Louis J. Sachs
"At the same time impetuous and curious."

Intermarriage & Battling Windmills

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A man once approached his rabbi and said, “Rabbi, I’ve committed a sin, and want to know how to make amends.”

Looking to help the man do Teshuvah, the rabbi asked, “What was the sin?”

“I didn’t wash my hands or recite the blessing before eating bread.” He replied.

“I’ve certainly heard of worse transgressions, but tell me, why did you not wash your hands and recite the blessing?”

“To be honest, I felt awkward doing it. You see, I was in a non-kosher restaurant.”

The rabbi raised his eyebrows and further inquired, “And why were you in a non-kosher restaurant?”

“I had no choice. All the kosher restaurants were closed.”

“And why were all the kosher restaurants closed?”

“It was Yom Kippur.”

This joke captures a problem I have noticed as a rabbi. People “pile on” sins because they’ve already labeled themselves unworthy. I didn’t fast, so I didn’t eat kosher, so I didn’t say a blessing. There is often an all or nothing attitude towards Jewish practice. The problem with this attitude is that nobody keeps all the commandments 100% perfectly, 100% of the time. But if everyone thought this way, nobody would observe anything, because nobody can observe everything. That said, there is one commandment, in particular, I want to talk to you about today, a commandment that I think is fitting to talk about on the New Year because it is one that affects probably everybody in this room.

But before I begin, I want to offer a couple of caveats. First, now that I have hopefully made many of you laugh, I’m going to make many of you uncomfortable. But that is appropriate because if we are doingHeshbon Nefesh, taking a personal inventory of our lives and our deeds over the past year, we should be uncomfortable. If we are not, then we aren’t being honest with ourselves. This time of year is a season of discomfort because we should be critiquing ourselves so that we can be better in the year to come.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that the job of a rabbi is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” So to those who might be uncomfortable by what I say, I am sorry, but I ask that you listen. That you try to hear my words and think about this topic because I truly believe it is essential to our Jewish future.

Today I am touching the 3rd rail of Jewish life- intermarriage.

Knowing how sensitive this topic is, the second caveat I am going to ask for is that if you discuss this topic with your family or friends, you do so with care. Please remember that we are not talking about statistics in a vacuum; we are talking about the real-life experiences of people, people who deserve dignity and respect.

The Torah is explicit, “Lo Tit-chaten Bam,”(Do not intermarry with them).[1]Them, being the non-Jews living in the land of Israel.

Despite the clear commandment, intermarriage is a relevant topic for conversation because so many Jews have not heeded this command. According to the 2013 Pew Research Center’s Survey of US Jews, 58% of Jews who were married in the last two decades married someone who was not Jewish. Canada is not so far behind. The most recent Canadian survey, done just last year, suggests that over a quarter of Canadian Jews today marry someone not Jewish.

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As a rabbi, as someone deeply concerned with the future of Judaism in North America, I want to have an honest conversation about this topic. The first honest fact is that in 2019, when you tell a teen, or someone in their twenties and thirties, not to date someone who isn’t Jewish, they hear something different than what you mean to be saying. Most do not hear, “that our tradition of 2000 plus years is a sacred heritage that should be passed on to future generations.” They do not hear, “I want my own parents’ and grandparents’ legacies honored by my grandkids. I want them to sit around the Shabbos table as I did when I was young.” Instead, they hear traces of xenophobia. They hear undertones of bigotry.

I’m not always sure that they are entirely wrong to hear that either. Nearly 30% of Jews in the Pew survey identified their religion as “none.” These are people born Jewish, who when asked what religion they identify with, their answer is none; not Judaism or any other. The fastest-growing religion among this generation is “None-ism.”

I want you to ask yourself, would you be more upset if your child, or grandchild, brought home someone who is not Jewish but supportive of a Jewish home, or someone born Jewish without any attachment at all to their faith? Someone, whose religion is “none,” someone who despite being born a Jew, actively wants nothing to do with Judaism at all? In such cases, are those who hear racist undertones, in the demand that they date Jewish, so far off?

Another issue is that telling people not to date or marry those of other faiths is clearly not working. We have been saying it for centuries, but it is happening more and more, not because we aren’t saying it loud enough or often enough, but frankly, because of Love. There was a time when marrying out of the faith was an act of rebellion, but today that is not the case. People fall in love, and love is not a logical equation, but something much more profound. Love makes people do things that do not always make sense.

