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Symbolic violence and interfaith families

I recently discovered the term symbolic violence. I realised that it's a good way to understand part of my problem with the way that the Jewish community attempts to engage with interfaith families.

I wrote about this before in this post. I find the concept of symbolic violence helpful for articulating the problem. In symbolic violence you use language to hide the real underlying power relationships and make the state of affairs appear to be natural and just. The socially dominated group internalise the identity imposed upon them. I think this explains why I have such a problem with pretty much any activity aimed at interfaith couples being termed "outreach". The term "outreach" paints a particular picture. As I argued before, it immediately implies that intermarried Jews only exist outside of the active Jewish community. It also gives the impression that the reason for their outsider position is due to their own unwillingness or at least passivity with engaging with Judaism. The term 'outreach' paints the normative Jewish community as reaching out to intermarried Jews and obscures that role of that same Jewish community in actively excluding intermarried Jews. To confirm disapproval of me by using a metaphor from Christianity, the term 'outreach' paints intermarried Jews as the prodigal son and Jewish organisations as the father ready with the fatted brisket if only we would return (and nice progressive organisations don't even require we get divorced to achieve that return). The term 'outreach' makes it clear to interfaith families that we are reason we're not engaged in the Jewish community. We're the block to our children's Jewish education. The Jewish community is reaching out to us if only we'd turn back.

This is not the reality I experience. Intermarried Jews aren't just raising their own children Jewish, they're teaching other people's children to be Jewish. I'm not the only cheder teacher at my shul who's married to a non-Jew. For that matter, over the coarse of chats with my cheder students I've discovered that almost all of them have at least one non-Jewish grandparent. In non-Orthodox regional congregations we are the Jewish community. Despite the number of Jewishly engaged intermarried Jews, activities and organisations targeted at intermarried Jews are run by intramarried Jews. There's one very good reason for this, almost no rabbis are intermarried. This is because only one very small rabbinic college of one small Jewish movement will accept intermarried students. Everyone else, all the way to Liberal Judaism, view intermarried rabbis as beyond the pale. I'm not sure what the situation is with lay Jewish professionals. I don't know whether Jewish organisation discriminate against intermarried Jews or intermarried Jews are put off applying for these kinds of jobs because they have internalised the idea that the best that can be hoped for of interfaith families is that they raise their children to have a bar mitzvah and avoid a relationship like that of their parents.

When I planned my wedding I knew not to even look for a rabbi because no British rabbi would be allowed to officiate at such a ceremony. There are some rabbis who would possibly perform some kind of ceremony as long as they could do everything within their power to emphasise that it wasn't a real wedding. As I wanted to marry my husband rather than sit through a thinly veiled indictment of the validity of our marriage in front of all our family and friends, I got a friend who was also in an interfaith relationship to officiate. I guess I think this is really the answer. Sometimes there are good reasons for why a group of people aren't in charge of the organisations for their interests. Young children do not have the knowledge or judgement to be able to control their own movements. Intermarried Jews are not children. As long as organisations 'for' intermarried Jews are controlled by intramarried Jews, they will continue to impose upon interfaith families a view of them which promotes their second best status and is discordant with their own experience.* The only way for us to stop being painted as passive recipients of the Jewish communities benevolence and be able to address our needs and how the Jewish community actively obstructs them, is to run our own organisations. That's why I'm so glad to have found Fifty Percenters Blog. It's the first thing I've found for intermarried Jews which doesn't explicitly state that our relationships are second best. Given that we make up such a big chunk of the Jewish community, that's pretty messed up.

*Yes, I am well aware that all interfaith families are different and therefore the views of interfaith families expressed by intermarried Jews will be discordant with some other intermarried Jews, but I think movements controlled by intermarried Jews would suffer less from this problem.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 30th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC)
Oh, I bought a book that looked hilarious that I think you might enjoy! It's called "How to Stop an Intermarriage: a guide for parents to prevent broken hearts", and it's full of tactics like, "If your child's partner is Christian or Muslim, ask them if they're okay with going to hell for eternity for marrying a Jew!"

I agree that the implications of the "outreach" language are pretty harmful, and that it's really irritating and weirdly non-progressive that nearly all rabbis can't marry non-Jews.
Dec. 30th, 2009 06:53 pm (UTC)
This is a great post. The line, "As I wanted to marry my husband rather than sit through a thinly veiled indictment of the validity of our marriage in front of all our family and friends" struck me with its beauty and sadness and then thrilled me by being followed with your empowerment.

I really kind of wish that my husband had insisted on using the traditional Jewish words for the ring ceremony at our interfaith wedding. The rabbi was willing but it wasn't his preference so when Jacob said it wasn't a big deal, we got generic declarations. I think, "What's the point of this expensive rabbi if you don't say the right words?" He was just tired of fighting with his parents and siblings who believed we hadn't earned the right words because I wasn't converting. I'm so glad to hear that you found a third path.

PrincessMax (from fiftypercenters; thanks for the mention)
Dec. 30th, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC)
Marriage to a non-Jew
But doesn't Judaism prohibit marriage to a non-Jew? So how could a Rabbi - who's supposed to lead the flock and set a religious example, marry a non-Jew?

Dec. 30th, 2009 09:35 pm (UTC)
Re: Marriage to a non-Jew
Asking whether Judaism prohibits a Jew marrying a non-Jew implies that there's one position within Judaism, and there isn't, just as different Christians have different views on, say homosexuality or obligations to charitable giving.

