Changing Attitudes-Engaging Intermarried Jews and Their Families – By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

What should our attitude be when an interfaith family comes to our Shul or community?  Should we actively try to engage interfaith families or might this give people the impression it is OK to intermarry?  What should a Rabbi do when a couple comes to him who perhaps knows little about Judaism, and may not even realize intermarriage is frowned upon?  Should the rabbi reject them?  Rebuke them?  Accept them?  Help with their wedding, since they will certainly be marrying?  Does it make a difference if the man or woman is the Jew?

The word intermarriage rings for many in the Jewish community like the sound of a (wooden) coffin nail; and indeed, 75 years ago in America it was.  A whole generation of American Jews to whose parents Jewish life and Jewish tradition were important, viewed marrying a non-Jew as their ticket to becoming an American instead of a Jew, the way to a safer, freer and more prosperous life without Judaism.   Appropriately, parents tore their clothing and sat shiva for intermarried children because often those intermarriages did signify a Jewish end.

As an Orthodox rabbi I believe Jews should marry other Jews.  Never the less I think we do damage to the Jewish people if we react to intermarriage today no differently than we did in the past generation.  Today close to half of American Jewish weddings are interfaith.  It sounds like the end of the Jewish people, but that depends on one’s perspective.

The phrase “Jewish Continuity” has been overused in recent times, especially within the world of raising money for Jewish causes.   Though it is important for the Jewish people to continue, when we view Jews marrying other Jews as the only goal of Judaism; then we are just being prejudiced against non-Jews.   In fact from a strictly halachic (Jewish legal) perspective, it is arguably better to marry a non-Jew and keep the Sabbath than to marry a Jew and not keep it (Tur, Even Haezer 15, Mishnah Torah, Isuray Biah 12:1).

Intermarriage is a symptom of Judaism’s irrelevance in the lives of so many American Jews, not the cause of that irrelevance.   If I am unwilling to marry a non-Jew just because they are a non-Jew and not for any other reason, that is just prejudice.  Jews should marry Jews because their personal Judaism is such an integrated and encompassing part of their lives that it would be very difficult to not share it with their spouse.  If we stressed meaningful Jewish lives instead of “Jewish Continuity,” we would not have to worry about Jewish continuity.

In the past marrying out of the Jewish religion was a way to escape the limits of Judaism but today, ironically, it can be a gateway into Jewish life.   Increasingly, a Jewish man or woman whose Jewish life is not an encompassing and fulfilling spiritual journey, a Jewish man or woman whose connection to Jewish tradition and mitzvot is superficial and whose knowledge of Torah and Judaism is minimal, meets someone whom they fall in love with who happens not to be Jewish and, for the first time in their lives, the Jewish partner calls a rabbi.

I have heard it many times:   “Rabbi, my name is David.  I am not very religious.  I grew up going to Synagogue once a year and celebrating a Seder and Hanukah, I am getting married and my finance and I want to have a Jewish wedding.  She is not Jewish but likes the idea of a Jewish wedding and some of the Jewish traditions.”

For this Jewish person it is often the first time he has volitionally knocked on his People’s door, and in a sad and ironic twist of Jewish history, it is precisely at this moment that the door is closed:   “I’m sorry David, I don’t do interfaith weddings but I’d be happy to meet with you and your fiancée and talk about the meaning behind Jewish weddings.”   Inevitably, since David and his fiancé have never met with a rabbi and are in stressed out wedding planning mode, they never call back.

We not only turn away engaged or already married interfaith couples explicitly, but as a Jewish community in more subtle ways also.  When we see intermarriage as the end, couples and interfaith families sense this.  If they get up the nerve to walk into a synagogue they often gather that something is amiss.   They see that, in most Conservative and Orthodox synagogues at least, they can not join as families and they feel turned away.   In many of our communities we do not do this with the Jewish family that drives to synagogue on Shabbat; the car they parked 2 blocks away does not color every interaction we have with them.  Why do it with interfaith families?    The floodgates of the rivers of Jews leaving the faith that we imagine we are opening by not censuring intermarriages are, in this generation, a miasma.  Such attitudes will not stop anyone from intermarrying, only from ultimately cultivating a meaningful and perhaps more observant and informed Jewish life.

