There are few topics that seem to be at odds with my libertarianism and Judaism, but interfaith marriage is one of them. This hits home not simply because I read a recently published op-ed from Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, but more so because I personally know Jews who are part of interfaith families. As a libertarian, I believe in a free society in which consenting adults should be allowed to make their own choices, provided they are not harming anyone. On the other hand, I am of the opinion that a Jewish home is strongest when both of the partners are Jewish, and that interfaith marriage is statistically more likely to weaken that foundation. What exactly is at the core of the discussion of interfaith marriages in Judaism? To what extent are the challenges to interfaith marriages insurmountable? What are the arguments for and against interfaith marriage? There is a lot to cover, and it is not necessarily easy for it all to coalesce, so bear with me as I attempt to express all my thoughts on the topic.
First, the religious arguments. Deuteronomy 7:3-4 prohibits marriage between the seven nations that were occupying the land of Israel at the time. The reason (7:4) is because the Israelites might come to worship the deities of the non-Israelites. The Talmud takes this passage to mean that any marriage with a non-Jew was prohibited (Avodah Zara 36b). On the other hand, Deuteronomy [23:4-9] potentially implies that interfaith marriage was permissible because the grandchildren of Edomites or Egyptians that were in interfaith marriages with Jews were considered to be Jewish. Traditional commentators, such as Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah, 12:17-25), interpreted this passage to mean that the grandchildren were grandchildren of converts. There seems to have been a couple of interfaith marriages in the later biblical text, such as King David marrying the daughter of the King of Geshur (II Samuel 3:3), or Bathsheba marrying Uriah the Hittite (II Samuel 11:3). However, the later prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures are explicitly against interfaith marriage (Malachi 2:11, Ezra 10:10-11, Nehemiah 10:31), and goes as far as excommunicating those that refuse to divorce their non-Jewish spouses (Nehemiah 10:31). One could debate whether these prohibitions were on marrying all non-Jews or simply against the seven tribes mentioned in Deuteronomy 7:3-4 since they had a particular reputation for being idolatrous and immoral. In either case, the Talmud applies the prohibition on interfaith marriage for all non-Jews (Kiddushin 68b). The Shulchan Aruch also gets into which prohibitions are biblical, and which are rabbinic. Traditional Judaism assumes that a Jewish marriage can be between two Jews, regardless of whether they were born Jewish or converted.
With the religious texts out of the way for a moment, let's point out another reality: most Jews in America are not Orthodox and are not religious (Pew Research, 2013; NJPS, 2001). Given the lack of religiosity among American Jews, the religious arguments are not going to have much sway over most American Jews. Most American Jews do not necessarily want their children to be Torah observant, but there is a general desire for non-Orthodox Jews for their children to remain Jewish. Even in the non-Orthodox world, there is a desire to keep Judaism and the Jewish people going.
However, there is another reality to point out: most Jews marry outside the faith. As the Pew Research Center results from 2013 show, about six out of ten Jews married outside the faith. This is significantly higher than it was before 1970, when it was only 17 percent. What was once considered taboo has now become commonplace in the Jewish community.
Those in interfaith marriages argue that they make it work. Like all marriages, they have their unique challenges, and for interfaith couples, religion is a big one. Enough Jewish partners in these marriages enter it hoping that they can both have Jewish children while not coercing their partner to convert to Judaism. How well does that work?
Before I continue, I would like to state that I am not here to overgeneralize by saying that interfaith marriages are all failures. I have seen interfaith couples that have made it work, and I have seen Jewish couples where the marriage ends in bitter divorce. Heck, I have even met non-Jewish partners that were more engaged in synagogue life than their Jewish partner. That being said, there is enough to be said about how interfaith couples statistically fare in comparison to Jewish couples.
Intermarriage is virtually nonexistent in the Orthodox world, and still uncommon in the Conservative movement. Intermarriage is most common among Reform and unaffiliated Jews (Pew Research). While the Pew Research survey doesn't explicitly show practice or belief among intermarried Jews, Pew shows that Reform and unaffiliated Jews are less likely to believe in and practice Judaism. Findings from the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) in 2000 are more to the point by saying that children of intermarried Jews are much less likely to have Jewish connections than those of in-married Jews (see below). The NJPS from 1990 has similar results. There is also some research to suggest that interfaith marriages in America are more likely to end in divorce (e.g., Sherkat, 2004), as well as a British study to show that interfaith marriages are twice as likely to end than marriages with two Jewish partners (Graham, 2016).
