A Fresh Perspective on Interfaith Marriage

More than three quarters of the way into To Be a Jew Today – an intense analysis of God, Israel and the Jewish people – Noah Feldman offers a fresh perspective on interfaith marriage. He’s not a Jewish communal professional, and he’s not a partisan in the debate between inclusion and boundary maintenance that has permeated Jewish communal discourse. He’s a Harvard Law School professor, according to his bio a leading public intellectual who specializes in constitutional studies, ethics and governance. He both comes from a traditional background – a graduate of Maimonides, a Modern Orthodox day school in Boston – and has had an interfaith relationship – described in a famous 2007 New York Times Magazine article. (Disclosure: I’m a 1975 Harvard Law graduate myself.)

Feldman sees the “recurring question of whom Jews should marry” as a clash between deeply held views. On one side are a powerful instinct and taboo against interfaith marriage stemming from Jewish law that is understood to prohibit it, and from cultural influences: tribalism’s impulse to group identity and solidarity; the way all peoples divide up the world “between Us and Them”; the Jewish experience of “living as a besieged minority.” “No matter how you define it, the Jewishness of the Jewish people entails some degree of differentiation from other peoples.” On the other side are “contemporary mainstream Western beliefs about marriage” – a combination of liberalism, with its moral centrality of voluntary choice, and Romanticism, the idea that a couple in love are destined to join each other.

The key analysis here is that “When tribalism or taboos do not contradict our most strongly held beliefs, we feel comfortable keeping them. When they do, we feel the taboos must go.” The persistence of circumcision – “one of the most powerful indicators of persistent tribalism in Jewish thought and practice” – means it has not been overcome by the values offered against it (medical harm, the child should choose, etc.).

In contrast, “To deny people who love each other the right to marry defies both liberalism and Romanticism.” Those values have convinced Jews for whom Jewish law is not binding (Feldman terms them “Progressive”) to give up their tribal practice, as evidenced by the high rate of interfaith marriage, and their congregations have included more and more partners from different faith backgrounds, some of whom become Jewish formally, others of whom “effectively perform Jewishness” without conversion.

What about Jews for whom Jewish law is binding? For “Traditionalists” for whom that law is mostly unchanging, interfaith marriage is a “non-starter.” But Feldman says that some “Evolutionists,” who see Jewish law as changing “to correspond to new moral positions” (this seems to correspond to some modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews) are increasingly accommodating gay partnerships by developing partnership contracts for them and officiating at their marriages. That raises fundamental questions about interfaith marriage that Evolutionists may have to grapple with “in the near future.”

It is fascinating to contemplate that Jewish law could change to accommodate the values of free choice and love and permit wedding officiation for interfaith couples. The “left-Evolutionist” rabbis currently don’t see interfaith marriage as comparable, on the argument that being gay is not a choice, while marrying someone who is not Jewish is. But Feldman says this doesn’t fully take into account modern understandings “according to which a couple who fall in love cannot in good conscience do other than marry each other…. They are in love, they have chosen one another, and Jewish law, as traditionally interpreted, stands in the way of their union.” If halacha were to evolve, the remaining opposition to interfaith marriage would be cultural – and that could be overcome if more intermarried Jews and their partners were to enter Evolutionist congregations, as happened in the Progressive world.

With respect to Progressive Jews, Feldman says “the only challenge left” “is to reframe the acceptance of interfaith marriage as affirmatively positive, rather than as a concession to social reality.” He says it is still “difficult to find a Progressive rabbi who will say sincerely that she is equally happy to officiate at a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew as she is at a wedding between two Jews.” Feldman’s recognition of the need for a change in attitudes – to value interfaith marriage and partners from different faith backgrounds equally – is very important – as is his prediction of “the ultimate success of such a reframing.”

Embracing modern understandings of marriage as an expression of freedom and equality would serve the “long-standing Progressive Jewish commitment to Jewish continuity:”

An inclusive attitude can be justified by the bet that the children of such marriages will be more likely to consider themselves Jewish if the Jewish community thinks of their parents’ marriage as a good thing, not a bad one…. Ultimately, Progressive Jews can and will disidentify with the strand of Jewish particularism that has historically resisted Jews marrying non-Jews. They will realize – they are already realizing – that the identity of their community can be preserved and even strengthened by declining to police its boundaries so aggressively.

Feldman could have grappled more with concrete issues of boundary policing – whether partners from different faith backgrounds can hold leadership positions or fully participate in ritual. He only says that “Reform Judaism does draw a communal line” in that most temples will not allow a person who is not Jewish “to serve as an official of the congregation, to lead services, or to be called alone to the Torah,” with these communal practices being reserved for those who convert. It would be illuminating to know how Feldman would respond to the rather extensive data on what leadership roles are allowed not only in Reform but also Reconstructionist and emerging congregations, as well as to arguments about ritual participation.

Feldman also could have grappled more with issues of status and recognition. He advances an attractive concept of the Jewish people as a family, that has porous boundaries, with many categories of people “joining” and being “part of” the family.  But this is vague as to the status of partners from different faith backgrounds – he doesn’t call these other members-of-the-family “Jews” or address what rights and obligations they have.

Moreover, “Considering oneself to be a Jew, a member of the family, is not automatically going to make one a member of the Jewish people in the eyes of all others. Is a bar-mitzvahed, temple-attending Reform Jew, whose father is Jewish and whose mother is not, a Jew? It depends on who you ask.” That is not a very satisfying answer. Feldman says “Jews can understand Jewish peoplehood broadly without fighting over definitional lines, provided the stakes of their understanding do not drive them to winner-take-all arguments about religious or legal authority.” That’s a pretty big “provided.” It would be illuminating to know more what he thinks about recognition of Progressive Jews by the Traditionalist/Evolutionist communities.

That more could have been said on some points does not detract at all from significance of Feldman’s thinking. To Be a Jew Today is an important contribution to understanding the Jewish communal response to interfaith marriage, and to how both traditional and liberal communities could become more inclusive. It should be widely read.

About the Author
Edmund Case is the retired founder of 18Doors (formerly InterfaithFamily), president of the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism, and author of Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, and of A New Theory of Interfaith Marriage.
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