The Biblical Case for Intermarriage: Why You Can Marry Anyone You Want
By Ariel Beery
The Jewish community is fighting to prevent Hitler’s posthumous victory. Across the denominational spectrum the threat is the same: intermarriage, scourge of Jewish continuity, boogey man of every caring Jewish mother and father. To defend good Jewish boys and girls everywhere from the threat of marrying out, communal resources have been poured into projects which seek to engage youth in hip new ways so that they will choose to remain within the fold. Above all else the goal of continuity-seeking Jewish communal professionals and those who fund them is the same: prevent any non-Jewish partner that might be crouching at the door.
It is not enough to dismiss the fear of discontinuity driving this panic by claiming, as did Simon Rawidowicz half a century ago, that the Jews are “an ever dying people;” the Jewish community really does have a crisis on its hands. The Jewish People is losing quality members to a general society that has so lovingly embraced it. But the culprit isn’t intermarriage qua intermarriage, and aiming communal energies at this particular symptom will not cure the true illness that has beset the Jewish People: indifference.
Intermarriage is not the source of the illness because intermarriage itself has been with us as long as has Judaism. Let it be said: Moses did not marry a daughter of Israel. Neither did a good number of the greatest heroes of our tradition. Joseph married an Egyptian princess. King David, none other than the prophesized forbearer of the Messiah, married Batsheva, whose former husband was a Hittite–one of the original and circumscribed non-Israel tribes in the land of Canaan. Solomon, the ‘wisest’ of the Jews, followed the tradition of his ancestor Moses and married an African, the Queen of Sheba. And let us not think that mating with those outside the tribe was reserved for the biblical men of our tradition—the Jews would have been decimated had Queen Esther not slept with the uncircumcised. Since we Jews have a long tradition of learning from the actions of our wisest of ancestors—what is now known as their Da’at Torah—one can’t ignore the lesson taught by this overwhelming minyan of heroes.
True, the decree to stay away from the daughters of the other nations came early. Before we entered the Land of Promise, Moses relayed the Law that Israelites may not make marriages with the daughters of the tribes of Canaan because they may lead the Israelites to worship other gods. But that call came from the same Moses who had married the daughter of a foreign priest with divine sanction, Tzippora. When Moses’ brother and sister complained about his choice in a life partner, God punished Miriam with leprosy. In other words, it wasn’t intermarriage God seemed worried about: it was whether one would use intermarriage as an excuse to leave the community and follow other gods, or whether one would remain loyal and cleave to the covenant.
Our heroes, then, might strongly disagree with the contemporary sages who have made stopping intermarriage their primary focus. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College writes that “we cannot ignore a critical master-theme for Jewish policy formation: Intermarriage does indeed constitute the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today.” Relying upon the highly-contested data generated by the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01, Cohen states that those Jews who have intra-married are many times more likely to raise their children Jewish than their peers who marry someone from outside of the fold. This situation, he continues, has created two Jewries: one that benefits the Jewish People while the other detracts by disassociating from communal institutions and depleting our numbers. Intermarriage, in this line of thought, is the existential threat—and those who would marry out are actively, if indirectly, inviting the destruction of the Jewish People.
But the real inconvenient truth is that intermarriage is not the cause of the downturn in communal affiliation. In the science of statistics one learns that sometimes, when two things move in union, there is actually third, hidden variable that is pulling the strings on both. This is known as a hidden variable bias, an affliction of many who try and proffer causal explanations for real-world events. In the case of intermarriage and lack of affiliation, such a not-so-hidden variable is one that few are willing to talk about, and some even dismiss out of hand as unimportant. That variable is the indifference felt by marginal members of the Jewish community to the Jewish People primarily, and the Jewish tradition, as a byproduct. To put it bluntly, most people don’t know why they should give a damn.
The reason most Jews don’t know why they should give a damn is a subject worthy of an essay in and of itself, but suffice it to say that historical circumstances have thrust the Jewish People to a place we’ve not been for thousands of years. A state of sovereignty has arisen beside the warm embrace of open societies that want no more than to be our one true love. And surrounded by would-be suitors, many Jews view their Jewish identity as something which detracts from their otherwise post-modern experience: placing limits on the foods they eat, cultural traditions they follow, and the people with whom they are allowed to fall in love. Faced with a lack of deep philosophical justifications for remaining Jewish, but somehow socialized into maintaining an affiliation to the Jewish People in name only, those with a foot and a half firmly planted in the New World look at their roots with the indifference that only a spoiled child could bring to bear upon a rich heritage.
Indifference is the major difference between those empowering intermarriages of the past, the empowering intermarriages of the present day, and those intermarriages that siphon off our fellows and lead them to leave the Jewish People behind. Each of the married-out heroes of the Bible cared deeply for their Jewish brethren. They understood their membership in the People of Israel as a cause worthy of life and death. And it is based upon this supreme lack of indifference for the Jewish People that the Biblical narrative makes its case for intermarriage: every marriage out can potentially tie more bodies and souls to the destiny of our Tribe. A person who lives the life of a Jew and sees oneself as inseparably bound to the Jewish collective can marry whomever he or she wants, because his or her deference for the People is so great that his or her partner will ultimately come to live among the Jewish People, recognizing that their partner’s people are their own.
Take Roy Sparrow, who grew up in the Baptist South, as an example. When he met his soon to be wife, Miriam, in the 1960s, Sparrow told his beloved that she’d have to take him as he was (not Jewish) if she truly wanted to be with him. “I told her that she’d have to trust me to do the right thing,” recounts Sparrow, “and sure enough we were married, and once we had settled down I decided to become a Jew.”
Sparrow continued his journey from the Christian South and ended up co-founding and co-directing NYU’s program for nonprofit management and Judaic Studies, playing a role in the strengthening the Jewish future. Would those who think like Cohen say that Roy and Miriam, due to their initial intermarriage, belong in that “Other Jewry,” the second one that has no stake in the continuation of the Jewish People? I’d hope not.
Even if he hadn’t converted, Sparrow became a communal Jew from the moment he decided to marry Miriam. “Your people are my people,” he told her, and it was due to her belief in the importance of her Jewish identity that he then later added on, “your God is my God.”
It is no coincidence that the term ‘convert’ is foreign to the Hebrew tradition. Instead, we have ger, which literally translates to a person who “lives among.” When we let the ger in to our community, and we ensure that our community nourishes a Judaism that adds positive value to the individual and the world, that person may chose to become a part of our People. A member of the Children of Israel who believes in the importance of sustaining a Jewish life will, more often than not, share that conclusion with the person she choses to live her life with. And, if the relationship is a healthy one, odds are that commitment to Judaism will permeate the relationship, and perhaps even inspire a shared allegiance to Judaism’s values and traditions. When we use tactics of fear to push away non-Jews, however, we communicate the message that Judaism detracts from the world and restricts one’s choices unnecessarily—instead of drawing others into our community.
Not to say that we should encourage intermarriage. But we should recognize that whether or not intermarriage depletes the Jewish People is dependent upon the content of the Jewish life lived by the Jewish partner in such a pair. Therefore, instead of investing in matchmaking for the masses, the community could do better to inspire answers to the questions facing Judaism and the Jewish People in today’s post-digital world. Instead of focusing on the growing trend of intermarriage, we should develop a culture of devotion to the Jewish family that follows the example of our ancestors. Instead of pushing families who marry “out” into the camp of the Other Jewry, we should be setting up their tents right next to our tents of Jacob, living with them as they live among us and bind their destiny to our ever-living people.