14 Responses to Changing Attitudes-Engaging Intermarried Jews and Their Families – By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. This is a really thoughtful post – thank you Rabbi. From what I’ve seen (and the interfaith couples that I know), Jews who marry non Jews do tend to have partners that are more interested in the Jewish faith than they are. The irony is that it is the non-Jewish partner who helps to bring the Jewish partner back in to the fold.

  2. Yosef Kanefsky says:

    Thank you R. Hyim for your thoughtful and provocative post. I agree that our “disease” is the perceived irrelevance of Judaism in the eyes of many of our people, and that intermarriage is the “symptom”, not the other way around.
    But here’s the question I’d pose: In the United States (or anywhere outside of Israel) creating a meaningful and enduring Jewish identity for one’s children is a tough battle. It takes a lot of patience, focus, and to be frank, money. Numerous studies have shown that the children of interfaith marriages are very unlikely to have these kinds of meaningful Jewish identities when they grow up. Their parents don’t give them the wherewithal to make this possible. Now, you could perhaps argue that this is the result of Orthodox shuls not welcoming interfaith couples. More likely though (I think) is the reality that practically by definition, an interfaith couple is one that lacks the necessary passion for Judaism to invest the very hard work involved in raising children who will possess an independent and enduring meaningful Jewish identity. Bottom line: Is it realistic to think that the potential fruits of being more embracing of interfaith couples, can justify the significant downside of sending confusing messages to our own congregations and youth?

  3. Hyim Shafner says:

    Good points Reb Yosef. In terms of the first, that interfaith families tend not to give children meaningful and deep Jewish identities; this is surely part of the symptom/cause dichotomy I mentioned. Generally the Jews who tend to intermarry are the Jews whose Jewish lives are not as encompassing, daily and deep. Intermarriage has not caused those Jews to give up their commitment; rather their prior low level of Jewish commitment provides no hurdle to intermarriage.

    Your second question is if I am embracing families in my shul in which one spouse is Jewish and one is not, what prevents the members of my shul, perhaps my own children, from assuming I approve of it?

    I want our children to grow up in communities that encompass the entire range of Jewish backgrounds and levels of observance, a unified Jewish people. Is this dangerous? If we must rely on our disapproval of lifestyles that are contrary to our own to be our children’s teacher this is not good pedagogy. My children and my congregants know I value shabbat because they experience it each week and because I teach about it, not because I pretend no one drives to shul.

    One person that comes to my shul sometimes is a limo driver, a very passionate Jewish soul who clearly drives on Shabbat. Since his car, a very long, (and incredibly absurd) white stretch Hummer, is so unwieldy that he has no choice but to park it in front of the shul. When my children questioned me about it I told them, true he is not completely observant, but how wonderful that he wants some Shabbat, that he chooses to come to shul.

    I hope the conclusion our children and congregants will make from seeing interfaith families in our shuls is that interfaith families are part of our community and people. That intermarriage, like other things people do that are against the torah’s wishes is not grounds for letting the rest of one’s Judaism falter. Intermarriage is not, at least in a purely halachic sense, a big sin. Its disproportionately negative power in the Jewish community’s eyes lies, I assume from its history and in that it seemingly would threaten to reroute one’s Jewish life onto a non-Jewish path.

    By changing our impressions of intermarriage and seeing it more like other sins people crush with their heel, we can take away its bite, and see it for what it is, -a small sin that need not reroute one’s life to a trajectory that will never merge with Judaism. Indeed by seeing intermarriage as we did 75 years ago, it is we, the Jewish community, which have given intermarriage today its teeth. Treat interfaith families as part of our community and they will reclaim their Jewish roots. This is especially true if they are entering into a seriously observant Jewish community.

    In addition, because my community is open to non-Jewish spouses and non-Jews in general the number of people converting to Judaism in my community is high, if anything children see these non-Jewish spouses wanting to come to Judaism not Jews wanting to leave Judaism.

