“The Jewish Attitude Toward Intermarriage”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, is chock-full of extraordinary themes, including the texts of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-18) and the famous opening paragraph of the Shema prayer (Deuteronomy 6:5-9).

In the very last chapter of parashat Va’etchanan, Deuteronomy 7, Moses returns to his mission of preparing the people of Israel for the new life they are to face in the land of Israel. Although they will encounter seven nations who are greater and mightier than the people of Israel, the people are told not to fear, for G-d will smite their enemies and deliver them into the hands of Israel.

Moses sternly cautions the people not to seal any covenants with the local inhabitants of Canaan or to show them any favor. Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) explains that the ancient Israelites were permitted to show favor only to those non-Jews who accepted the seven Noachide principles. But those nations that refused to abide by even this lowest-common-denominator of civilization, were not to be shown any favor and were to be expelled from the land.

Moses then warns the people in G-d’s name (Deuteronomy 7:3): “V’lo tit’cha’tayn bahm. Bit’chah lo tee’tayn liv’no, oo’vee’toh lo tee’kach liv’neh’chah.” You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son. According to most commentators, the Torah’s blanket prohibition against intermarriage applies to all non-Jews, even those who accept the seven Noachide principles. Technically, of course, the legal concept of marriage does not pertain to gentiles in general, since the Jewish marriage, which is known as kiddushin–sanctification–cannot apply to anyone who is not Jewish. This verse therefore bans any “marriage-like” arrangement with a non-Jewish partner, irrespective of whether it is regarded as valid by secular authorities or not. Of course, anyone who converts to Judaism is welcome to join with the Jewish people and become part of the Jewish family through marriage.

The classical commentators differ about the applicability of intermarriage prohibition. Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (1263-1340, Spanish Biblical commentator) maintains that, technically, the prohibition of intermarriage applies only to the seven original ancient nations of Canaan. Maimonides asserts that it applies to all gentiles who have not converted to Judaism, irrespective of their origin. Jewish law follows the opinion of Maimonides.

The commentators also suggest different reasons for the prohibition of intermarriage. The author of Sefer HaChinuch (a classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in thirteenth-century Spain) suggests that intermarriage is unacceptable because a gentile marriage partner would inevitably cause the Jew to stray from Judaism due to the influence of such a close and constant relationship. He maintains that the children of such a union will invariably be brought up without any deep-rooted convictions about the Jewish religion. The Abarbanel (Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator, 1437-1508) suggests that the major attraction between a Jew and a non-Jew is usually physical and that a marriage based primarily on sexual attraction will lead to the abandonment of Torah discipline.

Over the past two decades of Jewish life in North America, battles have raged between experts regarding the exact rate of intermarriage. The Council of Jewish Federation Jewish Population Survey of 1990 reported that 52% of young Jews were marrying out of the fold. The accuracy of this high rate was often called into question, and in the 2001 Jewish population survey the number was reported as 47%. To my mind, it doesn’t make much of a difference whether it’s 47% or 52%. No one is likely to argue that a rate of 47% is good for the Jews! Studies have also reported that 2/3 of the children raised in families of mixed marriages are not raised as Jews. Clearly, the American “melting pot” for which our grandparents prayed has become a veritable “meltdown” of Jewish life.

While there is no single definitive solution to the problem of intermarriage, we do know that children who receive an intensive Jewish education intermarry at a much lower rate, perhaps no more than 10%. This is quite amazing given the blandishments of American society and how thoroughly integrated and accepted the Jewish people are within the American framework. Ironically, Jews used to worry about how much the gentiles “hate” them, now they are concerned about how much the non-Jews “love” them!

In light of this perceived “crisis,” many voices have been raised condemning intermarriage. Young people are often told that the strong cultural and religious differences between Jews and non-Jews make it virtually impossible for such interfaith marriages to succeed. I don’t find this argument to be very compelling since 3/5 of all marriages in America terminate in divorce in any case, and, frankly, the cultural differences between the average secular Jew and gentile are not at all great. Consequently, it should come as no great surprise that the average American Jew knows the words to “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,” but has no idea of the words to the Chanukah hymn “Ma’oz Tzur.

Young Jews are often told, in no uncertain terms, that intermarriage is a betrayal of the Jewish people, especially in light of the Holocaust. They are frequently lectured that they have a sacred duty to be faithful to their heritage because of Hitler and the other anti-Semites who wish to destroy the Jews. Again, I do not find this a compelling reason for a Jew not to marry a person not of the Jewish faith with whom they fall in love. Jews should marry within the Jewish faith for positive, not negative reasons–because they feel a profound affinity to Judaism and the revolutionary message that Judaism conveys.

Once again, we discover that Jews who fail to have positive, joyous Jewish experiences and positive educational exposure are particularly vulnerable to intermarriage. To my mind, the only compelling reason why a Jew should not marry out of the faith is because they truly feel part of Jewish destiny. If young Jews feel that they wish to join the historic Jewish effort to perfect the world under the rule of the Al-mighty, then they will not intermarry. If they do not feel that attachment to the Jewish ideal of being a “light unto the nations,” then they will follow their libidos and completely disregard any argument against intermarriage, no matter how rational or compelling.

Given the environment in which most Jews live, it is virtually impossible to guarantee marriages within Judaism. But there is much that can be done to reduce the chances of intermarriage. Most importantly, parents must be certain to give their children positive, joyous Jewish experiences and provide them with a Jewish education that is intensive, exciting and meaningful. But, in order to effectively transmit Jewish values to one’s children, we must first make certain that we feel these profound Jewish ideals in our own lives and translate them into practice, so that we ourselves serve as faithful role models for the next generation.
(For more on this subject see Eikev 5761-2001)

May you be blessed.