Orthodox Judaism prohibits marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. I'm not sure about the exact halachic rational for that. Reform Judaism on the other hand, has a different approach to halacha. There are Reform and Liberal rabbis who don't keep kosher according to Orthodox ideas of kashrut, or who drive on Shabbat or who didn't perform Brit Milah upon their sons. This is allowed within Reform and Liberal Judaism because individuals must decide for themselves how they think HaShem wishes them to live and different people will come to different conclusions, just as different Orthodox rabbis will have different interpretations of the extent and practice of particular mitzvot. Intermarriage is the big exception to this. In fact, for many non-Orthodox rabbinical colleges, not being married to a non-Jew is pretty much the only non-negotiable entrance requirement.

I think that the taboo surrounding intermarriage within the non-Orthodox Jewish community doesn't have that much to do with what we think HaShem wants of us. I think it has to do with demographic fear and a really sad lack of confidence in Judaism itself. I love Judaism. I am so happy that Judaism shapes every day of my life: the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the way I understand the world, the shape of my days and weeks and years. I don't need to raise my children with a Jewish father for them to experience that. I don't think that I did anything wrong in marrying the soul mate G@d provided for me. So, to answer your second question, I think that a rabbi married to a non-Jew, like a major chunk of her congregation would be, and living a life infused with Judaism and love of G@d and good deeds, would set a pretty damn fine religious example to her flock.
Dec. 30th, 2009 10:10 pm (UTC)
Re: Marriage to a non-Jew
The Torah states that marriage between a Jew and non-Jew is prohibited. If you don't agree then why call yourself a Jew? A "Rabbi" who marries a non-Jew is disrespecting Judaism. That would apply to a Reverend marrying a non-Christian. It would be absurd. You people are trying to make Judaism into another sect of Christianity. Please take your Christian spouses and children to church and leave us alone.
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 31st, 2009 01:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Marriage to a non-Jew
Hi - thanks for the answer. I am from an Orthodox tradition, and this is where I have learned about Judaism. I have not studied within a Reform setting, although I have attended services and have talked with friends who are more Reform-oriented than I am. I am interested to hear about different approaches to Judaism. I feel that in order to understand the rationale behind what each branch thinks, one has to do a lot - perhaps an impossible amount - of studying. To be really well informed, rather than just taking the word of others - no matter how learned - is quite difficult.

I would say that within Orthodoxy, individuals also must decide what Hashem wants of them. Whilst we do follow Halacha as set out in the Orthodox interpretation, it does not mean that we don't have room for interpreting how this applies to our own lives. It is not monolithic. Yet we do take on trust certain interpretations of the law that have been debated and fixed over the ages - rather than starting at zero by ourselves on every point, which would be impossibly difficult, given the amount of text and learning that has gone before, and which we would have to be familiar with in order to come to an informed position.

I think that I would find it difficult to infuse my children with a love of Judaism in a home where one partner was not of that faith. What right would I, as the Jewish parent, have to teach Judaism to my children when their other parent held a different belief? Would it not be confusing for them to see two beloved parents with quite differing theological belief - in the case of Jewish/Christian, a belief that is directly contradictiory (i.e. the Messiah has/has not arrived)?

I can understand that two parents of different backgrounds can unite to bring children up a certain way - in fact, I am the child of a mixed marriage myself, but my parents chose the Jewish tradition. And it is true that within Jewish history there are many mixed partnerships - where the wife or husband came from a non-Jewish background. But I think it is imposing an almost impossible burden on a child to ask it to distinguish intellectually between two different traditions of parents whom it inevitably loves and feels loyal to - and to make any kind of sense out of such a situation.

Dec. 31st, 2009 02:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Marriage to a non-Jew
The more time I spend in the Jewish community the more that I think that making hard and fast distinctions between what Orthodox and what Reform Jews do is quite difficult. A bunch of my cheder students wouldn't believe that I was Reform because I cover my hair and they though that that was something only Orthodox women did. I try to explain things to them in terms of some Jews do this and some Jews do that rather than Orthodox Jews do this and Reform Jews do that. I have a bunch of friends who went to Reform of Liberal cheders where they were told that certain practices were just for Orthodox Jews and I don't want my students to feel that they can't explore a whole range of Jewish practices. I mean some stuff very much falls down denominational lines. Reform shuls don't do two day Yom Tov and Orthodox diaspora shuls do. I have friends who think of themselves as Orthodox but eat in non-kosher restaurants. I think most people sort of muddle through.

I've heard the idea put forward the real difference between denominations is more the rate of change rather than anything else. There are Modern Orthodox congregations with female rabbis in all but name. On the other hand, I think that some parts of Orthodoxy suffer from a fight to prove who can be more frummy. Look at all of the wank surrounding conversion at the moment which is ruining people's lives and does not seem to be for the sake of Heaven. British Modern Orthodoxy has become more conservative over the last hundred years as a response to other denominations. There are still great pious Orthodox Jews and rabbis, it's just a worrying general trend.

One big difference between Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism is that if one asks a rabbi an opinion on a specific situation, in Orthodoxy one is obliged to follow his advise, even if a different rabbi might give a different answer. That doesn't exist at all in Reform Judaism.

My husband and I don't have any children yet but when (G@d willing) we do, we are planning to raise them as Jews. We both agree that we want to raise them with one religious identity. However, my husband is a practising Christian and they'll see how that's a big part of his life. I don't have a problem with gentiles being Christian; I think that it's a perfectly fine way for them to worship G@d. I think that they're wrong about some pretty major theological issues but then I'm probably wrong about lots of stuff too. I think it's OK for children to know that their parents disagree about some things and that Jews and gentiles have different obligations. I have quite a few friends who have non-Jewish fathers and grew up to be perfectly happy and involved Jews. Hopefully things will all work out.
Dec. 31st, 2009 07:27 am (UTC)
Good marriages are good marriages, and the Jewish marriage I have seen happens to be an interfaith one, and if I didn't think that they weren't both (in their own ways, one of which didn't involve conversion) serious people of faith, I would not have given them their son, who is flesh of my flesh but heart of their heart.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )