Some Of My Best Friends Are Inmarried
08/14/2012 - 17:42

Sorry for being such a negligent blogger this summer, but it’s been a quiet season in terms of In The Mix-y news — while at the same time busy in other respects.

Instead of blogging, I’ve been occupying myself with reporting/editing on Jewish education, editing, taking my oldest daughter to and from Jewish sleep-away camp (where two of her friends, also children of intermarried parents, accompanied her), hanging out with various friends and family and even (gasp) attending my younger sister’s interfaith, but basically pretty secular, wedding. (Chuppah, glass-breaking, lobster rolls, nary a rabbi.)

Believe it or not, I do have some friends and family who aren’t intermarried, even some who aren’t Jewish, although truth be told, most of the same-faith weddings I’ve attended would please few traditionalists, given that they were same-sex.

Fortunately, sociologist Steven M. Cohen has awakened me from my bloggy slumber with a post on Rosner’s Domain, a blog on L.A.’s Jewish Journal. Journalist/blogger Shmuel Rosner (who updates his blog just a wee bit more than I do) asks sociologist Steven M. Cohen, “Are you biased against intermarried Jews?” In essence, Cohen’s reply is that he has no problem with intermarried Jews, just with intermarriage. In fact, he notes that some of his best friends are intermarried:

On a personal level, I live ‎with and love the intermarried. I celebrate intermarriages in my family (and even have ‎arranged for rabbi to perform the mixed marriage of a family member), and, the only ‎person named after one of my parents is the child of a non-Jewish mother.

He says he parts ways with intermarriage “hawks” and “doves”:

The ‎hawks are wrong when they believe that more articulate, repeated or forceful ‎condemnation of intermarriage will work to raise inmarriage rates. The doves are ‎wrong when they believe that welcoming the intermarried – as proper and worthy an ‎act as that is – will do much to raise the participation of intermarried families in Jewish ‎life. ‎

…Rather than focusing all our ‎energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the ‎intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building ‎relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate. Moreover, costs of ‎membership and participation may seem higher to the intermarried (and other engaged ‎Jews) than to the already engaged; hence financial barriers may be more important for ‎the intermarried than for others.  ‎

OK, that sounds reasonable. Mere “welcome” sounds kind of shallow to me. But he then goes on to compare himself to a “public health official,” and to note the “deleterious effects of intermarriage both upon the Jewish engagement of the intermarried and their children, as well as upon the Jewish population.” ‎

His argument, from there, seems to confuse causation and correlation, implying that intermarriage actually causes lower rates of engagement and that in-marriage causes higher rates. Meanwhile, I'd venture that non-Orthodox Judaism’s “engagement” problem has less to do with intermarriage or the intermarried and more with a general attitude among many non-Orthodox (intermarried and in-married alike) that organized Judaism fulfills no real need in their lives.

Cohen calls to “elevate the rate at which Jews marry Jews (or those who convert to Judaism,” which to me seems to me more a cosmetic fix than a spiritual one. And then he slides into his argument, about which I’ve complained before, that Jewish education is good not because it’s valuable in and of itself or because it enriches people’s understanding of Jewish tradition or makes their lives more meaningful, but because it boosts in-marriage rates. And even better than education, he notes, is “Jewish association — more Jews meeting and knowing more Jews.” Last year, Cohen even approvingly called this “meaningless Jewish association.”

That’s quite an inspiring rallying cry. I suppose in that famous section from Pirke Avot, when it says, “The world stands on three things: On Torah, on prayer and on kindness to others,” what the rabbis meant to say was, “The world stands on three things: On in-marriage, on education and on (meaningless) Jewish associations.”

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I think the whole basis of many of these comments - and of many conversions - the the false and very European/Christian idea that Jews are a religion, a faith-based community. We are not. We are something that does not exist in European paradigms, but is very typical for Asia and the Middle East: a community of People with a language, culture - and a God. In the Book of Ruth, Naomi joins the Jewish People when she says "Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried." No belief, no faith - joining.

That's why the very use of the word "Judaism" - a made-up word that didn't exist until 150 years ago in order to copy concepts like "Christianity" or "Buddhism" - is wrong. Use "the Jewish People"; and if you want to speak about religion - "The Jewish People and their God".