Even if a certain couple is interfaith, I am willing that many would admit that it is much easier to keep the home Jewish if the home is a single-religion home. If not, there will come a time where parents will have to provide answers about religion, one's understating of it, and how to approach spirituality. Otherwise, it is confusing for the child because the child cannot answer questions such as "Who am I," "What do I believe in," or "What is the meaning of life?" When both parents celebrate Jewish holidays and maintain a Jewish household, there child has more than a fighting chance to maintain Jewish identity and clarity, and all the more so when both parents are Jewish and are greatly invested in a Jewish home. As a side question, how can you expect the child to be engaged when you can't even convince the non-Jewish spouse to be Jewish? And it doesn't just limit the children of intermarried couples. It affects the spouses, as well. The Jewish spouse who is married to the non-Jewish spouse makes compromises to the point where it is significantly more difficult to live an engaging Jewish life. Unless the non-Jewish spouse makes a sincere conversion, as opposed to the perfunctory type simply to please the future in-laws, then observing Shabbat or any other ritual is not going to be as meaningful, in no small part because the non-Jewish spouse is not invested in Judaism the same way. Nurturing a Jewish family starts, continues, and ends in the home, and that works better when both parties are invested in Judaism and have common ground, especially with something as vital and central as religion.
This is not a matter of anecdotal evidence or my personal opinion that is based on being part of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox communities. Professionally administered censuses and surveys confirm that intermarriage makes it much less likely that an individual maintains their Jewish identity than those who are part of a home with two Jewish spouses.
This then leads to a follow-up question: should we make the best of it since it is already here? Pew Research found that out of the religious groups out there, Americans have the most positive feelings towards Jews. As long as Americans have an overall positive view of Jews, intermarriage is not going anywhere. Because of that, some are of the opinion that we should genuinely welcome interfaith couples and do whatever we can to make sure that the children have reason to stay Jewish. Inclusion is a value, but only to a certain point. The Reform movement actually took steps in making sure that interfaith couples are included. Reform Judaism was the denomination to adopt patrilineal descent in 1983 precisely because it wanted to include interfaith families. As Pew Research found, half of all couples in Reform Judaism are now interfaith. This permissibility unquestionably helped precipitate in the spike of interfaith couples.
Even assuming interfaith marriage isn't going anywhere and regardless of how individual marriages may or may not work out, what we can see is that in the big picture, interfaith marriage does not help to ensure Jewish continuity. What's more is that the intermarriage rate doesn't need to be this high. Using the United Kingdom as an example, the interfaith marriage rate is only 26 percent, which is around half what it is in the United States. And there needs to be a sense of urgency because there are significantly less Jews than there are Christians in this country, or even the world. Judaism is a beautiful religion with centuries-old traditions and teachings that I would hate to see go by the wayside.
Regarding the Ha'aretz article, it doesn't see interfaith as a problem. It simply dismisses the naysayers of "ethnopolitical entrepreneurs" without even providing a single benefit of interfaith marriage. Even so, it does bring up a good point, which is that there there are barriers to maintaining a Jewish life. I believe that for Jews to want to live an active Jewish life, they need to feel engaged. Especially with all the freedoms we have, Judaism has to be able to compete in the marketplace of ideas and life choices. We can no longer lean on the explanation of "this is the way our ancestors did it." Whether it sounds more egocentric, the truth is that we need to make sure that the synagogue is fulfilling its congregants' needs. It is difficult to envision that goal when there are barriers to that engagement.
