“The Intermarriage Conundrum”
(updated and edited from parashat Eikev 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, conclude the theme that was the focus of the final part of last week’s parasha, Va’etchanan.

Deuteronomy 7 raised the issue of the religious problems that the People of Israel would face with the anticipated move into the land of Canaan. How is Israel to deal with the powerful influences of the idolaters and the idolatrous sects they will find in Canaan? After all, for the first time since the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites, whose own religious practice are not yet firmly established, will be exposed to alien cultures whose decadent lifestyles will be highly seductive.

The Torah’s rules for those entering the new land are therefore extreme in their directness: The Torah declares that all the native inhabitants who pose a danger to Israel’s spiritual survival are to be banished or destroyed. Marriage with them is strictly forbidden, and all pagan images and idolatrous sanctuaries are to be demolished. If Israel will follow these prescriptions, all will be well, and blessings will attend them. But, if not, the very devastating destructions that would otherwise befall their enemies, will be visited upon Israel itself.

In Deuteronomy 7:3, the Torah firmly tells the entire Jewish nation: וְלֹא תִתְחַתֵּן בָּם, בִּתְּךָ לֹא תִתֵּן לִבְנוֹ, וּבִתּוֹ לֹא תִקַּח לִבְנֶךָ, You shall not intermarry with them [the Canaanites], do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods. And the L-rd’s anger will blaze forth against you, and He will promptly wipe you out.

In light of the critical problem of intermarriage, which hovers above 70% among the non-Orthodox in the United States today, I would like to share with you the following letter to a woman who is contemplating intermarriage.

Dear Jennifer (fictitious name),
I deeply appreciate your candid reply to my letter. As you know, I regard you highly and always consider your opinions very seriously. I am engaging in this exchange of letters not to badger you, but to help sharpen both your and my perception of the very vital issue of Jewish in-marriage, and the future of Jewish life in America.

I know you love “Paul” very dearly, and everything I have heard about him indicates that he is a wonderful person. I truly believe you when you write that you feel that you must marry him because you believe that he is your “soul mate,” and that his presence in your life leaves you greatly fulfilled. The fact that he happens to be a non-Jew is terribly disappointing to you as well, but you feel that your personal happiness must come first. I appreciate what you are saying. In fact, I am prepared to acknowledge that you and Paul can probably live together and be deliriously happy in marriage, despite your different faiths.

If my last sentence surprised you, allow me to explain.

The truth of the matter is, that most American Jews today are not very Jewish. In fact, they are very much like the average American non-Jew. That is because, while we hardly realize it, 99 44/100 percent of our daily lives are not very Jewish. In fact, much of our lives are pretty Christian! The average Jew in America knows who was the mother of Jesus, but has no clue as to who was the mother of Moses. No, it wasn’t Miriam (she was his sister). It was Jocheved! The average Jewish child in America can sing the words to “Deck the Halls” but doesn’t have an idea of what Maoz Tzur (the Chanukah hymn) is! In effect, the differences between Jew and gentile in America have really diminished to the point of them being inconsequential.

That is why I believe that there is really no truly compelling reason why both Jews and non-Jews shouldn’t seek out the most socially acceptable “soulmate” for themselves, irrespective of faith.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that the slightly higher rate of divorces that intermarried couples experience makes a big difference, after all, more than a third of all marriages in America end in divorce anyway. Neither do I feel that because six million Jews died in the Holocaust, you or anyone else has an obligation to marry Jewish in order to perpetuate the Jewish people. If one is positively moved to perpetuate the Jewish people in light of the Holocaust, fine. Otherwise, it’s important for every person to do what’s best for themselves.

Yes, it’s true that the “melting pot” that our grandparents prayed for in America has turned into a “meltdown” for Jewish life. But, those are cosmic issues of Jewish continuity and Jewish survival, and it’s unreasonable for anyone to expect that those issues should play a decisive role in our choice of individual mates. We have to live our lives as best we can, and let the “cosmic powers” work out the cosmic issues.

I do, however, believe that there is one compelling reason why a Jew might choose not to intermarry.

You see, throughout human history, the Jewish people have been at the forefront of working toward what we Jews call “Tikun Olam” (seeking to perfect the world). Our Torah (sometimes called the Old Testament) introduced many revolutionary ideas into the world, and we, the Jewish people, so to speak, are “chosen” to be a “light unto the nations,” “ambassadors” so to speak, to bring these ideas into the broad marketplace and to popularize them in the general society.

