fewer join and volunteer for Jewish organizations or contribute to Jewish philanthropy.

And of course hysterical overreaction to disagreement, which annoys me as a human being:

In short, it remains unacceptable to encourage Jews to marry other Jews, unacceptable to state the obvious about the downside of intermarriage, and unacceptable to invoke such a thing as a responsibility to the Jewish people. In today’s environment, Jewish endogamy has become the love that dare not speak its name.

I’m a Jew married to a Jew, and nobody throws rocks at me, nobody vandalizes my house or calls me names on the Internet, and I can very definitely tell you that nobody suggests that I be forbidden from marrying, or institutionalized, or just plain thrown in jail, like those people who loved in the way that actually didn’t dare speak its name.

I’m the kind of person who, in Wertheimer’s mind, ought to be part of what he hopes is a “silent majority” —  I’m raising Jewish kids, I belong to a synagogue, I give to Jewish charities.  And yep, I favor my kids marrying other Jews.  I’m in the Jewish community.  But guess what — it’s exactly articles like this one that make me want to tell the Jewish community, or this part of it, that it can go take a leap.

It reminds me of going to Orthodox Talmud Torah as a kid.  They told us that any one of us who married a non-Jew was fulfilling Hitler’s plan.  They also told us that if the United States ever went to war with Israel, we would have to fight on Israel’s side.  Fair to say they took commitment to the Jewish people fairly seriously.

But I actually like those guys, in retrospect, better than I like this article!  Because let’s face it — they knew my family didn’t keep kosher.  They knew we weren’t shomer shabbos and they knew that when we came to pray on Saturday morning, we drove there, parked three blocks from shul, and walked the rest of the way, just to keep up appearances.  It wasn’t a problem.  They let me keep going to Hebrew School there, and they let me stand up and be bar mitzvahed there just as if I were observant.  I think it’s fair to say I learned a lot there that helped keep me part of the Jewish community for life.

Should they instead have tossed me out, the way Wertheimer wants synagogues to do with Jews who marry outside the faith?

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16 thoughts on “Jews, intermarriage, and the love that is actually quite comfortable speaking its name

  1. JSE says:

    This seemed too picky to put in the main post, but Wertheimer leads with the assertion that “In a much-discussed 2011 survey of New York-area Jews, nearly three-quarters of those for whom being Jewish was “very important” said they would be “very upset” if a child of theirs married a non-Jew. Among the synagogue-affiliated, the same strong preference for endogamy was expressed by 66 percent of Conservative Jews and 52 percent of Reform Jews.” Wertheimer didn’t link to the survey, but I found it

    and Wertheimer is just wrong. Those figures are not for people who were “very upset,” but rather those who were “very upset” or “somewhat upset” as opposed to “not upset.” Among all Jews in the survey, 50.5% were “not upset,” 16.5% “somewhat upset,” and just 33% “very upset,” which paints a somewhat different picture.

  2. From an evolutionary standpoint, Judaism as we run it in America has a pretty poor strategy: we’re not required to have as many kids as biologically possible, we don’t proselytize, and we teach our children to think for themselves, which naturally leads them to the perfectly rational conclusion that all the biblical and religious parts of Judaism were invented by people. We might even disagree with Israeli politics and support Palestinian independence, from what I can tell the greatest sin according to my grandparents’ generation.

    Personally, I think of these as features, not defects, in American Judaism. More Jews of my generation of my acquaintance are atheists than not.

    But I get why some of these Orthodox Bigots Jews want to adopt the discriminating principles of the evangelical/orthodox/fundamentalist/etc. features of religions such as Christianity, Mormonism, and Islam. In some sense, I think of this bigoted approach as the only thing remotely like a survival strategy for what this person considers important parts of Judaism.

  3. I often find it *incredibly* upsetting when someone makes a universalist case for something I consider important on very personal, contingent grounds — like, something that I value but can easily imagine someone not tremendously different from me not-valuing. Gives me a very strong urge to swear off the valued-thing-in-question.

  4. Bobito says:

    The notion that Jews ought to marry Jews is simple, traditional bigotry of the most basic sort.

    I married a non-Jewish woman and didn’t circumcise my son (why should I adhere to the customs of a religion I don’t follow; I have no allegiance to my ethnicity because that’s immoral). Somebody’s world has probably collapsed and my children are goyim, but I don’t care because my world is fine and I raise my children as atheists.

  5. JSE says:

    (update: there’s now a link to the survey in the piece, not sure whether it was added since I posted or I just missed it.)

