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Can 'good Jews' marry out?

I've gotten a bit fed up with a lot of the rhetoric in the Judeosphere about intermarriage, even the rhetoric coming from the people who are officially nice to use. I guess my real problem is that no matter how accurate the model may be for the majority of interfaith families, it really doesn't fit the reality of most of the Jews I know in interfaith relationship, including my own.

First of all, anything specifically for interfaith families is classified as 'outreach'. This gives an impression like this:

If anything catering to interfaith families is 'outreach' it implies that all interfaith families must be 'outside' of the group of Jews who are inside the fold of good, involved Jews. This just doesn't match my experience of Jews in interfaith relationships. Obviously there's sampling bias, I know most of my Jewish friends through religious activities so obviously all of my Jewish friends are more likely to be religiously involved, but still, it proves we exist. Does it make sense to talk about outreach to the girl who organised the J-soc ball and ran the J-soc kitchen for a year? I also don't think that my friends are as aberrant as most people think. One of my friends claims that about half the regulars at my shul are in interfaith families. I don't know because you can't tell with most people. In terms of synagogue attendance, there doesn't seem to be much difference between interfaith families and single faith families. One thing I have noticed is that I don't think that the families who are involved in the running of the shul, the people on the important committees, are in interfaith relationships. This could be my imagination and lack of knowledge but I think it's the case.

This would match my feeling about the situation of interfaith families in Jewish communities. It is really easy in non-Orthodox communities to be an ordinary active Jew in an interfaith relationship. There are enough of us that the stigma can't persist at a level which is high enough to keep us out of shul. However, if you want to move on to take any kind of leadership position in the Jewish community, the stigma surrounding having a non-Jewish spouse will start to be enough to be a barrier. Sometimes this barrier is explicit. There are no rabbinic colleges which would accept a student with a non-Jewish partner. You can be as shomer kashrut, as shomer shabbat as you like, but if you're married to a shiksa there's no place for you. I have had conversations with women who want to be shomer niddar but are terrified that they will be found out as having a non-Jewish husband and excluded from the mikvah. This isn't a baseless fear as I've also heard of women actually being excluded from a mikvah because their husband isn't Jewish. I think a more subtle internalized pressure exists in other realms, that if you tried to enter leadership positions in Jewish institutions you'd be getting above your place. I don't know if this is my imagination, but it seems far more of a barrier to Jewish involvement than the inherent difficulties of managing a household which contains more than one faith.

I think that this leads to a sort of circular logic in relationship to interfaith families. Jews in interfaith relationships are seen as not as committed to Judaism and this is proven by looking around the Jewish leadership and seeing the lack of intermarried Jews. This impression can then be used to exclude intermarried Jews from those positions of leadership because marrying a Jew is used as a shibboleth of whether you're a committed Jew. Referring to all worked targeted at interfaith families as 'outreach' only reinforces this exclusionary meme.

So what do I want? I want Jewish institutions to accept the fact that there are good, involved committed Jews who are married to non-Jews and the how the way in which they frame including interfaith families in Jewish communities actually has exclusionary effects upon these Jews. I want the dialogue of how to live as interfaith families to move on from just 'the December Dilemma' and conversion. Jews are living rich authentic observant lives in interfaith families and the rest of the Jewish community isn't providing what they need because it isn't talking about hot to practice family purity when one partner isn't Jewish, it isn't talking about how shabbat and Pesach when one person in a family isn't obligated, it isn't talking about what mitzvot a non-Jewish father can help his Jewish children to observe, it isn't talking about halachic frameworks for acknowledging interfaith marriages. Ultimately I want not marrying a non-Jew to stop being the ultimate test of whether someone is a good Jew. I'm happy for rabbinic colleges to look favourably upon intramarriage but I want them to treat it the same as other mitzvot, the practice of which aren't an automatic deciding factor. Today, people don't marry out because they aren't committed to Judaism, they marry out because they fall in love with a non-Jew and they don't think that intermarriage is an ultimate taboo and they've seen happy interfaith families, so on the balance of things they go with their heart and try to work out a way in which their love for their spouse and their religion can coexist.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 16th, 2009 11:55 am (UTC)
I agree with you on everything. I also resent the circular argument often used in orthodoxy: Do not marry out because the halachic status of your children will be questionable - poor them. However, if your halachic status is questionable because your parents married out, we don't care about you - you're not Jewish.