  4. Lilee says:

    What you’re saying makes so much common sense. So why does the majority still practically sit shiva and have no meaningful communication with those that are sincerely searching?

  5. Amy says:

    What most resonates with me in your post is your discussion of a unified and diverse Jewish people. I have not found a comfortable place for myself within any Jewish movement or community primarily because even within myself I am torn between how I prioritize different Jewish values. Recently studying more about the relationship between Moshe and Yitro I was again reminded that our people has never been homogenous – and baruch HaShem for that! So for now I study with an Orthodox woman, I teach and work in a Reform synagogue, and I feel most at home davening in a Conservative (Conservadox/Egalitarian they self-identify) shul. Furthermore, I work with youth and I believe (if we speak of teens) we underestimate them if we think our only choices are single-message or conflicting messages. Most of them are capable of understanding nuance – after all, they are among a people who wrestles and grapples. Thank you for your words.

  6. Sarah says:

    Sounds nice in theory, but what are you going to do about all the children of intermarriages, in cases where the wife is not Jewish, who grow up thinking they are full members of an Orthodox shul? At some point they will try to go to a yeshiva or get married outside of your shul.

  7. Hyim Shafner says:

    Sarah
    In my shul as I imagine in most Orthodox shuls, we don’t pretend that the spouse or children are halcically Jewish if they are not. A non-Jewish husband is not counted in the minyan nor would non-Jewish children be. I find that if people are welcomed into an Orthodox community; if they stay it means they are interested in observance and over time choose to convert. Your question also brings up a giant issue Rabbis face today when both parents are Jewish and they adopt a baby. If the parents are not fully observant, though Rav Moshe would have permitted the child to be converted, most Batey Din (Jewish courts) of recent will not permit conversion of the child. Until this changes it is going to be very hard for families that want to daven in Orthodox shuls and have adopted children when Bar Mitzvah times come. This is a not uncommon problem that Rabbis of very welcoming shuls face and I and the other Morethodoxy bloggers and other Rabbis in the US and Israel are trying to create solutions for.

  8. pierre says:

    More than ‘reaching’ single gerim – who to be completely honest are as mixed a bag as you can imagine for people who *want* to be jewish (often older singles already) – we need to switch the policy and specifically angle to intermarried couples; certain of the REALLY “tough” parts of becoming religious/Jewish are taken care of; the zivug is already there, whom are compatible one with another, often settled in careers and often already have children, they often already share the inclinations that lend themselves to finding a shared approach in judaism…obviously not everything is a great fit, but giving such people *opportunity* with Judaism is not taking them to mikvah overnight! And would make more sense, to me, and seem more justifiable than the mamash OUTREACH that occurs when a non-Jew shows the SLIGHTEST interest in Judaism in the major Jewish city I’m from.

  9. Yosef Yesod says:

    The zohar is clear that having relations with a non jew is one of the 3 sins that drives away the “shechina”
    the intermarried couple have an inherent tumah that is attached to them, which is visible to those who are spiritually tuned in.
    I ask those who are advocating their inclusion to be really honest and ask how pure are you in maintaing kedushat habrit ie. do you watch movies, look at other women or have non kosher sexual thoughts…mmm, i rest my case

  10. Pierre says:

    Yosef Yesod; The Zohar is not clear about anything – even itself. This case you rest makes no sense; people AGAINST outreach that is inclusive of intermarried couples are also completely capable of seeing Schindler’s List, looking at a Kallah at a wedding or having a completely normal human thought that no one can reasonably proclaim assur (unless you obsess on it or act on it).

