Intermarriage is increasingly becoming a subject of concern in Jewish circles. But should it? When two people fall in love, it should be a happy occasion rather than a cause for lament. It would be more productive to discuss some ideas of how intermarriage can increase, rather than decrease, the number of Jewish people.
When any modern person, whether Jewish or thinking about conversion, reads the Torah, he finds some commandments that are not acceptable by today’s moral norms (for example, the commandment to kill every person in the tribe we are fighting, even including infants). He also finds stories which, in light of modern science, look like legends and myths that the Torah uses to make certain points or teach certain lessons.
While these are presented as the commandments of God, in reality they represent the views of the person or people who wrote the particular stories, and reflect the social customs, rules of war, and understanding of nature in those ancient times. The Torah is immutable, according to Maimonides, but our interpretation of it must be modernized.
When one comes to the synagogue, he or she must hear the rabbis interpret the Torah’s stories in accordance with today’s morality and scientific knowledge. Our synagogues should reflect the understanding that many stories and commandments represent the customs of ancient societies and the opinions of the authors. Our interpretation of the Torah must attract a person to Judaism, not push him or her away.
Now let’s try to guess what is going through the mind of a bride- or groom-to-be before deciding whether or not to join the Jewish Nation. The decision to join Orthodox Judaism seems unlikely because certain aspects of Orthodox Judaism create a problem for potential converts (and, by the way, not just for converts). For example, in addition to the more rigid aspects of Orthodox beliefs and observances, there are relatively minor issues, such as the strange Middle Age Polish style of dress and the inability for newlyweds to sit together at services.
Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism are more accessible and relatable to potential converts, so conversions through these branches are much more likely than Orthodox conversion. However, after even the most cursory introduction to Judaism, one understands the extraordinary importance of Israel and Jerusalem to every Jew. Before converting through one of these denominations, a potential convert might think: “I will be recognized as being Jewish in America, but if I come to Israel, I will not be recognized by its dominant branch of Judaism as being Jewish, or my Judaism will be questioned.”
All branches of Judaism have to be accepted on equal footing in Israel. This is only fair, and it is important to all Jews, not only converts. It will positively affect many aspects of the global Jewish community, and the conversion decision of a non-Jewish bride or groom.
If the Jewish partner of the future married couple feels proud of his or her Jewish roots, and has sufficient knowledge of Jewish and Israeli history, he or she will be able to share this pride with the non-Jewish partner, potentially attracting the latter to the Jewish community. We should remember that bravery and courage are very appealing – especially to young people and especially because anti-Semitic propaganda always presents Jewish people as weak and cowardly.
Our youngsters must not only know about anti-Semitism, persecution, and the Holocaust. They should have an equal amount of knowledge about Jewish military heroes in America, Israel, and other countries, and about Jewish contributions to our world (including contributions made by great military and civilian leaders who were ethnically Jewish but forced to convert out of Judaism or had to convert in order to succeed).
In addition to movies about nice Jewish guys who sell pickles, we also need movies about Jewish fighters, scientists, athletes, etc. The American Jewish community must use all possible means to instill Jewish pride in our youth.
The Birthright Israel program for youngsters is successful and very important. But there should be programs allowing adults and families to spend time in Israel – not only on short and expensive tourist visits, but, for example, in family vacation camps with activities including the study of Jewish and Israeli history, learning Hebrew, meeting with Israelis, touring the land, and the like.
The goal should be to promote connection and unity between American and Israeli Jews and provide information which will strengthen the feeling of pride in American Jews.
Such programs should be affordable to middle income families. One of the reasons why up to 70% of American Jews never visited Israel may be the cost of the trip and the mentality of some Israelis. “These are rich Americans,” the reasoning goes, “so they should be charged as much as possible.” Israel should try to compete with Florida as a wintertime Jewish destination.
The attitude about Israel and Jewishness of the family or Jewish partner in an intermarried couple is an important factor in the couple’s decision about joining the Jewish Nation.
Being Jewish does not necessarily mean being religious. If a non-Jewish spouse is not religious but chooses to be a part of the other spouse’s Jewish family and bring up future children to feel Jewish, such a person has to be warmly welcomed by the Jewish community. The Jewish Nation has a lot to be proud of, not only the Jewish religion.
If a couple (not only in the case of intermarriage) feels strongly about Israel and decides to get married in Israel – but by a Conservative or Reform Rabbi or even through a civil ceremony – and finds doing so impossible and even humiliating, will it help to strengthen the desire of such a couple to build a Jewish family? Israel must finally fully legitimize Conservative, Reform, and civil marriages.
The above suggestions are important not only for addressing issues related to intermarriage, but also for the well-being of the Jewish Nation as a whole, which must move forward and adapt to modern times. These suggestions (experts and readers can make many others) require certain efforts from Israel which can cause difficulties with some sections of Israeli society, but what is the alternative?
The American Jewish community needs Israel and Israel needs the American Jewish community. Right now, the American Jewish community needs help to reverse the trend of intermarriages negatively effecting its numbers. If we approach it with a modern mindset, intermarriage should increase, rather than decrease, the number of Jewish people.
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