I am having a hard time figuring out where I fit in all this. Having been married about 20 years, in the last 4 getting in touch with family and doing some detailed research I have discovered I am of Jewish descent. I have begun incorporating practice of the faith in my life and it has helped me reach a much better place spiritually but, In our searches we are unsure of my wifes blood. My father and mother both come from jewish lines who have hidden their identities over the last 4 generations and only in my generation have the families begun to rediscover who we are. Where I live the community is Very Orthodox and do not tend to accept me. I am looking for some friends online or advice on how to find the local Jews who might believe like I do but, perhaps be more reform minded so as to accept my family and me. Any advice?

The first comment hit the nail on the head. The "engagement" problem is a far greater one in non-Orthodox circles than in the Orthodox because, with their desire to make Judaism in man's image, they have taken all real meaning out of Judaism. (you can deny as vociferously as you like but a survey of modern Judaism speaks volumes)
When one's Judaism is not meaningful and not essential to one's being, of course one will be less likely to care about marrying only in the faith. In-marriage is only a value for one who values their own Judaism.

I think Julie has hit on the simple truth in this blog. The issue, for those concerned about Jewish continuity, really isn't about "in-marriage" or "intermarriage." It is whether Judaism has any meaning in one's life. Invariably in these discussions the phrase "among the non-Orthodox" appears in reference to some measure of dissolution, malaise and decay in the Jewish community. This is, unforutnately, quite accurate.

The "liberal" streams of Judaism have utterly failed to construct a meaningful, self-sustaining system of Jewish belief or practice. The fact that "Jewish" weddings are routinely conducted where non-kosher food is served and the only nod to Jewish tradition is stomping of a glass and perhaps a quick hora, speaks volumes.

Judaism, as it has existed for thousands of years, is a religion centered on the belief in one God and the revelation of the Torah -- both oral and written -- to Moses and passed down through the ages. We draw closer to God and elevate ourselves spiritually through the study of Torah and the performance of commandments. While there is indeed a wide range of practice, custom and interpretation within that system of belief, any other "system" or "movement" that denies that core of practice and belief is simply not sustainable. Gimmicks, nods to passing fads and attempts to focus solely on ethics or "tikkun olam" as a substitute for Torah true Judaism have gone nowhere and will go nowhere.

As a Jew who converted, but only after my spouse died in year 18 of our intermarriage, I too hope the "cosmetic" reference can be clarified. The engagement problem has little to do with intermarriage and everything to do with whether families--in- or intermarried--can find a community that offers them a meaningful connection to the faith. I'm very grateful that we found that community, and that our presence was accepted (sincerely but without any superficial "welcoming"--just an acceptance that if we were there, we were there in good faith) throughout the long, rich and eventful period that preceded my decision to make it official.

"Cohen calls to “elevate the rate at which Jews marry Jews (or those who convert to Judaism,” which to me seems to me more a cosmetic fix than a spiritual one."

Julie - I hope you can clarify this. I hope that when I read this, I just interpreted it incorrectly. Because it sounded as if you were saying that conversion, as a "cosmetic" rather than "spiritual" fix, just papers over an intermarriage. As someone who was intermarried for over a decade before my wife chose to convert, I know first-hand that conversion, at least for those who are serious about it, is anything but cosmetic. It is entirely a spiritual act, and it is an act of spiritual transformation. Both halachically and spiritually, the person becomes 100% Jewish, which means that their marriage is 100% a Jewish marriage. "Some of my best friends are converts and their spouses" and we all feel that way.

My wife and I are soon to release a book about our journey - "Doublelife" - which chronicles at length the very real metamorphasis that takes place. We certainly don't feel like we made a "cosmetic" fix. We truly changed from being an intermarried family to a Jewish one.

Again, if I somehow misinterpreted what you said, please clarify exactly what you meant. Because those of us who have been through the conversion process or have loved ones who have, don't want to feel like the long, arduous process we went through has been trivialized as merely "cosmetic" - unless, of course, that's what you actually meant.

Harold Berman

Harold and Kay, Apologies for any miscommunication. I certainly didn't mean to imply that most conversions are "cosmetic." What I meant is that focusing on in-marriage rates, rather than on boosting all individuals' engagement in/connection to/education about Judaism, is a cosmetic rather than spiritual approach.  best, Julie