Several years ago, I was standing with our new assistant rabbi, who had just moved here from South Africa, when a stranger came over and engaged us. In the course of our conversation, the man mentioned something about his non-Jewish wife. When he walked away, I looked over and the new rabbi was visibly shaken. I asked what was wrong and he told me it was the first time he had ever met someone who is intermarried. Coming from a Jewish community in South Africa where even those who aren’t observant are overwhelmingly traditional, he had never personally encountered someone who married out of our faith and it left him startled and shaken.
While my colleague was startled by meeting someone who “married out,” I, too, was startled that day, but for an altogether different reason. I was startled by how not startled I was. Intermarriage has become so “normal” and “mainstream” in America that we meet or hear about someone married to a non-Jew and we don’t flinch.
Indeed, I thought about this story recently when I saw a headline, “Kamala Harris and Douglas Emhoff made history for interfaith families. All Jews should celebrate that.” Politics aside, many have expressed excitement over Kamala’s step-children calling her “Momala” and how Doug broke a glass at their wedding. Others have kvelled that all of President-Elect Joe Biden’s three children, who are Roman Catholic, married Jews.
According to a 2013 Pew survey, 44% of married Jewish respondents, and 58% of those who have married since 2005, are married to a non-Jewish spouse. Shockingly, the rate of intermarriages among non-Orthodox Jews, who make up the majority of the American Jewish population, was a staggering 71%. This data is seven years old and I shudder to think what the numbers look like today.
Correctly, we are all outraged by and concerned with growing antisemitism. This week, the FBI published its 2019 hate crime report, which found that antisemitic hate crimes rose by 14% last year and once again comprised the overwhelming majority of hate crimes based on religion. (60.2% of all hate crime victims were targeted because they were Jews; next on the list were victims of anti-Islamic bias, who comprised 13.2% of the total.) Last year saw a series of lethal antisemitic attacks in Poway, Jersey City, and Monsey that created understandable concern and worry.
Nevertheless, as disturbing as these horrific incidents and troubling trends are, when it comes to Jewish continuity, the statistical threat of antisemitism pales in comparison to the damage we are doing to ourselves and our contributions to the disappearance of our people.
In his blueprint for sustainable synagogues, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism said, “Interfaith families are now the majority of the movement. Audacious hospitality says, ‘You know what? We’re not going to be just nice and let them in. We’re going to say we can’t be who were meant to be without them.’”
“Majority of the movement.” That phrase is not only exceedingly upsetting, it is terribly scary. Make no mistake, I am not suggesting we make those who choose differently feel rejected, alienated, or marginalized, or believe that they have no place or future in our people. Perhaps there was a time that such an attitude served to disincentivize and put artificial pressure to marry within the fold, but those days are over, not only outside of orthodoxy, but within it as well. We should continue to make all Jews feel loved, welcomed, and secure with the knowledge that they always have a place within our people. We should not only leave the door open but welcome them to walk through it.
At the same time, we must not provide hospitality by diluting our values, distorting our principles, or worst of all, compromising on our continuity. The rampant assimilation and growing intermarriage won’t be solved by moving the goal posts, offering a new and convenient definition of who is a Jew or what is a Jewish family, any more than an accountant can solve a bad quarter by cooking the books. We must find a way to simultaneously be hospitable to all Jews while inhospitable to some decisions.
We shouldn’t literally or figuratively tear keriah for the purpose of discouraging others; we should do it to sensitize ourselves. We love all Jews and don’t want them to be hurt by our attitude towards intermarriage, but we must also love the Almighty, feel His pain, fight for His values and vision and pursue His blueprint for the Jewish people in His world.
In the beginning of our parsha, Toldos, the Torah tells us that Yitzchak was the spitting image of his father Avraham, something divinely designed to respond to the cynics of the generation who challenged Yitzchak’s true parentage. In a talk delivered to Mizrachi and recorded in his Chameish Derashos (3:3), Rav Soloveitchik suggests that the cynics didn’t doubt Avraham’s physical ability to father a child. Rather, they were doubtful that an old man could successfully communicate his old ideas and lifestyle to a young person from a new generation.