The Ha'aretz article focuses on the cost aspect, which has truth to it. Raising children is expensive enough these days as is. Throw on the additional costs associated with the Jewish day school tuition crisis. For those who observe Shabbat, housing is limited, and thus more expensive, since one is required to live within walking distance of the synagogue. There is also the cost of kosher food, the extra time one has to take off for the holidays, the list goes on. But it is not just cost. That unintended consequence of the Reform movement adopting patrilineal descent is that it tore further divide in the question of "Who is a Jew?" According to the Conservative and Orthodox movements, a Jew is one either born to a Jewish mother or one that goes through a valid conversion. The children whose only Jewish parent is the father run into issues if they want to interact with the greater Jewish world because the other major denominations don't consider them Jewish. This not only messes with the psyche of this individual that wants to become Jewish, but it further divides the denominations. There is no easy answer as to how to bridge that gap, and I can't pretend to know how to do so. And if that weren't enough, Jewish observance has become more strict in the past century, and even within the past decade. For those who want to become observant, the increasing stringencies can become so stifling that people who might want to observe more might be turned off by the excessiveness. I'm Modern Orthodox, and even I think there are aspects of Orthodox Judaism that go too far. It is less attractive for non-Orthodox Jews who otherwise would want to bring in more Jewish tradition in their lives. On the other hand, it doesn't mean you still can't live a meaningful, engaged Jewish life with a higher level of observance. And it doesn't mean that it is impossible to surpass these barriers. Orthodox Jews are case in point. I know that experience first-hand. Sure, it involves taking those extra days off of work for the holidays, not going out Friday night, and making a whole series of commitments. This is not saying that I expect every single non-Orthodox Jew to become Orthodox because I know that is not realistic. Conversely, if you want to live a Jewish life, you'll put in the time and effort to do it.
For more Jews to be engaged in Jewish life, it takes two to tango. The individual Jew has to be willing to make something of it. Although we live in a society of instant gratification, spirituality and religion are processes that take time to foster and grow. Again, the individual Jew has to want it. With that being said, the Jewish institution, whether that is the synagogue or local JCC, needs to better engage Jews into becoming Jewish. We have to go beyond a practice that merely pays homage to the past. This is a marketing problem. We need Jews to be excited about Judaism, and I mean all Jews, even the ones that are presently not engaged. Even if Jews are not practicing every single last mitzvah, having them be excited about a few mitzvahs is better than total disconnect. That being said, I am aware of the challenges that would ahead for such a lofty vision. As much as I am not thrilled about the high levels of interfaith marriage, I also concede that interfaith marriage is not going anywhere. It should be discouraged in the Jewish world. We are such a small people that we cannot afford to thin our ranks further. The whole point is to insure that Judaism lives on for generations to come. Faith cannot suffer too much dilution lest Judaism becomes something completely foreign to what it traditionally and historically has been. If possible, we should encourage Jews to marry other Jews, or at least to encourage that the non-Jewish partner convert. But the issue is more than simply discouraging the practice of interfaith marriage that erodes Jewish engagement.
Interfaith marriage in the Jewish world is a very intertwined issue facing the Jewish community. It brings up the question of whether interfaith marriage caused Jewish disengagement. I think the disengagement is a result of the increased level of acceptance of Jews in American society, which made it easier to assimilate, but I also think that interfaith marriage exacerbates the disengagement. An overall lack of Jewish education in the non-Orthodox world does not help with any of this. Interfaith marriage also interplays with lower birth rates in the non-Orthodox community, among other disconcerting factors. I don't necessarily fear the downright extinction of Judaism, but given demographic factors (e.g., birth rate, levels of engagement), it wouldn't surprise me if the majority of Jews in America within the next generation or two are Orthodox. I am Modern Orthodox, mind you. While I think that Orthodoxy is much closer to how Judaism should be practiced, I still think that there are some valid criticisms that would need to be addressed, and I do think that a more pluralistic American Jewry is healthier for all sides to keep each other honest. But getting back on the main track, the question is how to have proper educational interventions and strong social networks that instill a sense of Jewishness of all Jews, including the children of interfaith marriages. There are no easy answers to this one, but what I can say is that if we don't address greater Jewish engagement, we will see a decline in Jews, especially in the non-Orthodox world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe didn't care about denominational affiliation. He cared about the people of Israel, and he cared about keeping Judaism alive and well in this world. Whatever the answer(s) may be, they need to focus on engaging Jews and making sure that we have that connectedness of being one people.