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February 8, 2013 2:18 pm

Marrying Out

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Wedding rings. Photo: Jeff Belmonte.

Recently I have been asked once again to intervene in situations where a young Jew wants to marry a non-Jew. It is such a difficult position to be in. Love is a beautiful emotion and on the other hand, marriage is such a complex, difficult, and challenging state. Of course it is immensely rewarding when it works. Being Jewish is so important to me and so is being human. Everyone is upset with everyone else. It becomes a battleground. What can I do? What can I say? I have been facing this problem ever since I entered the rabbinate 45 years ago.

In my youthful arrogance, I used to reply to parents that if all they showed of Judaism to their children was a social club with hardly any positive Jewish experience, then why shouldn’t their children want to join a bigger social club? After all, I had seen in the Jewish school I attended how so many parents wanted the school to inoculate their children so that they would not marry out, but Heaven forfend they should come home and want to be more observant.

But things were more nuanced in reality. I came across young men from observant homes who married out too. Someone I knew from a very Chasidic family fell for a woman in a bar in Moscow, and that was that. Another was trapped by pregnancy into an inappropriate marriage. So often circumstances or accidents determined the course of a person’s life; where he went to university or work, or who happened to know someone who knew someone. There were other exceptional circumstances. I met young men and women who were physically or mentally challenged, with little chance of finding a Jewish partner, yet had been fortunate to find someone on the outside who was willing to take care of them and perhaps love them too. Wouldn’t I want a Jewish paraplegic to find solace with a nice non-Jewish lady?

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The sympathetic me wants to say that we must not treat such occurrences as the end of the road. The days are gone when parents sat in mourning for a child who married out, as if he or she had died. One must stay close to one’s flesh and blood, regardless of what decisions they make. After all, marriages tend to last less than they did. The child could return home or make a more appropriate choice the second or even third time around. If one retains a sympathetic connection, this might impact on the children who, ironically or unfairly, in the case of a Jewish woman marrying out, remain Jewish. Although it is true that statistically the children of mixed marriages are far less likely to be positively committed Jews, there are exceptions.

I might want to point out the examples I know of personally in which the non-Jewish partner not only converted but became a far better and more learned and committed Jew than the majority of born Jews I have met. I would argue that incorporating other talent, new genes into the pool might be beneficial. I could point to the Biblical Ruth, the Judean and Maccabee kings who brought non-Jewish women into the fold.

But then the hardliner enters the debate. Without any doubt, marrying out weakens the bonds with one’s religion and community. As a result of Jews from wealthy families marrying out, I have often seen fortunes that might have benefited Jewish charities fall into the hands of those who had no interest in supporting Jewish causes. We Jews are so few and our history so fraught, our support so limited, losing millions through murder or forced assimilation that we cannot look dispassionately on those who leave our ranks. And there are a whole slew of issues: who spends time with which family, how the children are raised, and which of their parents’ different families, religions, and values impact differently. How one side may be totally unreceptive or even antagonistic to the sensibilities and history of the other. Yes it may sometimes work, but more often than not it doesn’t, or it leads inevitably to the loss of the Jewish component.

By the time they ask for my help, it’s invariably too late and arguments fall on deaf ears, or on hearts so heavily invested there is no room for doubt.

Nevertheless, the role of the rabbi is to defend Judaism. It is for the parent to defend and protect their child. If leadership regards marrying out as just another mild hazard of modernity, are we not failing our communities in withdrawing what few inhibitory factors are left in our heavily acculturated diaspora communities where over 50% marry out and leave?

As a rabbi, I have always taken a lenient and inclusive approach to the less committed. I have justified this by saying that the majority of Orthodox rabbis take such a rigid and uncompromising line that I know they have driven many away that they might have salvaged. Surely someone needs to offer an alternative approach, just as Shamai and Hillel presented different ways of defending the faith. Yet the fact is that for every ten I have seen welcomed into the fold through easy conversions or sympathetic exceptions, perhaps only two have stayed the course.

Here in New York there is another phenomenon. In this most pro-Jewish of cities outside of Israel, there are thousands of nice Jewish boys who swear they cannot find a nice Jewish girl. And there are thousands of nice Jewish girls who claim they cannot find nice Jewish boys. Why? It doesn’t make sense! Neither does claiming that all Jewish girls are materialistic nags and all Jewish males are spoilt mummy’s boys. They can’t both be right. My own eyes and experience tell me they are not! But where there is no responsibility or expectation, and when the availability of immediate gratification is so prevalent, it seems inevitable that, without inhibition or social pressure, we will continue to see the majority disappear while the minority puts up the barriers, survives as committed Jews, and indeed expands.

Logic says fight! Emotion says be kind. My religion encourages me to be sympathetic and supportive as much as it insists on adherence to the letter of the law and discipline. As a parent, I wouldn’t want to lose my children, no matter what mistakes they made. I am fortunate I was not faced with this situation, nor with children rebelling and abandoning my way of life. Still, it is hard to preach what goes against my instincts, even if I fear the consequences.

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