Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1990
Should Jews marry only Jews?
Most Jews think that they should. Even the most sophisticated prefer the perils of atheism to the trauma of mixed weddings. The prospect that their children will be doing their reproducing with Gentiles arouses the deepest dread that their unconscious can conjure up.
Outspoken liberals who are big on brotherhood, open pot, and female liberation, often turn hysterical when they learn that their Jewish son intends to cohabit in a legal way with a non-Jewish woman. Infamous Jewish anti-Semites who are turned off by all forms of organized religion and who find Jewish culture depressing, are known to become violent when their daughter announces her intention to marry a Gentile man.
Why this overreaction to what appears to be decent love?
The answer is important because no issue in Jewish life is as explosive as the question of intermarriage. Even the Reform rabbinate, the so-called paragons of religious liberalism, are deeply divided on the issue. We are witnessing the ironic spectacle of radical egalitarians and libertarians turned into fanatic and inquisitors eager to expel airing rabbis from the rabbinic fold for the unspeakable sin of officiating at mixed marriages.
The reason for this behavior is no mystery. Tribal loyalty is an old and respectable human emotion. Although it is not uniquely Jewish. It has been strengthened among Jews by centuries of exile and homelessness. Jews have had to make a special effect mistake effort to survive as a group. Without the dramatic differences in their rituals, food, language, and dress, they would have had great difficulty resisting the religious onslaught of their hostile neighbors.
Throughout the centuries Jews worked very hard to maintain these differences. As a result, their descendants feel very guilty when they give them up. Even when they no longer believe in the viability of traditional customs, even when the tyranny of outmoded practices violates their individual integrity; they often consent to do them. The guilt of repudiating what so many of their ancestors died to preserve is too much for them to bear.
The most effective technique for group survival in an alien environment was social segregation and compulsory inbreeding. The ban on intermarriage followed logically from the overwhelming desire to preserve Jewish identity. People who reproduce together, stay together. As a technique for the maintenance of dispersed minorities, this prohibition is both universal and familiar. The Aaron conquers of India used it well when they devised the caste system. And the English colonials found it useful in the preservation of Anglo-Saxon identity in the colonial environments.
The Jewish ban on intermarriage dates from the 6th Century B.C.E. When the Jewish Aristocracy were taken by the Chaldeans to a Babylonian exile, they found themselves a small minority in a sea a Semitic strangers. Two snobbish to assimilate and two affluent to forgo the new luxuries of Babylon for the rural prop poverty of Judea they turned to rigid inbreeding as a way of enjoying the best of two worlds. Under the leadership of fanatic priests, they elevated their new custom into divine law. The Zadolite priests inserted this prohibition into the text of the Torah which they were writing, giving it a divine aura.
When some of the Babylonian Jews returned to Jerusalem in the fifth century, they brought with them both the Torah and the ban. Their charismatic leader Ezra forced the native Jews to accept the authority of the Torah and to divorce their non-Jewish wives.
In the contemporary world, the prohibition against outmarriage is a crucial importance to Jewish survivalists. With the rapid disappearance of many unique Jewish forms of behavior and with the quick assimilation of Jews to the cultures of Western nations, the only barrier that seems to stand between group identity and the ethic melting pot is segregated reproduction.
Since group survival for the sake of group survival is no longer publicly respectable, Jewish professionals are driven to find “nobal” reasons for this parochialism. Jews and gentiles are annually inundated by variety books that make the old claim that without Jewish exclusiveness mankind would enjoy less brotherhood, justice, an intellectual greatness. a world without jews, they claim, would almost be a world not worth having. Paragraph threatened minorities do not survive unconsciously ( like the Russians and the Chinese (. They often survive only by becoming obsessed with the problem of their own survival everything in Jewish life today is seen from the perspective of group survival, from the perspective of group identity period for many Jewish professionals, synagogue social action, experimental services, and the updating of Jewish philosophy are not avenues for individual fulfillment. Their gimmicks for involving Jews and Jewish institutions. Their value is a function of their ability to to promote Jewish identity.