The leitzanei hador, cynics and skeptics of his time, saw Avraham’s philosophy and ideology as a passing fad, a short-lived trend. How could an old man with extreme ideas inspire a son who would embrace his legacy and perpetuate his lifestyle? Instead, they whispered, Yitzchak must be the son of Avimelech, the offspring and follower of the modern society and culture and popular trends. Yitzchak must surely be carrying the legacy of Avimelech rather than the outdated ideas of his biological father.
The Rav writes:
People laughed at the event. They did not believe that Isaac would inherit Abraham. That he, a young lad of the new generation, would continue to carry Abraham's visions and laws, and that he also would engage in building altars and calling on the name of God. They laughed at Abraham's dreams that his son would give his life for Torah and fight for the sanctity of Abraham's house. The scoffers said: ‘Sarah conceived from Avimelech.’ Others claimed ‘They brought themselves a foundling from the market place.’ It is impossible to pass on Abraham’s outlook, the mitzvot of Abraham, his statutes and laws, to the modern generation, to young Isaac who fights with a rifle, works in laboratories and thinks in modern categories of thought.
When Abraham dies, people said, his entire philosophy will perish, his altars will be dismantled, his Shulchan Aruch will be eaten by moths and all trace of his life will vanish, just as the grass will grow over his grave.
Rav Soloveitchik sees this theme appearing later in the parsha when Yitzchak re-dug the wells of his father and gave them the exact same names in an effort to keep the legacy of his father alive and to declare that rather than abandoning his father’s ways, he was embracing them fully and wholeheartedly.
Intermarriage is not a Reform or Conservative challenge, it is not the problem of the “unaffiliated” or “secular.” Too many Orthodox parents have reached out to me about their children who have gone through a robust Jewish education and grew up in observant homes who have met someone non-Jewish and are building a life with them. We are one people, one nation, and we are watching our family hemorrhage.
This is a time for all of us to dig deep, to draw from the wellsprings of our heritage and our timeless Torah. The parsha begins by telling us that “Yitzchak is the son of Avraham” but then continues, “Avraham bore Yitzchak.” Yitzchak didn’t just emerge, Avraham was invested in him, spent time with him, exposed him to the beauty of his values and the meaning and joy of his lifestyle. We must return to the wells of our forefathers, to bringing God back into the conversations in our homes, to celebrating the joy of being Jewish, and to be willing to sacrifice in our dedication and devotion to Torah lifestyles.
To be clear, there are parents who are excellent role models, who are deeply and profoundly devoted to Jewish life and living and whose children nevertheless make their own choices about life and about religion. There are no guarantees in life. I share these thoughts not to assign blame or promote guilt or cast aspersions on anyone, but to motivate action and inspiration.
Someone once asked me to meet with a man and his son whom I didn’t know. The son was in a serious relationship with a non-Jew and the father was devastated. He was hoping I could meet and “talk some sense” into the son. I will never forget the conversation in my office. The father began by describing how betrayed he feels, how pained he is and what a mistake his son is making. When he was done, the son turned to his father and said, Dad, you speak so self-righteously, you claim to care so much about Judaism and Jewish continuity, but what sacrifices are you making for your Judaism? You have a casual attitude towards Jewish law, you pick and choose as you see fit, you are not consistent about praying or study. You aren’t willing to give up the foods you love, the things you want to do, your time or energy and you want me to give up a girl I have fallen in love with who will make a wonderful wife and mother?
I was absolutely floored. The son had made an articulate and compelling case, not in defense of his tragic choice, but rather as an indictment of a father he believed had no right to be surprised or upset.
If we have a casual and selective attitude towards our Judaism, what can we expect from our children and grandchildren. We need to return to the wells that have sustained us and kept us hydrated throughout our history. We must double down on lifestyles of deep commitment to Jewish law, Jewish life, Torah study, character development and lovingkindness. We must work to share our treasured Torah with Jews around us making outreach a priority, not only for outreach professionals but the responsibility of every concerned Jew.
Hearing about intermarriage, whether in the highest office in the land, or anywhere else, is not something to “celebrate” or admire, it is something to grieve, to be pained by, but most of all, to be driven to do something about.