“You may not think of me as Jewish,” a friend shared recently, “but I am. I was bat-mitzvahed, I serve on the Hillel board, and I care about Israel. I’m Jewish. What should the fact that my mother’s a Mormon have to do with it?”
Normally, when a friend questions or challenges the Orthodox interpretation of halacha, I take it as an opportunity to explain what I find beautiful and enriching about Shabbat/kashrut/prayer. The restrictions of Shabbat, I delicately unpack, are meant to bring us closer to one another for a day devoid of technological interference. Mandated blessings and prayers help me to keep the divine in mind.
I think of these conversations not so much as exercises in apologetics, but as opportunities for me to remind myself of why halachic constrictions are in place, and the value they add to my life. Why did this conversation feel different?
It could be that I didn’t want to upset friends who have (only?) a Jewish father. But I don’t think that was it. Defending the way I eat, or celebrate Shabbat, is one thing. Explaining and having to justify the tribalistic practice of endogamy felt like it required a level of faith I didn’t have. Maybe my own position on intermarriage wasn’t quite settled.
Growing up in the day-school system, intermarriage was out of the question, the word itself almost a taboo.
If a member of the community was “marrying out,” it was whispered about during Shabbat meals in closed-door kitchens, away from the children and elderly, lest they be tasked with comprehending something so insensible.
This discourse, however, is shifting. More and more, communities are talking about how to best engage “multi-faith families.” Campaigns centered on reaching out to children from multi-faith homes are not uncommon.
As Jack Wertheimer recently wrote in Commentary, “Jews who intermarried were once regarded as transgressors of a great taboo; today, the great taboo is criticism of Jews who intermarry.”
That’s great. Discrimination is bad and Jewish communities should strive to be welcoming to all. But it’s more complicated than that. We have to ask: Do attempts to engage intermarried families undermine advocating for in-marriage? What, even, is the value of preserving a strict notion of matrilineal descent?
I raised the question one morning at breakfast. “That’s why we need diversity,” my mother mused. “Certain communities will take a welcoming stance to people whose Jewishness may be in question. Others, not as much.” Where did our modern-Orthodox community, I wondered, fit in this binary? Probably with the less-welcoming, more-exclusivist others. That didn’t make me feel proud.
My mother’s solution was practical though. Plus, it spoke to the strength and diversity of the Jewish community.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied.
My mother’s position avoided confronting a deeply emotional question from a personal place. I have friends who are seriously dating non-Jews. How should I approach them? Further, what do I say to my friend who is a Jewish leader on campus, but not considered Jewish under Orthodox interpretation?
Deflecting or relegating these questions surrounding intermarriage to the world of denominational politics — “well, according to the Orthodox Union… But the Rabbinical Assembly, on the other hand…” — is entirely unsatisfying.
Indeed, intermarriage is a deeply personal issue, fraught with emotion. Those who think otherwise don’t understand halacha or its connection to the real world.
Relying on historical precedent doesn’t carry the same weight it used to. Sure, I can point to the relevant Biblical verses that underlie the prohibition against a Jewish male marrying a non-Jewess, as it will lead to idol worship. But the education I received – intermarriage is off-limits because your children won’t be Jewish and your parents won’t speak to you – hasn’t been substantive enough.
I have not as yet fully resolved my own feelings or beliefs on the questions of intermarriage and what constitutes Jewish identity. I don’t really feel capable of telling my friend she’s not Jewish, simply because the community I was raised in maintains a tribal, particularized notion of endogamy. What I am motivated to do is get a better grasp of the sources – and leave behind the simplistic (and offensive) “shiksas are for practice” narrative.
There is something very honest and holy about these dining hall and late-night campus dorm-room conversations. They evoke meaningful halachic and intellectual ambivalence. They are one of the many wonderful things about living in modernity and studying at a “secular university.” On campus, in ways I couldn’t imagine in day school or yeshiva, halachic issues and texts are seismically materialized. In college, my Jewish values and commitments are constantly brought to the surface and put to the test, yielding a more rewarding and intellectually honest Judaism.