Intermarriage and Jewish Leadership in the United States

, April 16, 2006

No 7

  • The question of mixed marriage poses a dilemma to the American Jewish leadership. It would prefer not to choose publicly between integration into the broader society and distinctive Jewish survival. The realities of Jewish life in the United States, however, increasingly compel choices.
  • Fifteen years ago, the American Jewish Committee adopted a nuanced statement on mixed marriage. Its preference was for Jewish marriage. For those who married out, conversion of the non-Jewish spouse was the best outcome. When this was not possible, the mixed-married couple should be encouraged to raise their children exclusively as Jews.
  • All three messages are countercultural in an American society that values egalitarianism, universalism, and multiculturalism. Preferring endogamy contradicts a universalist ethos of embracing all humanity.
  • The ultimate challenge to Jewish leadership is to recognize its responsibility for preserving the collective welfare of the Jewish people, beyond one’s personal good.

There is a conflict between personal interests and collective Jewish welfare. As private citizens, we seek the former; as Jewish leaders, however, our primary concern should be the latter.

Jewish leadership is entrusted with strengthening the collective Jewish endeavor. The principle applies both to external questions of Jewish security and to internal questions of the content and meaning of leading a Jewish life.

Countercultural Messages

Some fifteen years ago, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) adopted a “Statement on Mixed Marriage.”1 The statement was reaffirmed in 1997 and continues to represent the AJC’s view regarding Jewish communal policy on this difficult and divisive issue. The document, which is nuanced and calls for plural approaches, asserts that Jews prefer to marry other Jews and that efforts at promoting endogamy should be encouraged. Second, when a mixed marriage occurs, the best outcome is the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse, thereby transforming a mixed marriage into an endogamous one. When conversion is not possible, efforts should be directed at encouraging the couple to raise their children exclusively as Jews.

All three messages are countercultural in an American society that values egalitarianism, universalism, and multiculturalism. Preferring endogamy contradicts a universalist ethos of embracing all humanity. Encouraging conversion to Judaism suggests preference for one faith over others. Advocating that children be raised exclusively as Jews goes against multicultural diversity, which proclaims that having two faiths in the home is richer than having a single one.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for Jewish leaders to articulate these messages. Some have already given up. For example, one Reform rabbi in a prominent city dedicated his Rosh Hashanah sermon to the need to honor “members of our community who practice both Judaism and Christianity.”2 The president of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, went so far as to claim in an interview with the London Jewish Chronicle that opposition to intermarriage has become “racist” and “begins to sound a little like Nazism.”3

Thus, the American Jewish leadership finds itself in a dilemma. Most Jewish leaders would probably affirm all components of the AJC’s 1997 policy statement. However, at a time when public discussion of this issue has become problematic, conveying these messages publicly requires great political courage.

An Enduring Jewish Dilemma

Perhaps this paradigm may not have originated in the United States, but in France in 1806 when Napoleon posed his twelve questions to the Grand Sanhedrin. The third and most difficult question was: do Jews encourage marriage between Jews and Gentiles? Napoleon’s intent was obvious: fifteen years after the Jews’ emancipation, he was asking how they could genuinely be citizens of France, or integrate in French society, without looking favorably on intermarriage.

The Jewish leadership’s response has been much debated for two hundred years. At the very least, they hedged, saying they did not favor mixed marriage, but did not proscribe those who had intermarried from leadership positions in the Jewish community. Yet, in effect, they defied the powerful ruler, who presumably wanted a clear statement that they endorsed intermarriage. Although many have subsequently criticized the French Jewish leaders, their statement was one of wisdom in the political context.4

The choice itself has remained the same: between integration in the broader society and distinctive Jewish survival. The American Jewish leadership, similar to the French Jewish leadership back then, would prefer not to choose, to avoid an unequivocal answer. Nevertheless, the current realities of American Jewish life increasingly compel choices, however difficult.5

What is known about the American Jewish leadership’s attitudes toward mixed marriage? First it is important to acknowledge, though it is often forgotten, that each of the three main religious movements, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, has maintained strictures against intermarriage, unequivocally opposing it in principle. Reconstructionism has taken a more nuanced position, encouraging rabbis to participate in civil ceremonies but not supporting rabbinic officiation at intermarriages per se. Although differences exist on the intermarriage issue among the three major movements, it is notable that the strictures have survived despite the immense growth in the phenomenon itself.

A Growing Acceptance

The greatest change has taken place in the Reform movement. In 1979, less than 10 percent of Reform rabbis were willing to officiate at mixed marriages. By 1996, according to a study by the Jewish Outreach Institute, 46 percent of Reform rabbis, with various stipulations, were willing to do so.6 Even among the 54 percent who did not officiate, the prevailing attitude was respect for those colleagues who did. Thus, there has been an undeniable change even as Reform, as a movement, expresses opposition to mixed marriage.

Moreover, the change in Reform Judaism reflects the fraying bonds of Jewish peoplehood due to the incidence of mixed marriage. Ties to the Jewish people are particularly weak among those who choose Gentile spouses. In this regard, the challenge to Jewish leadership in the twenty-first century is to foster a collective Jewish will sufficiently compelling that Jews will affirm membership in that collective.

Some Jewish leaders, however, call for a change in Jewish values to meet current realities. One of the most prominent is Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School. In The Vanishing American Jew, he advocates a new attitude toward mixed marriage and favors encouraging rabbis to officiate at such marriages.7 Dershowitz is by no means alone; he expresses what many Jewish leaders want to hear – that the old strictures have failed, the traditional policies are bankrupt, and it is time to shift gears. Mixed marriage, then, is viewed as an opportunity rat

Steven Bayme

Steven Bayme serves as national director, Contemporary Jewish Life, for the American Jewish Committee and is director of its Dorothy and Julius Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations. He is also a visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.