Friday, July 13, 2012

Pinchas 5772: Reflections on Interfaith Marriage


  1. Rabbi Blake, I will take a little more time to try to give thoughtful answers to your five Qs on interfaith marriage, a topic I feel pretty strongly about.

    The story of Pinkhas in last week's Balak and this week's Pinkhas resonates with me more as a lesson on the consequences of idolatry. To my thinking, the whoring of the Israelite men in Shittim was not the sin per se. It was the implication that this was part of Moabite/Midianite cultic ritual and the worship of some of their gods. Moreover, we could also debate whether ancient whoring is an acceptable metaphor for modern day marriage... :)

    You have taught me about our forebears, the patriarchal, tribal Israelites. Many Israelite men in the Torah married non-Israelites. Their children were Israelites. I don't need to name these individuals. They are pretty prominent in the Torah. With the transition from ancient Israelite cult to Rabbinic Judaism, Who is a Jew has become defined along matrilineal lines. We may hear more of this when we soon read Va'etkhanan, which reportedly contains the Torah's proof text for this. As such, rabbis have reinterpreted some of our foundational scripture to support a far more exclusive peoplehood. There are places in the Tanach and certainly in Talmud where there is little ambiguity in the prohibition against marrying outside our People. These may have been changes to our Tradition to accommodate the realities of the Diaspora. Today, we have seen other changes to our Tradition to reflect new realities of the Diaspora and our young State of Israel.

    Why ancient Israelite men possessed the confidence in their abilities to sustain their People through intermarriage, while somehow modern Jewish men supposedly lack the spine and conviction to sustain their People through intermarriage remains for me a puzzlement.

    More later…


  2. 1 of 2:
    Interfaith (and interracial) marriage is a reality that has persisted down through the ages, despite community taboos or my attitudes for or against it. A tribal community often sees itself as a distinctive homogeneous group in a sea of people from outside the tribe or group—us and them. Knowledge of and experience with those “other” peoples are often lacking or flimsy. We Jews (formerly, Israelites) are no different. It is we and the Goyim.

    The fear of Jewish dilution is real because dilution is real. However, those of our tribe who choose to place the responsibility for this dilution on those outside the tribe—i.e., on intermarriage—are deluding themselves and others. They may even be deflecting responsibility for some of our failures which contribute to Jewish dilution. You don’t need to bother finding intermarried households to see the effects of dilution in our modern, post-Enlightenment Jewish communities. Just look at the “average” affiliated (non-Orthodox) Jewish family and its degree of Jewish practice, culture and values in the home. Is there dilution amongst intermarried households? Sure. But, there is also a consciousness of religious distinctions which is missing in an all Jewish household. In the average home, this can raise awareness of one’s Jewish identity just as living as Jews in a majority non-Jewish Diaspora community can. By the way, as soon as you leave affiliated Jewish homes, I would guess that the risk of dilution in the typical Jewish family is greater. No, dilution in our communities has other significant root causes. I would argue that effective Jewish education or rather its absence is the greatest root cause of this dilution. I would argue that it can be difficult for Jew and non-Jew alike to raise kids as engaged Jews when we often know little of our heritage and Tradition ourselves.

    Some may quote statistics showing that families with a converted spouse affiliate with synagogues at a greater rate than that of families with two Jewish spouses. Moreover, they may point out that the latter rate is greater than that of intermarried families. This then is cited as evidence that intermarriage is presumably bad for synagogue affiliation. The only thing bad here is the analysis. Synagogue affiliation, which may be a metric of interest to the Reform Movement responds to programs targeting these different populations. I belong to a synagogue whose programs speak well to intermarried families. The children of intermarried families are engaged, along with both of their parents. I don’t have access to our statistics. But, I am guessing they would support my assertion. In addition, it is a metric of Jewish engagement that is of ultimate interest, not the less meaningful synagogue affiliation rate.


