According to Michael Kinsley a “gaffe” is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. In Yiddish, the closest term to gaffe is “bulbe” – literally a potato, but colloquially a faux pas.
With apologies to Kinsley, a “bulbe” is when a politician accidentally tells the truth about the Jews.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman, made a bulbe when she was heard describing interfaith marriage as a “problem” during an address to a Florida Jewish federation.
“We have the problem of assimilation,” she is heard saying in an audio released by a conservative web site in South Florida. “We have the problem of intermarriage. We have the problem that too many generations of Jews don’t realize the importance of our institutions strengthening our community — particularly with the rise of anti-Semitism and global intolerance, which obviously we saw in horrific Technicolor in just the last week in Paris.”
If Wasserman Schultz was a run-of-the-mill Jewish leader, her words would hardly have caused a stir. Yes, outreach professionals, who believe that stigmatizing interfaith couples drives them away from Judaism, would have objected. But comments like hers are often heard in synagogues and in the pages of newspapers like mine.
Of course, Wasserman Schultz is not a temple president, but a politician of some national renown. And even though her district is heavily Jewish, she can’t afford to come across as hostile to either non-Jews or to Jews who don’t share her views on “endogamy.”
So Wasserman Schultz was forced to backtrack, saying in a statement released by the Democratic National Committee, “At an annual Jewish community event in my congressional district, I spoke about my personal connection to Judaism and in a larger context about the loss of Jewish identity and the importance of connecting younger generations to the institutions and values that make up our community. I do not oppose intermarriage; in fact, members of my family, including my husband, are a product of it.”
As the liberal chair of the Democratic National Committee, Wasserman Schultz is a lightning rod for conservatives, who enjoyed her little bulbe. A columnist for the National Review Online referred to her as a “marriage cop,” and used the tiny tempest to knock views on same-sex marriage. “Remember, if you follow Leviticus 18:22 and that drives your opposition to gay marriage, you’re a terrible, horrible homophobe and bigot,” he wrote. “But if you’re opposed to intermarriage of Jews and non-Jews on grounds of ‘lost identity,’ it’s completely cool!”
It’s a clever comparison, if a specious one. Jewish progressives often reach the limits of their liberalism when it comes to intermarriage. Consider an article in the New York Times over the weekend, with a headline straight out of The Onion: “Same-Sex Interfaith Couples Face Roadblock to Marriage in Judaism.”
The article explores the contradiction of rabbis who accept gay marriage, but are either conflicted about or won’t perform interfaith marriages. For them, gay marriage doesn’t pose a direct challenge to Jewish identity. “With gay marriage, there was an ethical obligation for the law to change in order to make space for people to have the most core and foundational human experience — to have love that is affirmed and honored by their tradition,” explains Rabbi Sharon Brous, of the progressive L.A. congregation Ikar. “The question is, for intermarriage, what is the driving value that is challenging a tradition of several thousand years, and is that value significant enough to force an override of a law that’s been fairly consistently upheld?”
The same article cites the statistic that has led many a Jewish observer to consider intermarriage a problem: according to Pew, a majority of Jews now marry outside the faith, while “millennials with one Jewish parent are far less likely to consider themselves Jewish than those with two Jewish parents.”
For Brous and others like her, gay marriage and intermarriage may both represent human dignity, but only one threatens the Jewish future.
Perhaps Wasserman Schultz’s other mistake was one of terminology. She should know that there are no “problems” in Judaism, only “challenges.”
Her bulbe, as my friend Larry Yudelson put it, shows that it is “getting hard to pander for both Zayde’s dollars and Zoey’s votes.” Older voters might share her misgivings about intermarriage; younger Jews are more likely to be intermarried themselves.
Nor is she the only politician to get tripped up on the intermarriage issue. As the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, Sen. Joseph Lieberman set off alarms when he supposedly declared intermarriage “permissible” for Jews. Asked on the Don Imus show whether Judaism bans ”interracial or interreligious marriage or dating,” Lieberman answered, “No, there is no ban whatsoever. Certainly not on interracial. And not on interreligious.”
Religious critics, who regarded Lieberman as suspiciously tolerant for an Orthodox Jew, pounced on the remarks. But Lieberman’s dilemma was similar to that of Wasserman Schultz, but in reverse. He clearly didn’t want to make Judaism itself sound bigoted – and, let’s face it, any religion that “bans” marriage with outsiders is going to come off as sounding bigoted.
If Lieberman could take it back, he might have said, “Of course there is no ban on interracial marriage in Judaism. As for interfaith marriage, Jews cherish their heritage and have strong preference for marriages in which both partners have similar devotion to its traditions.”
Wasserman Schultz might have said the same thing. But politicians, unlike Jewish leaders, can’t get away with nuance.