  6. majorana says:

    Jordan you say you belong to a synagogue, do you attend simply due to habit (having been raised in the jewish tradition) or do you actually accept the “truth value” of the teachings of judaism (e.g. that a deity exists who doesn’t like it when you eat ham/shellfish) ?

  7. rosenberg says:

    In a perfect world, I would agree that more Jewish education and creative positive Jewish experiences would stem the trend of intermarriage. Logically this sounds right, but I can tell you with forty years experience in Conservative synagogues, that the reality is that even the children with positive experiences who excelled in Hebrew school, intermarry. Some come from traditional homes. Many intermarry simply because they attend college away from home, fall in love and believe love will conquer all. A Rabbi can speak himself blue in the face about the non Jewish partner converting, but usually it makes no difference. The non Jewish partner does not wish to convert and the Jewish partner feels compromise and accommodation will work things out. The pain and anguish occurs when the intermarried couple has children and there is a baptism. This tears the hearts out of the grandparents who have no choice; they do not want to lose their children or grandchildren.

    The children of a non Jewish mother are not Jewish. We have now lost them forever. One suggestion for conservative Judaism which I believe will happen in the future is for conservative Judaism to accept patrilineal descent WITH PROVISIONS ENCOURAGING JEWISH EDUCATION. I have problems accepting this solution.

    I do not have the answer, and I believe no one does, but I do know that if one does not believe they are Halachicly Jewish, they will not seek Judaism but will follow the non Jewish mother’s religion.

    I know of at least one orthodox rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen, the former rabbi OF AN Orthodox congregation who wrote a responsa in 1987 arguing for the acceptance of the conversion of a child born to a non Jewish mother and a Jewish father even without observance

    Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

  8. JSE says:

    (update: I wrote to Mosaic about the factual error described comment 1 and it has now been fixed.)

  9. JSE says:

    majorana: I don’t think of religious beliefs as having “truth values” in the usual sense of that term.

  10. Frank says:

    A couple of observations from a non-Jew:

    (1) I have been struck by how much Jewish identity means to my Jewish friends, even those who don’t believe in God or attend synagogue.

    For example, once I was invited to a Passover seder by four Jewish roommates, which was somehow earnest and campy at the same time. My friends didn’t believe in God, openly mocked their own rituals, and amused themselves by substituting “See you next year in Damascus” for the apparently traditional “See you next year in Jerusalem.” And yet, there was something powerful and earnest in the room, and I could tell that these rituals genuinely did mean something to the participants, and ultimately the experience was quite moving.

    (2) Once I was discussing the long-term future of humanity with a friend. Supposing that the human race survives on Earth for the long term, it seems plausible that we will all intermarry to the extent of becoming mutts, speaking the same language worldwide, no one having any discernable racial characteristics, and nobody claiming a strong attachment to any sort of ethnic heritage.

    Whether we might expect this is debatable. But also debatable is whether we should welcome this. After some thought, I decided that we should. It has been interesting reading well-articulated arguments from people who disagree.

  11. […] this is “small tribal communities I’m clearly part of but whose separation from the rest of huma… week on […]

  12. valuevar says:

    Jordan –

    >majorana: I don’t think of religious beliefs as having “truth values” in the usual sense of >that term.

    This seems to be a response in the line of “non-overlapping magisteria” – a phrase I find very unconvincing. In fact, it is obvious that science and traditional religion have overlapping magisteria; what can be argued is that the two magisteria are sets neither of which is contained in the other.

    At the level of fact – yes, traditional religion does literally claim that Moses split the Red Sea, Jesus walked on water, the archangel Gabriel dictated the Koran to Mohammed, etc. These are statements that have clearly defined ‘truth values’. They may not be what you find important in religion, but they are certainly a part of religion.

    At the level of ethical mandates – whether or not an ethical statement has a truth value may be a matter for debate. But we wouldn’t be having this discussion if you didn’t feel, at least at an intuitive level, that this is the case!

  13. valuevar says:

    PS. What a religious figure just said here only confirms what I said on Facebook.
    PPS. Surely one can be a strong advocate for muttness and yet believe in linguistic diversity, while also supporting the idea of a common language accessible to all?

  14. Frank says:

    @valuevar, re: PPS.

    Having seriously studied several foreign languages, and lived in a foreign country, I certainly appreciate linguistic and cultural diversity. But I’m not sure about the extent to which I would sacrifice to preserve it. For example, if I were fluent in a dying language, I don’t believe that I would insist that my children also become fluent.

    It seems that many forms of diversity may be the eventual, unfortunate casualty of the aggregate result of choices which are believed to be best by those making them.

  15. JSE says:

    Frank: I think speakers of Native American languages in the US, for example, often really do make a strong effort to transmit those languages to the next generation.

