Many years ago, I approached my beloved rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Zelig Starr, of blessed memory, and informed him that a relative of mine had chosen to marry a non-Jew. Rabbi Starr’s response was that when the Torah described the tenth plague, it said that there was no house without a death. Really, he said, this was referring to our generation where virtually every family has at least one relative smitten with the plague of intermarriage.
I realize that this subject is extremely sensitive and some of my colleagues advised me not to write about this. But my hope is that since the subject is raised so infrequently, perhaps it will generate some soul searching and discussion that will yield positive results.
Intermarriage, plain and simple, is a tragedy for the Jewish people. When a Jew decides to marry out, the likelihood is that Judaism will not be practiced by that family and the offspring will not only lose its connection with the Jewish people, they will no longer be counted among the Jewish people.
So much is written in Jewish literature about this subject. Ezra is remembered in his book, for his impassioned plea to the Jews to divorce their foreign wives, and most obeyed. The Torah itself gives a command in chapter seven of Deuteronomy not to intermarry. Numerous laws were instituted by the Rabbis for fear that it would lead to intermarriage.
The intermarriage rate in the United States is sky-high and not much is being said about it. It is understandable why this is so common because there is so much interaction between Jews and Gentiles — especially on college campuses. I am not sure that there is anyone to blame for this phenomenon because it is happening to families of all backgrounds.
It is not entirely clear where the threat of sitting Shiva for one who married out, originated. I was not able to find a Halachic source for this practice. But to this day, there are families that threaten to disown their children if they dare marry a non-Jew.
It does not appear that such threats work in today’s society when the emphasis is on “feeling good’ and “doing what makes you happy.” Young people are smart enough to see through their parents and their hypocrisy. They will argue that since their parents show such little concern for Jewish practices, why should they. Aside from this, there is so much ignorance among Jews, that it almost seems natural for people to marry whomever they choose.
Among more traditional families where a Jewish education was given, there could be a guilt factor involved. This feeling of guilt may never completely go away, but it is justified by the argument that the current non-Jewish spouse understands them so well in a way that no potential Jewish spouse ever could.
A friend pointed out half-jokingly, that another factor to consider with a divorce rate of more than 50 percent, is that the intermarried couple may not stay married anyways. It seems clear that we certainly can no longer play “hardball” with our children and make threats and demands of them. We need to somehow find a way to leave the door open in the event that they decide to come home. Many of them do and eventually long to reconnect to their Judaism
Probably the best advice of all as to how to bring our intermarried relatives back to the fold, is that we make the effort to be better role models. If they were to see how we step up our commitment to Judaism, it has to make an impression. Whether it becomes a passionate love and support for the State of Israel, or intensified study of Torah, the happiness and contentment that we demonstrate, has to make a dent.
People today want to be happy and they will never find it through selfishness and materialism. If they suddenly notice a change in their loved ones who are now so full of excitement and pure joy in their renewed practice of Judaism, it will make them curious to say the least. They may wonder what came over their loved ones to induce such excitement. Leading by example, is always the best educational tool.
One final point to consider that may give us a glimmer of hope that these lost souls may come home, is the State of Israel. Putting it mildly, the world is obsessed with Israel. We live in remarkable times and so many lives have been changed by visiting this incredible country. Magic happens here where stubborn non-believing souls breath the air of the Holy Land, and they are transformed. This literally is, “G-d’s country.”
The plague of intermarriage painfully hovers above the Jewish people. It may not be that it is within our power to eliminate it. But we certainly can make a difference if we make a concerted effort ourselves to connect to the Torah given at Sinai and actively show how proud we are to be Jewish and how proud we are of the State of Israel. Am Yisrael Chai!