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. 

The Rabbi Writes – Intermarriage

Volume 20, No.7, February 1983

Ahashuerus was not Jewish. But Esther married him without a peep of protest from the author of the Book of Esther.

However, other Biblical writers were less approving about intermarriage – at least about intermarriage with anybody less that a king. Together with the Talmudic rabbis they made it a Jewish no-no behavior.

The reasons for the prohibition varied. Some were conscious. Others were unconscious. The conscious ones had to do with the defense of religious beliefs and practices. The unconscious ones involved the preservation of racial purity and the exclusions of ethnic enemies. It took many generations for converts and their descendants to be fully accepted.

Today all three branches of Judaism remain opposed to intermarriage. While some Reform rabbis will officiate at mixed marriages, they do so reluctantly. They deal with it as they would deal with an unavoidable misfortune.

This attitude is not trivial. Right now two out of every five Jews who chooses to marry chooses a non-Jew. Enormous numbers of children have Jewish and non-Jewish parents. Enormous numbers of parents are dealing with non-Jewish in-laws.

Intermarried couples experience a lot of rejection. Their traditions denounce their decision. Their parents feel betrayed. Their children assault them with questions of identity. And even religious conversion is viewed as a cynical convenience by relatives, friends and neighbors.

The Jewish community leaders have responded to this phenomenon with helpless hysteria. They see intermarriage undermining the survival possibilities of a small minority group. But they do not know how to prevent it. Nor do they know how to deal with the host of non-Jewish people how have now married into the Jewish fold. Most of their responses are awkward, and patronizing- expecially in a country which praises openness, love and individual freedom.

Something needs to be done in the Jewish community to provide a realistic, dignified, effective and compassionate approach to this development. We as Humanistic Jews, because of our beliefs and commitments, may be able to provide this alternative.

We can declare that love, personal compatibility and individual freedom are morally more important that group identity. Individuals do not exist to save groups. Groups exist to serve individuals.

We can acknowledge that most intermarriages do not involve real religious differences. The bride and groom usually get married because they already share a philosophy of life. What they do not share is the cultural tradition of ancestors. Beliefs and values are different from family loyalty. They are different from holidays and life-cycle ceremonies. Since most group identities are inherited, since most religious identities are a reflection of ethnic background, many people confuse cultural attachments with theological beliefs.

We can help the overwhelming number of intermarried couples whose differences are really cultural and not theological. We can help them participate in more than one culture. An Anglo-Saxon not become less-Anglo-Saxon by doing things Jewish. A Jew does not become less-Jewish by doing things Anglo-Saxon. Each of us can handle several identities, both professional and familial. A non-Jew does not have to repudiate his own cultural attachments in order to take part in Jewish life.

We can help the children of intermarried couples. We can help them understand and respect all their ancestors. We can love their Jewish past without having to give up the other side of their inheritance. Where secular goodwill prevails cultural loyalty does not have to be either-or. If Jewish identity is less exclusive, it will have a wider scope.

We can help the parents of intermarried couples. We can enable them to see that hostility is unproductive and immoral. Their first job is not to echo their ancestors – who lived in different times and in different environments – but to help their children.

Denouncing intermarriage is neither right nor effective. Using it creatively is more important.