This is the crux of it - understanding and sympathy. Jews who marry Jews are not necessarily virtuous - they might well be *lucky* that their soulmate is a Jew and I think a lot of them somehow believe that breaking up with a non-Jewish spouse would be easy to do (?!?!) if they were in that situation. And the Jewish community has a huge responsibility to the children of interfaith marriages.

At the end of the day, we've tried ostricisation as a 'cure' for intermarriage for a long time. Rates are going up and numbers in the Jewish community are declining. We need to wise up.

Rant over....
Mar. 16th, 2009 12:10 pm (UTC)
Go you.

I want to have another shot at long-term relationships, but I don't want to do it transatlantic again. So I'm going to hold off looking for a partner till I get back to the UK. But there are hardly any partnerable Jews in my demographic, so chances are I'll end up Partnered Out. It will be interesting, at that point, to see if I get any more Torah work.
Mar. 16th, 2009 01:57 pm (UTC)
But there are hardly any partnerable Jews in my demographic,

Mar. 16th, 2009 06:44 pm (UTC)
Wait, you've spent most of the last five years unsuccessfully looking for a Jewish partner in the UK, so why are you surprised that hatam_soferet expects it to be difficult? You've complained enough times that there just aren't that many people in Britain who are observant without having the Chareidi mindset, who are interested in marrying and raising a family and won't turn down someone a bit older than the norm. I think it's probably even harder for an observant but not Orthodox woman than for a man, actually.

Or are you shocked that hatam_soferet is willing to contemplate hypothetically finding a non-Jewish partner if no nice Jewish boy is available? She puts a higher priority on having a family than you do, she would rather be in a mixed relationship than none at all. For you, a Jewish wife is an absolute requirement, and if you can't find anyone you'll stay a bachelor. But that speaks to exactly the point lavendersparkle is making; it's not necessarily the case that all committed Jews will prioritize that way, and the community should stop assuming that mixed relationships indicate lack of commitment.
Mar. 16th, 2009 07:18 pm (UTC)
Wait, you've spent most of the last five years unsuccessfully looking for a Jewish partner in the UK, so why are you surprised that hatam_soferet expects it to be difficult?

Because I consider myself crap at finding someone anyway—I couldn't find anyone for years on end when I was Orthodox of varying degrees of observancy either, and of an age when the majority of my peers were single—so you can't extrapolate from me.

Or are you shocked that hatam_soferet is willing to contemplate hypothetically finding a non-Jewish partner if no nice Jewish boy is available?

I've come to the conclusion that intermarriage is not necessarily a bad thing, if it is with someone who converts. I still disapprove*—sorry, lavendersparkle—of mixed-faith marriages.

* But in a very British way, which means generally keeping my opinions to myself.
Mar. 16th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC)
It's not intermarriage if the spouse converts to Judaism! What an awful way to categorize things. When it comes to actual intermarriage (as opposed to randomly deciding to classify a convert as a non-Jew, ugh), you can disapprove all you like, but the onus is on you to help build Jewish communities which don't lose the majority of people between 15 and 30, and once we have that, your disapproval will have some moral weight. (Your insisting on marrying a Jewish woman or nobody yourself is perfectly fine, I don't have a problem with that decision at all.)
Mar. 16th, 2009 07:45 pm (UTC)
Indeed, referring to marriage between Jews by choice and Jews by birth as intermarriage is wrong: morally, halachically and factually. I was going to write a whole post a while ago about how that is my number one pet peeve about the rhetoric surrounding intermarriage.
Mar. 16th, 2009 08:58 pm (UTC)
It's not intermarriage if the spouse converts to Judaism! What an awful way to categorize things.