  3. 2 of 2:

    Jewish religious leaders and staff usually bristle at the introduction of business thinking and lingo into the management of our Jewish People. Businesses are interested in the acquisition, activation and retention of their customers. I for one think that synagogues and associations of synagogues would do well to think along similar lines. Intermarriage coupled with innovative programs to engage these families can result in positive growth—the very opposite of dilution. I am not speaking of just raw numbers. I am speaking of education and the opportunity for non-Jewish members of our community to live Jewish lives and experience the beauty of Judaism. Other programs to engage synagogue members, whether Jewish or non-Jewish parents of the Reform family, can transform a passive member family into one that actively participates in some dimension of Jewish life enhancing its ability to reinforce Jewish identity at home. This then drives retention. A synagogue can certainly go after the unaffiliated Jewish segment of the local community. But, developing creative and engaging programs to activate the intermarried families within the Reform synagogue seems to me a more pressing need. Intermarried families make up a sizable percentage of some Reform congregations. We certainly have Outreach programs. But, some intermarried families may not want to be part of Outreach. On the other hand, they may jump at the opportunity to participate in educational or social action programs, side by side with other congregants.

    Developing programs to engage intermarried families is of paramount importance to the Reform Movement. If done well, there is only upside. If the Movement closes its eyes to this critical portion of its community, it will be responsible for increased dilution, not the families who intermarry.

    As for the ever controversial question regarding whether a rabbi may formally sanction intermarriage, I suggest following Schindler’s design. If the interfaith couple makes a commitment to affiliate with a Reform synagogue and raise their future children as Jews, I say the (Reform) rabbi should help the couple through this difficult transition and potentially contribute to the growth of our People. If the couple isn’t willing to make this commitment, then I would find it difficult to consecrate the marriage.


  4. More on the controversial subject of rabbis conflicted over officiating at interfaith marriages.

    1. The non-Jew converts and the wedding is naturally officiated by a rabbi. No problem.
    2. The non-Jew and Jew make a commitment to Judaism, raising a Jewish family in a Jewish home, without necessitating conversion. I believe this is a real opportunity for the Jewish People and the rabbi should officiate. This couple will likely affiliate with the Reform Movement.
    3. The interfaith couple agrees on having a rabbi officiate. There is no other wedding ceremony. This is a possible moment of opportunity for the Jewish People. The couple will never forget this act of kindness. I think the rabbi should consider officiating.
    4. The interfaith couple agree for a rabbi to officiate at a Jewish ceremony. They also want to hold a parallel non-Jewish religious ceremony, perhaps on a different date. I do not think the rabbi should officiate.
    5. The 2 families want to have a rabbi and another non-Jewish clergy member together officiating at the wedding. I do not feel the rabbi should officiate.
    6. The rabbi is invited to a non-Jewish wedding ceremony in a non-official capacity. Go for it.

    Some weddings use wedding planners, multiple vendors, caterers, and fancy sets that can transport participants to another place. There sometimes are photographers, entertainers, musicians, and more. I would hate to think that the rabbi (or non-Jewish clergy member) were seen as simply another prop in a beautifully orchestrated event. If the rabbi seriously and joyfully solemnizes this significant Jewish life milestone, then (s)he performs a really important role. If the role is more of an act or performance, then I don’t see the rabbi providing a meaningful role. I guess this observation is not restricted to interfaith weddings. It applies equally to Jewish life cycle events.

    How a congregational rabbi pragmatically navigates this or a slightly different logical calculus to determine whether (s)he will officiate is beyond me. Moreover, maintaining equity across congregants is very important. The calculus has to be simple and clear so that all participants—couples, parents, grandparents, etc.—understand it, whether they are in agreement or not. I presented my personal view above. In fairness, I am not sure it is practically implementable.

    Perhaps having a few discussions with the couple, providing access to a compelling short introduction to Judaism to the non-Jew, obtaining a signed commitment (without conversion), could make this a formal process. The Catholic Church requires Pre-Cana. I am not suggesting borrowing a practice from the Church. But, there is value to Pre-Cana, having known a few friends who have gone through it. Of course, Pre-Cana is designed for 2 Catholics who want to be married in the Catholic Church.


  5. Rabbi Blake,

    Two years ago I wrote you on this topic and you said it deserves your thought and answer. You now get the opportunity to respond again.

    As you mention, Reformists often intermarry. At the following link: - you can see a chart, based on American data, that crystallizes the specter "REFORM Judaism" casts upon Jewish heritage. It shows that adherents of Reformism cannot withstand the test of time beyond 3 or 4 generations before they are swallowed up and lost from the Jewish people. Even a Hitler could not have devised so good a strategy to quietly annihilate so many Jewish souls.

