When I wrote a column last week about my feelings toward intermarriage, I thought I would hear criticism mostly from the “right” — that is, those who may have thought I was soft on the subject because I urged a kinder and gentler approach to Jews who choose to marry non-Jews.
Instead, almost all of the comment came from the “left” — that is, those who feel that I, despite being more empathetic than most, still single out the intermarried as a “challenge” to the Jewish community.
This week we print a response from Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute. Writes Paul:
Communal expressions of the traditional view – in-marriage “best,” intermarriage “harder” – is no longer helpful when half of our married households are already intermarried….
There are often very real challenges for intermarried couples, which can certainly be part of the dialogue and I hope will be. But the column doesn’t mention any. Does that imply that the challenge is the marriage itself? Such an oversimplification would contradict the column’s other nuanced views on intermarriage.
Do I believe that intermarried families in general have a harder time than inmarried families raising Jewish kids to do Jewish? I do. The statistics support this, unequivocally. That doesn’t mean that intermarried families can’t be successful in transmitting Jewish identity to the next generation. But with each generation, the gap in success rates for inmarrieds and intermarrieds grows.
And I’ll say this unapologetically: I want my kids to do their part in keeping Judaism alive. And I know they’ll have a much better chance — chance, no guarantees, but a chance — if they marry Jews.
First, their decision to marry a Jew would suggest the centrality of Judaism in their lives. Second, they and their spouses will share, from day one, a web of Jewish ethnic and cultural signifiers, implicit and explicit. They’re more likely to share a wider web of Jewish relatives, each a transmitter of some sort of Jewish cultural or religious meme, history and/or narrative. Third, their children will not be facing a choice — or dissonance — between mommy’s religion and daddy’s, or between bubbe’s and granny’s. Fourth (and this argues for greater inclusion, I acknowledge), they’ll find greater ease and acceptance in Jewish communities for whom certain barriers are a given, from Orthodox synagogues to the state of Israel.
Having already been “front-loaded” with a Jewish education and a real and consistent commitment to Jewish practice in our home, their marriage to a Jew — and one hopes, a similarly committed one — would not only be a signal of the success of the enterprise (raising Jewish kids to become caring and committed Jews) but would improve the odds that the enterprise will continue at least another generation.
None of this is a sure thing — but it’s wishful thinking to pretend it doesn’t improve the odds. I sometimes use a medical analogy in discussing this issue. Medicine treats the individual, and a doctor treats each patient as unique and uniquely valuable — “to keep,” as the Hippocratic Oath has it, “the good of the patient as the highest priority.” That is the approach taken by JOI and Interfaithfamily.com and other groups who are encouraging a more “inclusive” approach to interfaith families. It’s important work. I know interfaith families who have been welcomed by their Jewish communities, and see them raising committed Jewish kids, and I would have lamented being part of a community that bars them at the gates of the synagogue or day school or denigrates them or their choices.
But then there is the public health approach to medical care. Public health officials care about individuals, but have to make honest and sometimes painful choices about what happens to a population as whole. They know that by introducing a certain kind of treatment or health measure, some individuals may not benefit and some may actually be harmed. They are not indifferent to the pain of individuals, but their goal, as the OMB has put it, is the “greatest public health improvement for the resources available.”
If you were to analyze intermarriage through the lens of public health (“public” in this case meaning Jewish, “health” meaning continuity), you’d have to agree that inmarriage is both a marker of the community’s well-being and an effective strategy for its continued hardiness.
I know that sounds cold — but in the interest of sensitivity, should we deny the obvious?
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t debate the costs and benefits of inclusiveness. And I am inclined to weigh in on the side of more inclusiveness than less. But I wasn’t addressing that in my column. I was talking about my individual feelings about intermarriage and my hopes for my kids.