Sermon- On Intermarriage

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 3 August 2012

When the Eternal your God brings you to the land… and dislodges many nations before you… grant them no terms and give them no quarter. You shall not intermarry with them: 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. (Deuteronomy 7:1-4)

Just after our section of Torah from this morning we find this, the classic Torah text on intermarriage, the divine prohibition of marriage between Israelite and non-Israelite – a prohibition that would be extended by other biblical authors and later authorities beyond a specific ban on the marriage of an Israelite to someone from the seven nations of Canaan, to a general rejection of any union between Jew and non-Jew.

It is a prohibition that, in truth, was rendered unnecessary by the reality of Jewish life through the rabbinic period into the middle ages.  This was a time in which Jew and non-Jew were unlikely to interact, and in which the Halachah – Jewish Law (according to which Jew and non-Jew cannot be married), was the dominant legal framework for Jewish life, the power of rabbinic authority unchallenged.

But it was an issue that sprung forwards with the emancipation of Jewry in the last third of the last millennium, in which the full political and social acceptance that we now enjoy was attained, with all that that brought.  And what it brought included: real, enduring social interaction with those of other faiths and none; a belief in romantic love rather than a reliance on arranged union; a diminishing of the importance of Jewish ethnicity and the concept of ‘Jewish purity’; and above all a new legal reality in which civil marriage became an alternative to religious marriage, removing the power of rabbinic authorities to prevent such unions from taking place.

So what have we learned over the years since emancipation? The first thing we have learned is that prohibition doesn’t work.  The divine command, You shall not intermarry with them, has little weight in our communities.  Being ‘against intermarriage’, if that is what we are, doesn’t make it go away.  The link between upbringing and who we marry is not straightforward.  As the American Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes: “We now have enough data to say categorically that there is simply no way to stop vast numbers of Jews from marrying non-Jews.  Fierce rabbinic bans are risibly ineffective.  Insulting forms of covert ostracism only make us look xenophobic and weak.”

We have learned something else, too: That the passage from Deuteronomy as well as being ineffective is also just wrong.  The reason it gives for the prohibition – they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods – is not accurate, the fear it reflects ungrounded.  On occasion, maybe, and especially in cases where the non-Jewish partner has a strong commitment to another faith tradition, this does happen.  But in many, many cases, the idea that intermarriage leads to the rejection of Jewish life is not realised in reality.  If there is rejection of Jewish life it has probably happened before that point – and if Jewish identity is still important in the life of the Jewish partner it doesn’t cease to be so as a result of intermarriage.

We see the evidence of that possibility around us at Alyth – where couples which include a non-Jewish partner can and do commit together to create a Jewish home, and do so successfully, raising children with strong Jewish identities, in homes full of knowledge and passion.  The ability to create a bayit b’Yisrael – a home in Israel – is not compromised by the fact that one part of that home is not Jewish – it makes it more complex, for sure, but does not preclude the possibility.

And the evidence is beginning to point to something very interesting – that one of the biggest variables in whether a couple which includes a non-Jewish partner will make this commitment together is not only them, but us.  How willing we are to validate the choices that they have made, to welcome the non-Jewish partner as a member of our communities, the extent to which we create opportunities for their lives together to be honoured with us.

And this matters enormously – not just for us as a welcoming community responding to the needs of one another, but also for the sake of the Jewish people.  As the American scholar Leonard Saxe has pointed out, with the intermarriage rate in America now 50%, if one third of the children born into those homes are brought up as Jewish there will still be a decline in the overall Jewish population of a quarter in the course of a generation.  Increase the number of children identifying as Jewish to two thirds and the Jewish population would grow by a sixth.  These sorts of number games are not always helpful, but they are indicative of a new reality, a new future for the Jewish world.

As a movement we are adapting to this new reality.   Across the life cycle, we have, over the last generation, created the ability to welcome, to respond to the needs of mixed faith families.  Most of our synagogues, like Alyth, have associate memberships for non-Jewish partners; rabbis, including your rabbis, have carried out Chanukat HaBayit – Home Dedication ceremonies, recognising a commitment to create a home in Israel; our mohelim will carry out circumcision for the sons of mixed faith couples, with ritual, at eight days; our Beit Din has evolved a process to give Jewish status to the children of a mother who does not, herself, wish to convert – many couples at Alyth take this route; in our community, we welcome non-Jewish parents as an active participant in their children’s Jewish education, up to and including involvement in the ceremony of Bar and Bat Mitzvah; we will soon have the use of an area at Cheshunt cemetery designated for mixed faith burials, enabling us to bury such couples together.

And, over the last few months, the Assembly of Rabbis have grappled with how to respond to the marriage needs of mixed-faith couples.  We have done so in our way – slowly, thoughtfully, with consideration and with respect; with the recognition that as rabbis we might differ from one another, but we all understand the symbolic importance of our decisions.  As a result the policy of the Assembly of Rabbis has been changed.  A clause in our policies which meant that involvement in a ceremony around the civil wedding of a mixed-faith couple could lead to expulsion from the Assembly as been removed.

We continue as a movement to be committed to Jewish marriage, and to believe that the symbols of Jewish marriage are for Jewish marriage – that is, the marriage between two Jews.  Religious marriage and civil marriage are different things – we should not compromise all involved by pretending otherwise.  There will not now be Reform mixed-faith weddings.

At the same time, we are now able to recognise that a couple committed to create a Jewish home together, who have carried out a period of Jewish study together, who are often immersed in the life of their Shul together, might want their rabbi to lead them in a Jewish celebration after their civil wedding, and their rabbi and community might feel it appropriate and important to say yes.  Over the coming months the circumstances in which we might say yes and the way in which we might celebrate with such couples will be fleshed out – in the Assembly, and also here at Alyth as we together find a way that we can do this with the integrity which absolutely defines us as a community.

You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your children away from Me. Intermarriage is a reality. Our children do take their children.  Lots of them. But turning away is not the inevitable consequence – the rationale given by Torah no longer applies.  Marrying a non-Jew is not a declarative act severing links with Judaism.  But much depends on how we are able to respond.  No longer do the words of Torah ‘they will turn away’ ring true.  Rather the question is for us: ‘will we turn them away’?