    By the time Reform Jews' grandchildren are born, most of them will already have been subsumed into Gentile persuasion; Their Jewish genomes will have migrated out of the collective Jewish gene pool and their Jewish souls will have lost their moorings to Jewish tradition and intimacy with G-d. In fact, being willing to be called a Reform Jew, let alone priding oneself of it, belies the weak links this Jew has to Jewish tradition and belief in G-d in the first place.

    I believe this problem derives from a strange, twisted logic many Reform Jews apply. If they were to admit they prefer chiselling away at tradition to relieve their anxiety about perceived constraints on their mode of easy living, THAT WOULD AT LEAST BE REFRESHING. But rather, at least if a representative website's reasoning is any indication, convenience isn't at the core of the issue. Here's how that website rationalizes reform philosophy:

    "The word 'Reform' in the name of our Movement is a recognition that reform is part of our way of life, as it has been for Jews throughout the centuries."

    While the assertion that reformism has been around "throughout the centuries" is authentic, it conceals a spurious statistic I mentioned above - and we must separate the authentic fact from its spurious justification. It may well be true a fringe of Judaism always prefers assimilation or reform, but that does not mean that the Reform movement - as a collective body - is perpetuated. This is the crucial point: Reform Jews of today are definitely not descendants of Reform Jewry of the past. Reform Jews - as Jews - self discard! After 2 or 3 generations, most are already intermarried and their assimilation into the Gentile world is complete.

    The Reformist's claim of a centuries-old "tradition", therefore, is deceptive. Their duration, in fact, occupies miniscule fragments of history. In the space of a few generations, they will have lost their Jewish identity.

    Every generation has fringe elements that might drift to reformism ("conservative" or "reconstructionist" included). But these offshoots simply disappear from the Jewish horizon in a few generations. There simply is no longevity to their compromising way of life. In fact, they fare no better than secular Jews, most of whom have been "kidnapped from birth" by their foreign culture, in preserving a Jewish identity.

    The permanence of Judaism rests in Torah-true tradition. Torah is the glue of Jewish civilization. The Reform "movement" does not survive. It can propagate offshoots, such as christianity, but as an integral part of Judaism, it remains sterile. To attribute tradition to reformism is the voice of lemmings taking comfort in mass flight from Torah -- headlong to self-extinction.

  6. Dear Rabbi Blake,

    Our Torah portion this week, Matot-Massei, speaks to this issue as well. You can read about it here:

    A happy Rosh Chodesh and Shabbat shalom!

  7. The world turns and the world changes. Cultures come and go. Empires rise, gain strength and fall. New nations make their debuts on the stage of history, make a mark, then vanish like a passing cloud. Nations, like men, are mortal. Man's end comes by death. It's a biologic law. Nations also are subsumed in time. It's a historical law. Except for one thing that never changes, never disappears. It remains glaring before our eyes, insists on signing its name on every page of history; It is immortal - that's the Jewish nation.

    Peruse the recesses of history. Will you ever find another small nation, forever chased and persecuted, that withstood and existed so many generations? Never has any so small a nation survived, for so long, against the most disastrous episodes. Moreover, can you find another nation who so very adamantly guarded for so long - ITS OWN CULTURE?

    You raise the question of intermarriage. Can you not see, I ask most respectfully yet urgingly because you refrain from answering this glaring question, here on paper if not in your own mind, how all reformers fall by the wayside and only the real Judaic tradition of Moses' remains forever viable, fervent and with meaningful appeal? That's because you cannot bend truth. That is, once you come to learn about it - for only then can you recognize it.

    We even have a holiday to celebrate the fall of reform Judaism. It's the story of Chanuka. The Hellenist Jews, together with their Gentile cohorts, tried to dissuade and bring upon the Jewish people to reject Torah-true values. The Jews revolted and, thanks to God, won. Today's Hellenists is the Reform movement.

    One way you can react to this what-may-seem-offensive remark, though it really only states the obvious, is to close the door on comments such as mine. There has been than threat sensed before, although not from you personally, for which I always gave you much credit. (Other reform sites delete many of my remarks, but you have stood tough.) The deletions spare people psychological torment that it may brings, I suppose. A better approach may well be to fathom the truth of these points and rejuvinate with a new outlook.

    God bless you all.