Today, on Rosh Hashanah we are talking about that very subject; we have sinned, we have turned our backs on God, but we ask that God forgive us, not because we deserve to be forgiven or because forgiveness makes sense, simply because God loves us. Today we affirm that love is more powerful than justice. Recognizing that, how do we defend the demand for in-marriage?

I want to suggest that instead of telling someone why they should not fall in love with someone who isn’t Jewish, we instead focus on giving people meaningful Jewish experiences. What I mean by that, is teach your kids and grandkids why Judaism is important to you, by showing them, by doing Jewish. Teach people why Judaism is of value to them.

You don’t have to tell someone not to date a bigot; instead, you teach them to value inclusion, and they find a partner who shares that value. It works the same with everything else we value; if you can teach your kids to value certain things, they overwhelmingly seek partners who share those values. Education, family, hard work, kindness, loyalty, all of these other values are taught not commanded.

Instead of telling people not to date non-Jews, I want to suggest we should instead be focused on a larger question, how can we teach them to value Judaism, so it is something they want for themselves. Teach them to love Shabbat, because if we can get them to value Shabbat, they will seek a partner who shares that value. Teach them to value living in a community, to value prayer, to value Israel, to value the wisdom our millennia-old traditions can offer us.

Teach them to value Judaism itself, because if we succeed at that, then they will seek partners who will support that value. Jewish or not, they will look for a partner that will help them create a Jewish home.

Because while intermarriage is a threat to the Jewish future, it is a symptom, masking the disease itself. The disease is that we are failing in the non-Orthodox world to offer a Judaism that is meaningful to the next generation. We have failed to teach them why it should be that Judaism is a value in itself. We might not always be successful in explaining the value of Judaism, but what we have been doing is not working. We have not succeeded in teaching the next generation to value Judaism.

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We have done a great job at teaching specific Jewish values: Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, Kavod HaBriyot, human dignity, Tzedakah, charity, and Hesed, kindness. All of these Jewish values and more have become the defining religion for many of those NONES. They learned Jewish values, but they never learned to value Judaism.

When so many Jews, are not participating in Jewish life at home and in the Synagogue, anyone who wants to do Jewish, should be welcomed. We need to be more welcoming to those non-Jewish partners who are not looking to convert, yet wish to participate in Jewish life with their families. We cannot afford to keep cutting them off and turning them away.

While we spend so much time worrying and discussing intermarriage, the Pew study found that interfaith parents were more than twice as likely to raise their Jewish children than those who have stopped identifying as Jewish. I want to repeat that so it settles in, interfaith parents were more than twice as likely to raise their Jewish children than those who stopped identifying with Judaism.

But still, some want to paint intermarriage as the greatest threat to the Jewish people. Earlier this year, a member of the Israeli Knesset referred to intermarriage in the United States as a “second holocaust.” I disagree. It is the irrelevance of our Judaism, and exclusion of those who want to participate that is to blame.

The Talmud offers us an insight in a story about the Amalekites. The Amalekites tried to wipe out the Israelites wandering in the desert, and the rabbis throughout the generations have connected all those who have sought the destruction of the Jewish people to be their decedents.

But the Talmud shares a radical teaching about their origin, explaining that their matriarch, Timna, had gone to Avraham and asked to convert, but he said no. Later she went to Yitzhak, but he too questioned her motives and said no. Finally, she went to Yaakov, asking him to help her convert, but again, he said no. She so desperately wanted to be among the Jewish people that she tried to marry into the family, but the only person who would accept her was Abraham’s grandson, Eliphaz, the son of Esav, and even he would only take her as a concubine.[2]

The rabbis in the Talmud teach that through this union Amalek was born, and the nation that would cause the Israelites to suffer throughout the generations was brought into existence due to their own actions, their own exclusiveness.

The lesson the rabbis are trying to teach in this radical narrative is simple, excluding people without good reason can lead to terrible results. Exclusion is the existential threat.

Today we see those results; nearly 30% of Jews do not identify as Jews. Meanwhile, some families are intermarried, yet want to be a part of Jewish life. They want to participate in Jewish communities, so why are we making it harder for them? Why are we pushing away people who want to be among us?

I should not need to say it, but I want to be clear, I am not advocating for intermarriage, that’s not the point. But I am also against Jews marrying Jews with no intention of living Jewish lives or doing Jewish. I’m not in favor of two Jew raising more “Nones.” I’m for people living Judaism, creating Jewish homes, and doing Jewish.