  16. Matt says:

    Why is the article annoying? Looking at the structure of the article illuminates this. (Spare yourself the time and stop reading now if you didn’t read the article.)

    The author clearly values complete cultural separation of church and synagogue. This is his starting point, not his conclusion. If you don’t agree, you will probably be annoyed by his continual assumption that you do agree. But he is explicitly assuming you agree, and the purpose of the article is to discuss what to do about it (hence the title), so let’s agree not to be annoyed by this mere difference of opinion, and to look forward to a reasoned debate on what should be done. He breaks his discussion into 4 parts.

    1. Causes and Consequences

    This part is basically a lamentation.

    Part of what is annoying here is that he particularly laments Jewish acceptance of intermarriers. Given Jewish history, the majority of American Jews have very strong views regarding tolerance as a value. Wertheimer’s unapologetic and unargued intolerance (especially of tolerance) is annoying, as it bears such a resemblance to the types of intolerance we detest.

    Nitpick: In the “What motivates an individual Jew to choose to marry a non-Jew?” paragraph, Wertheimer dismisses a statistical line of reasoning due to the existence of individual cases not covered by that reasoning, as if that indicates a moral failure of the line of reasoning.

    Nitpick: He complains that interfaith marriages are sometimes “designed to create the impression that a perfectly normal Jewish wedding is in progress even though one partner is not Jewish in any sense.” Huh? What exactly is the author’s problem with people following as many of the Jewish customs as the facts of the matter permit? Clearly the author’s first choice would be that a Jew never fall in love with a non-Jew, but if that isn’t going to happen, why isn’t this route the second best one? The author is exhibiting a preference for negative valuation over rational valuation. That is one of the foundations of being annoying.

    2. The Results Are In

    This is a continued lamentation. It could be summarized as “for some Jews, the continuity of Judaism is not a battle they choose to spend their effort on”.

    The whole section suffers, as you pointed out, by giving statistics of the form “Be shocked: a subpopulation exhibiting not-so-Jewish trait P is x% more likely than their more-observant peers to exhibit not-so-Jewish trait Q.” Only sloppy thinkers could be shocked by these completely unsurprising facts.

    Nitpick: “Fewer Jewish men than women seem able or willing to assume active responsibility; in other words, the role of a Jewish mother remains key.” Here again the author completely throws to the wind the issue of family harmony. But don’t worry, Jewish dads, even if you forego harmony to force Judaism on your children, he will still disparage you as “clamoring for a change in the longstanding rabbinic definition of Jewish identity as determined solely by the mother.” Again, to Wertheimer, it is more important to be negative than to be consistent.

    3. Looking Ahead

    This part uses many forms of illogic. It uses the meaningless statistical facts of the previous section to conclude that anything besides a hard-line view is tantamount to causing the problem. Strangely, it also reels off a list of reasons why a hard-line view exacerbates the problem, apparently for the purpose of dismissing them summarily without argument. Although Wertheimer clearly wishes Judaism to grow, he again prefers negativity over rationality by simply scoffing at pragmatic rabbis for their choice to bring less orthodox individuals closer to Judaism rather than pushing them away.

    Wertheimer says “the American Jewish group of the future will be anchored by the Orthodox and by those among the non-Orthodox willing to identify unambiguously with Judaism.” But all he is saying is that those are the only people he himself considers Jewish. I think we all know many people who would classify themselves as Jewish but who Wertheimer would not. This is probably a point where we must agree to disagree.

    Nitpick: Wertheimer says, “some Jewish clergy and synagogues have … become the bearers of an insidious message—that all this religious stuff is really not terribly important and shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the really important thing, which is for everyone to play nice and get along.” Well, if it is insidious to think that it is really important for everyone to play nice and get along, then all I can say is I hope I can raise my children to be as insidious as possible!

    4. Choosing A Different Way

    This section anti-climactically proposes simply institutionalizing a public stated preference for endogamy.

    After a negative start, Wertheimer finally becomes a bit more positive, a welcome relief, although taking Mormons as the role model is not especially inspiring.

    But he still places “achieving peace in the home” as obviously less important than “losses of adherents in the longer term” (and remember that his statistical reasoning for estimating the severity of this consequence is completely flawed). Has he experienced the difference between a truly peaceful home and a truly unpeaceful one? I think it is clear he has not.

    But he ends on a positive note, encouraging Jewish leaders at all levels to be even more welcoming, and to encourage newcomers to participate even more. This, in fact, I do not find annoying.

    All in all, Wertheimer is annoying primarily because of his disrespect for the Jewish tradition of rational debate, with his polemic masquerading as rational analysis.

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