Why I Will Simply Accept Intermarriage

Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky has an op-ed piece in the USCJ’s most recent issue of Pravda in The Forward, about his refusal to accept intermarriage. Rabbi Kalmanofsky essentially reiterates the Conservative Movement’s basic line on intermarriage: it weakens Judaism out of misplaced compassion.

Let’s tease this apart, because I don’t think you should buy what he’s selling. (Warning: kind of rant-y.)

Kalmanofsky asks, “What would my Judaism look like if I took a more liberal approach to intermarriage?” His answer: it wouldn’t be the covenant with God that I know and that makes Judaism deep.

“For now, have a civil wedding, and we’ll wish you mazel tov.” Then, “[t]here is nothing immoral in marrying gentiles… But extra burdens and additional obstacles do make it more difficult for interfaith families to keep Israel’s covenant.” And “[t]he only way to succeed” in perpetuating Jewishness “is to venerate the covenant and your membership in it.”

And, of course, there’s the Pew Survey, which shows “that only 20% of intermarried parents raise their children as Jewish by religion, while nearly twice that many, 37%, do not raise their children as Jewish in any way whatsoever,” yet “96% of in-married parents raise their children as Jewish by religion.”

What would Kalmanofsky’s Judaism look like? You mean, Conservative Judaism? The Conservative Movement’s party line–the one Kalmanofsky is holding to–is highly persuasive these days. I mean, it must be: it’s gone from the denominational identification for over 30% of the Jewish population in the mid-to-late 1990s to about 17% of the Jewish population in the Pew Survey.

So that’s gone well. Oh, right. No. It hasn’t. Perhaps, as he says, Conservative Judaism will be “stronger” somehow; but the Conservative Jews with strong commitments often see their children land in the Orthodox world, while those with weaker commitments see their children land in the Reform world.

It’s hard to credibly think that even Conservative Judaism alone will be stronger for insisting on in-marriage.

I don’t say that without a bit of personal pain. The Conservative Movement is where I came from. I worked to prepare for rabbinical school at JTS. Once upon a time, about 20 years ago, I was all-in on the Conservative Movement. There are rabbis and rabbinical students whom I know and care about who belong to the Conservative Movement. Yet I no longer see how the movement “works,” other than as an effort to maintain some kind of “feel” of traditional Jewish religious life. And perhaps, in the end, that’s all it ever was.

And the Conservative Movement appears unable to see through its own incoherence: same-sex marriage and gender equality–which Kalmanofsky assures us he supports–but not intermarriage. Gay rabbis–but not intermarried ones. Heck, don’t even bother keeping your Rabbinical Assembly membership current if you plan on doing intermarriages as a Conservative rabbi, because if you don’t leave, they’ll probably boot you out–and don’t attend an intermarriage as a guest, either!

Explain, please, how the Conservative Movement can conclude that same-sex marriage is OK when the text of the Torah attacks same-sex intercourse and the rabbinic sources are similarly hostile, but intermarriage is wrong when the Torah’s text clearly contemplates such unions between Israelite men and non-Israelite women. (We can explore minority rabbinic positions all day long; sometimes the result you’re trying to reach just really isn’t there.)

Right. Incoherent. Don’t give me the “I’m a heterodox halakhic Jew, but intermarriage is right out” line. I’m not buying it, and I don’t think it holds up. It seems to me that the Conservative Movement has become, to paraphrase William F. Buckley, a movement standing alongside history, muttering “slow down.”

Don’t also pitch the idea that it’s somehow not ethically compromised to reject an intermarriage, that rejecting intermarriage is not really a moral judgment. Rejecting individuals is a moral judgment, and it has ethical consequences: people know when they’ve been relegated to second-class status. This isn’t squishy congregational-rabbi, people-pleasing weakness. What’s more important to keeping the world functioning: love, or a covenant?

Take your time with that question. I’ll be here.

You’re back? Good. I’m not done.

As to interfaith families and Jewish identification: JUDAISM IS NOT ONLY A RELIGION. (Really, Kaplan taught at JTS; come on, folks.) I’m not worried that 20% of interfaith families don’t have kids religiously identified as Jews, because America’s view of religion–and on Judaism–is remarkably Protestant.

And as for both the 20% and 37% numbers Kalmanofsky cites, a question: how many of those intermarried families sought a rabbinically-officiated ceremony, were turned away, and dropped their Jewish identifications? We don’t actually know. Could it be–could it possibly be–that many of these families were told “no” and never looked back?

At bottom, Kalmanofsky’s take on the intermarriage question is about fundamentals: what is Judaism, at bottom? He sees it as a covenant, takes for granted in an inconsistent manner (gay? okay; woman? okay; intermarried? no) who may or may not be included in that covenant, and draws the line as a matter of relationship to the divine. (That’s the covenant, after all; it isn’t only Jew-to-Jew, it’s Jew-to-Yahweh. And if it were only Jew-to-Jew? Insistence on not recognizing intermarriage would probably be some form of bigotry.) But the Conservative Movement’s fundamentals are weak.

Let’s be blunt: Judaism is always what Jews have made of it. There is not only a covenantal way of looking at Judaism. The matzo-communion bit strikes me as odd in my gut; but so does insisting that ham is bad because, in some fractured lens, Yahweh said so.

The Conservative Movement’s position–which has been the de facto position of American Judaism for the last sixty years or more? It’s a key to diminishing returns. Look to where it’s taken Conservative Judaism.

And so, I will accept intermarriage. I will not simply “accept” it, dragging my heels because it’s inevitable. (It is inevitable, but that’s not why I accept it.) It may be that intermarriage is key to a new Jewish future, that it will spur tremendous creativity and growth. One need only look at efforts like those documented by Susan Katz Miller’s “Being Both” to see how blended, unique identities are formed, or at Keren McGinity’s book, “Marrying Out,” to see how the self-hating rap that Jewish men who marry non-Jewish women draw “just ain’t so.”

Judaism in any form will have to win on its merits. Rejecting a Jew’s chosen spouse is morally suspect, and is one more strike against Judaism in the marketplace of ideas.

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