  8. Lucky day for you....two postings from me.

    The first response as replied to the same blogpost on FB (Facebook):

    Amazing blog post in topic. Interfaith marriage. Yes, that would be ours in the beginning. What it is now perhaps needs to be redefined, even for me. So here it goes..... First is the question of faith, what is it that one believes fuels the soul to live with the highest regard for those around you (humans). The joining of couples who may value similar perhaps even the same inspirations yet worship in a different manner needs to be recognized as a positive. What you know is what you know until you are surrounded by or explore what you do not know. Accept the differences, accept the similarities and learn to channel the essence of being as completely as possible for a life that fulfills you in a world in which we live. It may be easier to have one faith in a home; yet if there is no practice, no center then what does the same do to enlighten one's life? If there is difference, then what you learn, practice and teach can be an immeasurable value in today's ever changing world, life. Sometimes learning Torah is so hard - to envision a culture, a people, a religion that you walked into with eyes wide open; versus a birth canal when your eyes may have been closed. You know my story, the meeting with Rabbi Judy Schindler, the wedding under the symbol of a chuppah with priest and (rent a ) Rabbi. Now the journey (a beautiful mikveh) has taken me to a place of being that reflects my soul and allows life to be lead with eyes open, ears attuned and arms ready to embrace. Please allow the topic to continue as it will open so many of all would be our senses whether we will all agree or not makes it that much more enriching. In peace, donna ( who honors the Hebrew name of Jaira).

  9. Now the second comment particularly after reading in the vanguard....

    Reformism? Not sure that it belongs in the same sentence when speaking about religion. Reform. That would be a good word to use, especially since it is within the name of the affiliated religion you call yourself to be.

    Did you own a box of crayons when you were young? The original box contained 8 crayons. Red, Orange, Yellow, Blue, Green, Violet, Brown and Black.

    Did you ever get to color on a blank piece of paper? Or use a colorbook?

    If you colored on a blank piece of paper then sometimes, the colors may have overlapped, creating a new color. A different color.

    Or if you colored using a coloring book with images outlined in bold, perhaps you went outside the lines with a color.

    Why did a box of crayons start with 8 colors?

    6 colors that exist in a rainbow as seen after the black of a storm, starting on the brown of land.

    Each separately beautiful. Colors used to describe creation(s). Yours, mine and especially God's. The blue of the sky, the green of the grass, the yellow of the sun...

    Together when next to each other, perhaps overlapping their boundaries in a rainbow.

    Together creating beauty.

    Do you really believe that He created us in His image for us not to see how we choose to live?

    My box of crayons can be the 8 afterall it is tradition, or add peach as flesh comes in multiple shades, add fluorescent as not everyone can see in the dark, add jazzberry jam as a little tune in life is good, add purple heart as sometimes it takes a hero.

    Are you getting the picture? We all exist. We do overlap. We cross boundaries. We all are beautiful in His image. Now, can we try and create a places of worship that opens the doors, accepts the bond, welcomes the opportunity to enrich our lives and focus on what He asked us all to do.

    Explore a little, color outside the lines, you might make something worth framing. If even words framed for us all to read on a Shabbat.

    in peace,


  10. Colors are nice, Jaira (Hebrew name?), but such a people who go after their hearts, do not represent the Jewish people because such a strategy

    There are absolute truths that cannot be compromised no matter how "beautiful" they appear to you today. (Although nothing is as beautiful (and lasting) as Torah truth.)

    The Jewish people are a pure family - one that
    הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב

    Like I said, you had the Sadduccees, the Hellenists, ... and today there are "Reform Jews". These groups, unlike the above Torah characteristic of the Jewish people, want and think intermarriage is wonderful, a "beautiful" concept,

    But these groups merely last a short time in Jewish history. Because only truth is lasting.

  11. And to be true to the Torah, one needs to be true to God being one's best self proclaiming that truth to exist.

    Guess that means you and I have much Torah learning and sharing to do. Now that would put a smile on many faces. Perhaps even the One.

    There is truth and there is reality. How you choose to weigh them is your choice. That is a freedom, if you will.

    Yes, Yaira spelled with a J. In memory of one before me, and in honor of the one who walked with me to here.

    Hope that you voice all these provoking thoughts to the leaders of this free world to speak well on your behalf, or perhaps this blog has you located some where that voices can not be heard to make a difference.

    Shavua Tov