And indeed, that wasn't what I meant. Probably intermarriage is not the right term for what I meant. I wasn't talking about marrying a convert; I was talking about getting involved with someone who subsequently converts (and had not previously been planning to convert). To me that occupies a grey ground—forming a relationship with a non-Jew is frowned upon, but it ends up in a Jewish wedding, so all is well at the end, provided the conversion is done sincerely.
Mar. 27th, 2009 04:55 am (UTC)
Because I consider myself crap at finding someone anyway

You do realise I married the first guy who was willing to admit interest, and it was a stinking failure?
Mar. 16th, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC)
I confess I'm also curious about what you mean by there being hardly any partnerable Jews in your demographic. What's your demographic? What makes the Jews in it unpartnerable?

I'm just being nosy though, so no need to answer if you don't want to.
Mar. 16th, 2009 05:18 pm (UTC)
As in, 30ish, single, observant but not Orthodox, living outside London. First it's a numbers thing; there just aren't that many Masorti-type Jews even *in* London, and I'm not planning to live in London. Second, people in that age bracket seem mostly to be already partnered, although I grant I am drawing that conclusion from my present circles, which probably work a bit differently in the transpond. I also have an intimidating job if one is carrying the idea of Teh Torah Scribe Is Teh Holy, and topping that, I'm crap at getting to know new people. That's what I mean.
Mar. 27th, 2009 04:43 am (UTC)
Hmmm, maybe you can find someone good to bring into the circle on the geographic and/or religious-community fronts: a non-Brit who's open to living where you want in the UK and/or non-Jew who's open to living a Jewishly-involved life with Observant Torah Scribe Gal (whether or not that partner decides to become Jewish). ;)

Did my Brooklyn-born mom expect to make her Jewish home & raise her Jewish children with my Havana-born, Kentucky-raised non-Jewish dad? Maybe not, but it's sure worked out fine! (Geographic ball ended up more in his court, though: they lived in Kentucky early in the marriage, went to the land of Washington, DC to sojourn there for a decade and a half, and then returned unto the Land of Blue Grass, where they've been since '88 -- we'll be joining them in Louisville for the seders.)

I may have been less surprised, then, to be creating my Jewish future with a Southern boy raised Catholic: in fact, the surprising bit turned out to be his decision, a year before we got hitched (which is over a decade ago now, but was many years into our relationship), to explore conversion to Judaism--a process of study & engagement with community (in Oxford, where we were grad students at the time) that led to our Jewish life together having a rather different flavor than previously anticipated: far more traditionally observant and involved. (And we're currently back in my hometown of DC: does that mean I win? ;) )

So yeah, I'm in favor of finding the person who's right for you, whether or not that person happens to have been born to a Jewish family. Can't be right for you if the person is hostile or indifferent to a major part of your life, which Jewish involvement clearly is -- but having been raised nominally Jewish is no guarantee that a person fits with you even in things that are important in your Jewish life, let alone all the other facets. The relevant question is: does this person encourage me to be who I am and who I want to become? Do I do the same in return? If yes, I'm not asking for anything more.

(But yes, I have what to say on Jewish family & community involvement by non-Jews, by Jewish spouses of non-Jews, by their kids, etc. Some places I've said it:
http://www.shefanetwork.org/intermarriage__keruv [third listing on the left, 5-part set of links])

Mar. 27th, 2009 04:49 am (UTC)
Would much rather non-Jew than non-Brit, at this point.
Mar. 16th, 2009 06:58 pm (UTC)
I strongly agree with you that there's a major circular argument problem in assuming that all committed Jews will marry other Jews, and the corollary, that anyone who does marry out can't possibly be committed, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy if this leads to the person being shunned by the community, so it's really invidious.