    Or people who otherwise oppose films, etc, can approve of outreach inclusive of intermarrieds – such as The approach of the otherwise-questionable Eternal Jewish Family international specifically appeals itself to intermarried couples who have an interest in becoming “thoroughly” Jewish…which is to say virtually any intermarried couple we could be discussing here. In fact, I don’t know an kiruv project that has turned someone away because they’re intermarried…the person/couple is asking about TORAH! We should alienate them based on Zohar by comparison?…I can’t even count the number of such couples I have known over my few years in Torah -couples who become observant and bound to communities with children now getting married and raising their own “spiritually tuned in” Jewish families. They could never have known what they could not have seen; obviously rabbis and/or laypeople opened themselves to them. Otherwise they indeed would have been lost to Judaism, which would seem to be your preference. Pasul everyone al pi Zohar, let G-d sort them out.

  11. Yosef Yesod says:

    I think in light of the EJF scandal brewing i rest my case kol hayotzeh minhatuma – tuma

  12. Pierre says:

    Only if your case was that R. Tropper has issues. The various projects of EJF *had the support of many gedolim* (granted, we’ve long been without ‘gedolim’ by Rambam’s definition);

    http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2009/12/eternal-jewish-con-of-leib-tropper.html

    Somewhere among them would be those you yourself find authorative who were willing to have their faces and names associated with EJF. His outreach to intermarried familes, among other efforts, aside – no wait, before I forget; opposing such outreach – which again is engaged in by Aish HaTorah branches, Ohr Somayach, Chabad, and the great number of Kiruv groups – would include alienating the CHILDREN of Jewish women who are intermarried, WHO ARE JEWISH from Torah (which Zohar claims to speak on behalf of) – Jewish neshamot which it seems you’d prefer to cast out to be raised by the Nations – in contradiction to the stated support by Charedi and Modern poskim in support of outreach to MORE than single Jews or Jewish couples (a ‘casting out’ in contradiction to Torah law).

    Anyways, regardless of the financial improprieties and personal infractions under Troppers ‘leadership’, Tropper had encouraged STRINGENCY regarding conversions, even ones where non-Jewish women married to Jewish men were converted (and their children…nebach….sent to YESHIVA, R”L).

    Your case doesn’t seem to be a legal (halachic) one; You didn’t present legal statue. Zohar (the only textual evidence you’ve presented), never went before the Sanhedrin – the last universal legal body that could canonize such legal texts. If you prefer to uphold Zohar of halacha, fine. Just don’t consider yourself a defender of Yahadut or Torah from which it derives – a Torah given to ALL ISRAEL at Sinai, not secretly in a conglomerate (even by voices within our tradition), text redacted long after we were in Galut.

  13. Pierre says:

    Only if your case was that R. Tropper has issues. The various projects of EJF *had the support of many gedolim* (granted, we’ve long been without ‘gedolim’ by Rambam’s definition);

    http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2009/12/eternal-jewish-con-of-leib-tropper.html

    Somewhere among them would be those you yourself find authorative who were willing to have their faces and names associated with EJF. His outreach to intermarried familes, among other efforts, aside – no wait, before I forget; opposing such outreach – which again is engaged in by Aish HaTorah branches, Ohr Somayach, Chabad, and the great number of Kiruv groups – would include alienating the CHILDREN of Jewish women who are intermarried, WHO ARE JEWISH from Torah (which Zohar claims to speak on behalf of) – Jewish neshamot which it seems you’d prefer to cast out to be raised by the Nations – in contradiction to the stated support by Charedi and Modern poskim in support of outreach to MORE than single Jews or Jewish couples (a ‘casting out’ in contradiction to Torah law).

    Anyways, regardless of the financial improprieties and personal infractions under Troppers ‘leadership’, Tropper had encouraged STRINGENCY regarding conversions, even ones where non-Jewish women married to Jewish men were converted (and their children…nebach….sent to YESHIVA, R”L).

    Your case doesn’t seem to be a legal (halachic) one; You didn’t present legal statue. Zohar (the only textual evidence you’ve presented), never went before the Sanhedrin – the last universal legal body that could canonize such legal texts. If you prefer to uphold Zohar over halacha, fine. Just don’t consider yourself a defender of Yahadut or Torah from which it derives – a Torah given to ALL ISRAEL at Sinai, not secretly in a conglomerate (even by voices within our tradition), text redacted long after we were in Galut.

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