Project of IISHJ


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 promote Jewish identity. 

Even most liberal rabbis who consent to officiate at mixed marriages are often apologetic about their own activity. Embarrassed by their natural empathy for two individuals who love each other, they feel impelled to justify their action. Maintaining that if they refuse to officiate, the couple will choose to get married in a purely secular or Christian setting, they opt for the lesser of two evils. Intermarriage is bad. But losing a Jew forever is worse.

So great is the fear of the vanishing Jew that the moral worth of individual happiness and personal love is lost in timid and defensive arguments about group survival. Irrational comparisons between the European Holocaust and assimilation crop up in the reasoning of self proclaimed liberal theologians. How can we complete the work of Hitler, they cry, by allowing the Jew to disappear? As though the physical extermination of individuals were equivalent to the opportunity of individuals to freely choose their marriage partners!

In the midst of all this anxiety and exaggeration, the factual and moral realities remain.

Since Jewish identity is not a belief identity, two Jews marrying each other may be further apart ideologically and morally than a Jew and a Gentile marrying. A truly orthodox Jew may share his Jewish identity with his humanistic Jewish wife. But they will share little else. The negative critics of Jewish-Gentile intermarriage often complain about the loss of ideological and moral consistency for children, even though the “mixed” couple may share a secular approach to life and values, but they rarely discuss the “intermarriage” problems of two totally incompatible Jews. For traditionalists, a Jewish atheist is better than a Bible-believing Gentile.

Most Jews who intermarry value their Jewish identity. Their choice of a non-Jewish partner is not a rejection of their Jewishness. It is merely an expression of their power to love people who share their ideas and values, even though their lovers are not Jews. Jewish identity is an important commitment. But it is not their only commitment or their chief value. To elevate Jewish identity to a supreme position is to violate the basis of a humanistic ethics. It is to deprive the individual of personal identity and to narrow the exploration for personal dignity.

If the most important Jewish enterprise is the promotion of Jewish identity, then the ban on intermarriage is perfectly rational as a means to that end. If the most significant thing for a Jew to be is to be Jewish, then denouncing the immorality of outmarriage is a logical consequence.

If, on the other hand, the primary goal of life for all Jews is to secure their own happiness and dignity, then the ban on intermarriage is an unethical interference. If the purpose of a group, whether kinship, ethnic, religious, or professional, is to serve the welfare of its individual members, then the refusal of rabbis to place personal love above Jewish identity is a form of moral negligence.

Certainly, it would be wrong to pretend that rabbinic ethics is neutral to these options. As a group-oriented conventional morality, it makes the same demands on the individual that the morality of any insular minority makes. The rabbis of old would have found an individualistic ethic abhorrent and subversive of the divine will. A humanistic morality, which affirms the ultimate value of the individual, has never been a part of any national religion — least of all the rabbinic variety.

A consistent humanist maintains the right of individuals to pursue their own dignity in the way that their personal needs and temperament requires, so long as they do not harm the dignity of others. The consistent humanist maintains the right of all Jews to marry whomever they choose and is happy to assist them in exercising this choice. Recognizing the value of personal love and respect to human happiness, the consistent humanist welcomes the fact that two people have discovered these positive experiences in their new relationship. If the value of Jewish identity for humanistic Jews lies in its message of human self-reliance, how can this value be maintained if Jewish identity is used to promote its very opposite?

The children of Jewish parents are Jews whether they want to do anything about their Jewish identity or do not. Since the Jewish connection is a kinship connection — especially in the eyes of the Gentile world — intermarriage does not deny this birthright to the child of a Jewish father or mother. The protests of the [traditionalists] who claim that a Jewish mother is necessary for Jewish identity go against the practices of social reality. Just as who is black is determined not only by blacks but also by the majority whites, so who is a Jew is determined not only by Jews but also by the Gentile world. In the eyes of most Jews and Gentiles, Jewish descent becomes a sufficient reason for conferring Jewish identity. In fact, Jewish fathers, because they give their children Jewish surnames, are more powerful in determining the kinship labels of their descendants than Jewish mothers. If Cohen is not Jewish, he has to explain why.

Secular Gentiles who marry Jews may freely choose a secular Jewish identity for themselves if they are not treated as rejects. Unlike the demands of [those] Jews who insist on the public disavowal of past belief systems as the price of conversion, the approach of humanistic Jews is to make Jewishness an addition, not a repudiation. Since humanistic Gentilesare already humanistic, the assumption of Jewish identity does not negate what they believe. It merely reinforces it.

[On the other hand,] humanistic Jews who marry fundamentalist Christians have a serious problem. It is the same problem of incompatibility that they face when they marry fundamentalist Jews.

The Jewish people of the future will be different from the Jewish people of the past. Except for a small minority, it will be more open in an open society. Intermarriage will make Jewish identity less intense. But it will also make it more widespread and more significant to secular people in a secular world.

This change is not unwelcome. The rabbinic segregation that led to bigotry and to the rejection of the Gentile world is subversive of the values that individual Jews should cultivate in themselves.

The Jewish identity of the future will depend not only on the children of Jewish mothers. It will also be a kinship option for born Jews and for those who choose to marry Jews. Unless we want a Lubavitcher redoubt — where the saving remnant lives in self-righteous isolation from the Gentile world — the boundaries of the future between Jew and non-Jew need to be less formidable and more accommodating.

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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