I think the term "outreach" mainly refers to extending a hand to the non-Jewish partner, who definitionally isn't "a good Jew" as they're not any kind of Jew! It may also refer to reaching out towards people who may otherwise be excluded from the community, not because they're bad Jews but because most sectors of the community have a poor record when it comes to treatment of out-married members. You may be right that the term is perpetuating harm, though.

I think the leadership thing is a big problem, but your community, which is the one I grew up in and where my parents are still active, doesn't have a problem with mixed faith marriage as such. It has a problem that the same little clique who first started the community 30 years ago want to run everything their way, and it's very difficult for an outsider to get involved, or even for a former insider who has evolved in a different direction from the other original founders. I won't say more for the sake of avoiding rechilut, but there are bigger problems than rejecting people because of their partners. The trouble is that you are where the current machers were 30 years ago, and most of them haven't realized that they are in fact not the young, dynamic, way more committed and observant than most of their peers, people that they were when they started the community.

But yes, it ought to be possible in the Progressive world to have rabbis and other leaders who have non-Jewish partners. Absolutely. I don't know how you get to that point, though.
Mar. 16th, 2009 08:00 pm (UTC)
But yes, it ought to be possible in the Progressive world to have rabbis and other leaders who have non-Jewish partners. Absolutely. I don't know how you get to that point, though.

Leo Baeck should change its admission policy. I know it's a bit simplistic but the ultimate answer to 'how do we get intermarried rabbis?' is 'start ordaining them'. A couple of years ago a friend of mine who's now engaged to her Hindu boyfriend, cornered Marc Saperstein and asked him why Leo Baeck didn't admit rabbinic students who had non-Jewish partners. It was particularly apt because he'd just given a little spiel about how he'd love to hear from students who'd be interested in the rabbinate. She was one of two students at Cambridge at the time who would have considered it as a career if that impediment hadn't been in place.
Apr. 1st, 2009 09:11 am (UTC)
I've been in a serious relationship with a non-Jew for nearly 3 years and I'm having a VERY difficult time coping with all the internal pressures and can't seen to get away from the Jewish guilt. I feel like I'm doing something terribly wrong even though my Jewish beliefs have actually been strengthened by my current relationship. I feel guilty for falling in love with a non-Jew, as though I've somehow rejected Judaism and the Jewish way of life, which is entirely untrue. I still keep kosher and have Shabbat dinner every week with my family- my boyfriend actually comes over and celebrates it with us each week. It's a terrible pressure because you feel like you're settling for something less than you're supposed to, no matter how harmonious the realationship. My stress level is probably about a 9/10 right now and there are nights when I feel downright nauseous thinking about my future, having to decide between a traditional Jewish home life with someone I may not even love, or a happy, non-traditional home with my current boyfriend. Why do they make us feel like we have to apologize for our choices? For not growing up with Jewish friends, for dating outside the religion, for the failed relationships with Jews? Should we've tried harder? There's always that push to keep trying, our Jewish soulmate one day awaits...
And you're right, while the children of intermarried parents (namely a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father) are accepted as Jews by most synagogues, the intermarried parents are certainly treated like 2nd class citizens who should be grateful that they're welcome at all.
Apr. 1st, 2009 09:21 am (UTC)
Re: Agreed
I see it like this. I believe in evolution because I don't think G@d would hide fake dinosaur bones in the ground just to confuse us. I believe in Biblical Criticism because I don't think that G@d would put things in the Bible just to trip us up. I believe in intermarriage because I don't think that G@d would send me my bashert and not mean me to marry him.
Apr. 26th, 2009 12:39 am (UTC)
The Torah says Intermarriage is agaisnt Jewish law!
Intermarriage is destroying the Jewish community. It's impossible for a non-Jewish parent to raise Jewish children. Gentiles are not Jews and Jews are not Gentiles. That's the truth and if you don't like it tough! Your children are Gentiles and are not Jewish so don't try to whitewash it. I would rather have 100 real Jews than 100,000 Gentiles who call themselves Jewish!
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )