Intermarriage Seen by Some Jews as Threat of Being ‘Loved to Death’
For thousands of years, Jewish populations throughout the world have maintained their identity in the face of persecution.
Now at home in an American society that welcomes their sons and daughters as partners in marriage as well as in public life, American Jewish people run the risk of being “loved to death,” according to a prominent rabbi.
In a new booklet providing answers to “Questions Jewish Parents Ask About Intermarriage,” Rabbis Mark L. Winer and Aryeh Meir note that 28% of the 2.6 million married Jews in the United States have non-Jewish spouses. Since 1985, more than one in two American Jews have chosen a non-Jewish partner, and only 5% of the non-Jewish partners have converted to Judaism.
By the third generation of intermarriage, the authors said, Jewish identity generally all but vanishes and the chain preserved over 150 generations is broken.
“By some modern irony, the acceptance and love of Jews may do what generations of anti-Semites failed to do,” Winer said in a recent interview.
Opponents of intermarriage can find numerous passages in the Hebrew Bible to back their position.
In the 28th Chapter of Genesis, Isaac tells Jacob: “You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women.” Nehemiah called marrying foreign women a “great evil.” In the 10th Chapter of Ezra, Shecaniah proposes dealing with foreign wives by making “a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God.”
But there are also examples of solicitude toward non-Jewish spouses in the Bible.
The Book of Ruth tells the story of the Moabite woman so devoted to her Jewish mother-in-law that she left her own people after her husband’s death to be with Naomi. Ruth tells her: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
And despite the protests of Miriam and Aaron in the 12th Chapter of Numbers, Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman did not affect his status as a leader.
In the Book of Tobit in the Apocrypha, believed to have been written much later but set in the 8th Century BC during the Assyrian diaspora, “Endogamy is very much on people’s minds,” said Amy Jill-Levine, editor of “Women Like This: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World.”
In an article in Bible Review, she said the prohibition against intermarriage was part of the guidelines for maintaining Jewish identity in exile, emphasizing the importance of genealogy over geography.
But there were related reasons for the marriage restrictions as well, she said.
“It’s a form of control of women as well as a form of exerting the dominance of your own genealogical background,” she said.
In writing their booklet, Winer said, he and Meir, a program specialist in Jewish communal affairs for the American Jewish Committee, tried to avoid the extremes of condemnation or complete acceptance of intermarriages.
In advising parents how to speak to their children about intermarriage, the authors advise abandoning lectures criticizing in general the behavior of non-Jews.
“Let us be honest, Jews are not morally or intellectually superior to non-Jews. . . . We must provide more positive and meaningful reasons for marrying Jews,” the authors said.
If the intermarriage takes place, Winer and Meir recommend that parents accept the couple, but make it clear that the issue of religion is not dead. They indicate that the best response is to encourage the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse if he or she is receptive.
Winer said the closest biblical parallel to the modern era for Jewish people in America may be the Solomonic period, when the Jewish population was relatively strong in relation to the Assyrian and Egyptian empires.
Solomon, for diplomatic and political reasons, took foreign wives, but in his old age the wives turned his heart toward other deities and he endured God’s punishment.
Today, Jewish Americans face relatively few external threats, and find themselves caught in conflicting dreams, said Winer, chairman of the Interreligious Affairs Committee of the Synagogue Council of America.
One dream is to be accepted in American society. The other dream is to continue to retain their distinctiveness as a people.