It was our Torah that first introduced the revolutionary concepts of “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” care for the orphan, the widow, the infirm, the stranger. Our Torah mentions “love of the stranger” 36 times, more than any other mitzvah mentioned in the Torah! It was our Torah that first introduced to the world the concept of not causing undue pain to animals, and, yes, even the concept of conservation. It’s our Torah that says that a person must “work” the land and “guard” the land, that the land must lay fallow one year in seven to regenerate itself. It’s our Torah that says that even in times of war, one may not cut down a fruit-bearing tree, even when Jewish soldiers’ lives are at stake. It is also forbidden to divert the waterworks of the city under siege. It’s our Torah that, says that even in times of battle, soldiers must carry a spade with them in order to properly dispose of their bodily wastes. In effect, we Jews were the first members of the Sierra Club, we were the first movers-and-shakers to save the whales and preserve the Darter Snail.

Despite the enormous challenges, we Jews have successfully transmitted these beautiful and revolutionary ideas to the nations of the world, not by force or jihads, but through the power of intellectual persuasion and personal modeling. In fact, it was our Torah that proclaimed for the first time “Thou shalt not murder.” And, although Hammurabi recorded the exact same words 300 years earlier in his Babylonian code, its meaning for the ancient Babylonians was entirely different. According to Hammurabi’s code, if I killed my neighbor’s son, my neighbor had the right to kill my son. If I raped my neighbor’s daughter, my neighbor could rape my daughter, or take my daughter as a concubine. If I killed my neighbor’s slave, I could give my neighbor fifteen camels and we’d be even.

For Hammurabi, human life was regarded simply as chattel, property. Therefore, if I caused my neighbor to suffer a loss of his property, then I had to restore it, or suffer a similar loss myself.

Three hundred years after Hammurabi, the Torah also declared, “Thou shalt not murder”–the words were exactly the same, but the intention and implementation were light-years apart. Our Torah boldly maintains that every person is responsible for his/her own actions, for his/her own sin or crime. The Torah insists that a third person, such as an innocent son, cannot be punished for a crime that another person committed! In fact, our Torah enlightened the world with the idea of the concept of the “sanctity of human life”–that a murderer who takes a human life, has committed a crime against what the ancients called “G-d,” and what sociologists today call “society.” That’s why murder indictments today are usually in the form of the “State of California vs John Doe,” because the whole world has adopted our view of what “Thou shall not murder” means, and subscribes to the Jewish idea of the sanctity of human life.

I could go on citing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of revolutionary ideas that Jewish tradition has introduced into this world that Western society has adopted. The Jewish people have worked assiduously to perfect the world, and while the world is not yet perfect, we can proudly look upon Jewish history as one unending series of ethical and moral triumphs and accomplishments. And, perhaps even more remarkably, the Jews did not enlighten the world by forcing their beliefs on others through crusades and holy wars. Jews did not say “Kiss the Jewish star or we’ll chop off your head!” We did it by modeling. And, while we still have a long way to go, we can be extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished.

Yes, Jennifer you can live happily-ever-after with Paul. But, if you choose to marry him, you will no longer be part of this incredible legacy which has worked so effectively to spiritually purify and enlighten the world.

You might say “big deal,” that is your choice. Well, truthfully, I and many of my fellow Jews feel that it is indeed a “big deal.” In fact, it’s the most important thing that we can do with our lives–“to enlighten the world under the rule of the Al-mighty.”

We know that even when Jews marry other Jews, it is very difficult to live the kind of committed life which will bring honor to the Jewish people and to G-d. There are “zillions” of in-married Jews who have no idea of what the Divine mission is for the Jewish people. They might remain nominal Jews, but their impact on the world will be negligible. It is very likely that only a small number of Jewish “fanatics” – those who devote their lives passionately to preserve and transmit this Divine message, are going to continue to make a difference in this world. Unfortunately, for those who are not married to Jews, the chances of promoting those ideas and ideals, no matter how noble their intentions, are virtually nil.

And, so, in the final analysis, you need to realize that the choice you are making is not only a decision to live your life with a particular wonderful man, who happens not to be Jewish. The choice you are making now is the choice of being part of one of the greatest legacies, an unbroken legacy, of, perhaps, 150 generations of Jews who preceded you, who fought to preserve their values and ideals, and, in many instances, put their lives on the line to keep the chain of this Divine mission alive. It is this determination that has allowed us today the privilege of living in an enlightened environment that has adopted so many of those ancient Jewish traditions and incorporated them into their own value system.

Jennifer, I want you to know that I will always respect you and value our very special friendship. But, if you choose to marry Paul and he does not convert, know that you will have effectively cut yourself off from 3,300 years of the most glorious and enlightened tradition, a tradition which has been single-mindedly dedicated to the sacred mission of teaching the world the idea of the sanctity of human life and “perfecting the world under the rule of the Al-mighty.”

All I can ask now, is that you consider these words and thoughts and make an informed decision.

Dear Reader,
There are hundreds of thousands of intermarried Jews in the US, and many more Jews who are presently contemplating intermarriage, who need to hear this message. Help us share it with them. But, do it pleasantly and gently.

May you be blessed.

This year, the joyous festival of Tu b’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Tuesday night and Wednesday, August 4th and 5th, 2020. Happy Tu b’Av.