For those who are intermarried, but want to raise a Jewish family, want to live a life of Jewish values and traditions, should we not be doing everything we can to support such a family? To welcome them and help support them in that task?

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I return now to the joke I began with, the man who confesses that he didn’t say a blessing, didn’t eat Kosher, and didn’t fast. Judaism is not an all or nothing faith; we are all human. We are all standing before God today asking for forgiveness because none of us has been a perfect person, or a perfect Jew this past year.

Is it not better that someone who eats treif on Yom Kippur would at least stop and say a blessing? Is it not better that families with a non-Jewish partner participate in Jewish life rather than not?

The first step is creating a space where they feel that they can, where not just the Jewish partner and the kids feel welcomed, but also the non-Jewish partner who is dedicated to supporting and creating a Jewish home.

Today, from this bimah, I want to recognize and thank those of you who are not Jewish. Those of you who despite the obstacles you have faced, have bound yourself to the Jewish people through marriage. Those of you who have supported this sacred community in the work that we do, those of you who have supported your Jewish partner in living a Jewish life. Most of all to those of you who are parents of Jewish children and have actively taken a role in ensuring they are provided with a Jewish education and access to Jewish resources, and live in a Jewish home.

It may be a surprise for some here today, but it is not an uncommon occurrence as a Rabbi that I will meet a family in which the children are converting, or being raised as Jewish, despite a parent’s decision not to convert themselves. This is a personal choice, made for a variety of reasons. I respect your decision, and I appreciate your dedication to supporting Jewish life and a Jewish family.

I would also like to address parents and grandparents experiencing this subject in their own families. In days of old, marrying someone not Jewish was a sign of one turning one’s back on Judaism, on their family’s values, on their community. Today that is not the case. It is about Love, so respond with Love. Welcome them; thank them for whatever they do, big or small, to create a Jewish home, to raise Jewish children.

You did not fail; Love is not logical. For those of you who think of it as a great tragedy, don’t. People used to sit shivah for someone who married out. I understand it is upsetting if your grandkid is not Jewish, but I see real tragedies on a regular basis.

One day, I met with a grandparent who was distressed over their newborn grandson who would not be raised with Judaism. I understand why that is upsetting, I really do. Yet, that same day, I also spoke with a family destroyed because someone had given birth to twins prematurely and they were fighting for their lives.

This was the moment for me that the tragedy of intermarriage was put into perspective. Are your children and grandchildren healthy? Are they happy? I understand why it is upsetting if they do not identify as Jewish, but if you step back, there are things in this world worth mourning over, is that one of them?

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It is hard to find someone in the world today, something I know personally. As a yet to be married 30 year old, I can tell you firsthand, dating in 2019 is really difficult. Along my journey, I have met Jews who I was overwhelmingly compatible with, except that they did not want to create a Jewish home. They believed in Jewish values, but not the value of Judaism. For me, that was non-negotiable value, but for many it is not, because finding love is complicated. They meet someone compassionate and kind, generous and loving, hardworking and fun, finding someone who shares those values is a difficult task, so when they meet someone who checks those boxes, Judaism is secondary, they are looking for Jewish values.

The increase in intermarriage is a reality. We live in a world in which we can thankfully mingle quite freely with society beyond our own. For centuries the problem was that they hated us. Today the problem is that they love us. I would take the latter over the former any day.

This is an incredibly complex time in Jewish history with a wide variety of ideas and activities; Jewish life has to compete in a much broader market place for people’s time and energy.

This is why we must teach people to value Judaism, and the best way to do that is to live our lives by example, to value our traditions, to practice them ourselves, and to welcome those who want to be a part of it.

We do not have an intermarriage problem; we have a problem with many Jews not finding the Judaism they are offered compelling. This is what we must address.

This year, may God guide us in bringing people closer to Torah, closer to Jewish practices, and the community by welcoming them. May we value our heritage enough to share it with others, to welcome all who want to be a part of it. May we teach others to value it, not through proscriptions and commands, but through love and joy, through family and community, through celebration and meaning.

Shanah Tovah u Metukah

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[1]Devarim 7:3

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 99b

This sermon was delivered on Rosh Hashanah 2019

About the Author
Rabbi Sachs is the Associate Rabbi at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto, Ontario. A graduate of the University of California Davis, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Twice voted “America’s Cutest Rabbi” by his own mother, though not in consecutive years...
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