Orthodoxy Should Embrace Interfaith Families

I believe that religion—and Judaism—matters. And because I believe that it matters, I also believe that one should marry another person with shared values, whether it’s ethics, theology, and even ideology to a certain degree. Those values are inextricably linked to our personal and social narratives.

We are all aware of the challenges that the culture of intermarriage presents the Jewish people. Many in the Jewish world were dismayed by the 2013 Pew Research Center survey that indicated intermarriage had increased for most Jewish denominations in America. Among Jews who married since the turn of the millennium, a majority (58 percent) had married someone of a different faith or of no faith. This compares with the period before 1970, when only 17 percent of Jews who married had married partners from another faith or of no faith. While 56 percent of married Jews currently have a Jewish spouse, there is a vast difference between those who are religious (64 percent) and those who are not (21 percent). In addition (among the denominations surveyed), there was a correlation between the percent with a Jewish spouse and the level of traditional observance (98 percent of Orthodox Jews, 73 percent of Conservative Jews, 50 percent of Reform Jews, 31 percent of Jews with no stated denomination).

For many, the data was alarming, or at least a call to action, especially in contrast with Israel, where the intermarriage rate is about 5 percent. In their analysis of the Pew survey, Professors Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, respectively, saw this trend as threatening Jewish identity in America:

…as many as [2.1 million] Americans of some Jewish parentage—overwhelmingly, the offspring of intermarried parents—do not identify themselves as Jews…. intermarried families are considerably less likely to join synagogues, contribute to Jewish charities, identify strongly with Israel, observe Jewish religious rituals, or befriend other Jews…. the large majority of intermarried families are loosely, ambivalently, or not at all connected to Jewish life.

Professors Wertheimer and Cohen stated further that this effect multiplies over generations. Only about 20 percent of intermarried parents raise their children solely within the sphere of the Jewish religion, and these children marry gentiles in slightly higher numbers (83 percent). In turn, 92 percent of their children will marry gentiles, so that only 8 percent of intermarried grandchildren will remain in the religion of their ancestors.

On the other hand, intermarriage is within our zeitgeist and exists among the broader population in America as well. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey indicated that 39 percent of Americans who married from 2010-2014 married outside their religion. Among gentiles between the years 2010-2014, 18 percent of Christians married spouses with no religious affiliation, 15 percent married Christians from a different denomination, and 6 percent married spouses with other religious affiliation, versus lower percentages of those who married from 1960-1969. Some groups have very high rates of marrying (or living with a partner) of the same religion: Hindus (91 percent), Mormons (82 percent), and Muslims (79 percent). While Jews lag somewhat behind at 65 percent, this is a higher percentage than mainline Protestant groups (59 percent); one could easily understand how cultural and religious differences might preclude Hindu and Muslim intermarriage.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs—currently the President of the Union for Reform Judaism—compared opposition to intermarriage with opposition to gravity, as both are inevitable:

…I still hear Jewish leaders talk about intermarriage as if it were a disease. It is not. It is a result of the open society that no one here wants to close. The sociology is clear enough; anti-Semitism is down; Jews feel welcome; we mix easily with others; Jewish North Americans (researchers say) are more admired overall than any other religious group. So of course you get high intermarriage rates—the norm, incidentally, in the third or fourth generation of other ethnic groups as well.

For Rabbi Jacobs, there is a realistic duty to welcome gentiles who marry Jews:

We have a sacred obligation to open our doors, to add to our ranks, and to make sure that progressive Judaism has a growing, not a shrinking, voice in proclaiming what Torah must mean for our time and for our world. It is a veritable gift of G-d to have the opportunity of a millennium: more non-Jews who want “in” than Jews who want “out.” That has never happened before. We dare not squander this gift out of fear of what new voices may say and where new opinions may lead.

While opponents keep their distance from those who intermarry for fear of encouraging more intermarriage, Rabbi Jacobs considers intermarriage an opportunity to expand the Jewish community, thereby involving more people in the process of Jewish education. These divergent opinions by learned scholars are not without their particular compelling arguments. How does one balance a desire to retain the richness of Jewish tradition without ostracizing so many from the community? While the Reform Movement goes way too far for Orthodox standards, the more traditional can still learn from the culture of embrace.

My commitment to pluralism outside of the home is rock solid. Inside the home though, internal strengthening supersedes foundational diversity. For this reason, I, like all Orthodox rabbis, would not encourage nor would I officiate a marriage between a Jew and a gentile. I also wouldn’t support a marriage between a Christian and a Muslim or a believer and an atheist. How we interpret the moral and spiritual order of the world is too significant. Liberal Jews who choose not be affiliated with Judaism might rebut that they find their values elsewhere and share as much with liberal Christians as they do with liberal Jews. But where will they turn for lifecycles, holidays, and spiritual language? What traditions will they embrace in the home once they have children?

A full embrace of intermarriage or any type of moral and theological relativism won’t work for those of us who believe faith, ritual, and community matter deeply. When someone dies and a child wants to know how they’ll mourn, what will they be told? When exploring complicated questions about truth, how will they be advised? If one later returns to their faith in a fervent manner, will they need to get divorced? When a person of religious commitment replies, we can have questions and answers. Judaism supplies a unique spiritual and moral anchor to our people and our history.

Values matter. How one mourns matters. Spiritual language matters. Building families and raising children around grounded values, beliefs, and traditions matters.

Bearing this in mind, I believe the Jewish community still has a long way to go to support intermarried couples. While I would not conduct one of these marriage ceremonies, I embrace the idea that intermarried families—including the spouse of another faith—are a crucial part of the Jewish community and they deserve respect. For them, Judaism as a religion may not be of primary importance, but they are still a part of our people and culture. I have heard too many stories from intermarried families of how they feel alienated and marginalized. Many spouses from other faiths feel that they’re valued only if they convert. They may not be Jews, but they should be treated as members of the broader Jewish community. Naturally, there will always be some barriers for attendees who don’t embrace the beliefs, language, or practices but we should strive for warmth wherever possible. We are no longer in the Middle Ages where social exclusion policies are an effective (or more morally responsible) tool for those with different theological conclusions from us.

Christianity should not be viewed as the threat to American Jewish life it once was. The real threat today is materialism: those who choose nicer cars, more vacations, and longer work hours over spiritual and ethical commitments. We are not losing Jews to church but to real estate.

Like any marginalized population, it is not enough to treat them like everyone else. Rather, we have to go above and beyond to embrace and support interfaith families to compensate for their internalized sense of marginalization and for their actual experiences of alienation.

I have a special connection to this issue: I was raised in an inter-faith family. This is to say that I would not exist if it were not for intermarriage. I’m grateful for my upbringing. I was exposed both to Christianity and Judaism in my early years in respectful and supportive ways (ceremoniously, educationally and spiritually). In the end, through destiny or fate, I embraced Judaism in the fullest sense. I felt richer for full exposure and for the opportunity to make deep and complicated decisions. I chose my journey in an open and tolerant environment. Had I been treated with hostility as the child of an interfaith family, I might not have embraced Judaism and certainly not have become a rabbi.

At the same time, I am saddened that few in similar circumstances will have the same fortunate experience as me. Most have shared that they simply don’t value religion because the message they received from their parents was that religion didn’t matter. You can be X or Y or Z; it’s all good. Just be a nice person, it doesn’t matter what you believe in or where you locate your moral consciousness from. It is, of course, true that atheists and those without religious affiliations can be moral individuals. Secular humanists and existentialists have contributed immensely to human progress, but I fervently believe that Judaism has unique contributions that are crucial to moral development.

We are stuck knowing that intermarriage most commonly hurts the Jewish community but also knowing that we must embrace these couples who have made this choice compassionately and openly. Intermarriage is going to happen regardless of our views, but we have to be ready to face the challenges and opportunities that come with it rationally and lovingly. Each human being has infinite dignity and should be embrace warmly and inclusively. Further, in the 21st century, every Jewish community must amiably embrace all couples that are searching for Judaism in their meaning-making journey.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.