Great Expectations—A Reply to My Respondents

Encouraging more Jews to marry Jews and more intermarried families to convert to Judaism.

"Thy people will be my people, and thy God my God": The Marriage of Ruth and Boaz. Jean-Baptiste Auguste Leloir, 1837. Musée Georges Garret, Vesoul, France. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.
"Thy people will be my people, and thy God my God": The Marriage of Ruth and Boaz. Jean-Baptiste Auguste Leloir, 1837. Musée Georges Garret, Vesoul, France. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.
Response
Sept. 29 2013
About the author

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Most recently he co-authored Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools, under the auspices of the Avi Chai Foundation.


In their clear-eyed acknowledgment of the dangers posed by intermarriage to Jewish collective life in the United States, all five of my respondents have courageously identified themselves with a point of view that has become increasingly difficult to express in public. I’m grateful to each of them.

From Sylvia Barack Fishman’s perspective, American Jews are “justifiably concerned” because they see intermarriage as an impediment to “the transmission of Jewish religious culture to the next generation.” Rabbi Eric Yoffie describes intermarriage as “a problem for Jews of all types.” Steven M. Cohen, marshaling considerable evidence, concludes that “intermarriage is associated with several adverse consequences both for Jewish demography and for Jewish life.” “A monumental failure” is Harold Berman’s blunt verdict on the “lopsided” policy of “welcoming” that goes “beyond accepting intermarriage to celebrating it.” Benjamin Silver entertains “little hope that the Jewish community as a whole will coalesce behind endogamy as an instrument of Jewish flourishing.”

These views stand in marked contrast to the prevailing posture in leadership circles of the American Jewish community, where any concerns are swept under the carpet and the talk is of cherishing “diversity” and doing everything to foster “inclusiveness.” All the more reason, then, for me to salute my respondents for their candor in defining intermarriage as a problem that must be addressed.

 

Sylvia Barack Fishman has established herself as a pre-eminent authority on intermarriage and the role of gender in the contemporary American Jewish community. I wholeheartedly agree with her central contention: it is impossible to understand intermarriage patterns if we ignore the state of marriage within American society in general, and especially the phenomenon of later marriages.

A decade ago, Robert Wuthnow, a leading sociologist of American religion, studied overall trends among twenty- and thirty-somethings during their so-called odyssey years: he found them drifting far from the institutions that had nurtured them—their families, their religious institutions, and their local communities. When the Jews among them do marry, they choose partners from within their new social circles, which may or may not include other Jews. Add to this the fact of later marriage, as well as second and subsequent marriages, and the result is higher rates of intermarriage. As people grow older, Fishman notes, the pool of eligible Jewish partners shrinks, making it still harder to find a Jewish mate. Jewish women desiring to marry a Jew tend to suffer more from these altered circumstances than do Jewish men.

Later marriages, Fishman argues, also shape the responses of parents whose adult children remain single. After waiting out their children’s deferrals into their late thirties and forties, parents are understandably loath to make waves. Mainly they want to see their children happily married, with children of their own. Intermarriage is, at most, a secondary concern.

 

I applaud Fishman for urging “individuals, families and communities…to ‘lean in’ to early, ongoing and open conversations about the need for mindfulness in selecting romantic partners—and about the positive rewards of taking on personal commitments and responsibilities.” There is much to unpack in her wise advice. Laudably, she advocates much greater communal investment in Jewish education and socialization programs for young people, right through high school and college. She also calls upon families and communities to speak to younger Jews about their responsibility to marry and “create unambiguously Jewish homes.”

In brief, if current marriage patterns are to be altered, the skittishness that has gripped American Jewish leaders must be overcome. We owe it to those whose minds are not closed to speak forthrightly about the first commandment in the Torah—be fruitful and multiply—and also about their responsibility to create Jewish families. At a time when the only obligation Jews are exposed to is the imperative to “repair the world,” it is immensely refreshing to encounter a voice like Fishman’s, unafraid to urge that Jews attend to the needs of their own families and communities.

In her emphasis on the wider context in which the quandaries of Jewish life must be situated, Fishman observes that “conventional family life has been periodically subjected to scathing critiques in the academic press and the popular media.” Here her courage seems to fail her. Unless we are prepared to name the ideologies that have done so much to undermine confidence in “conventional family life,” how can we possibly confront them? Those “scathing critiques” emanate in the academic world from radical feminism, queer studies, and libertarian “theorists.” As for the popular media to which Fishman refers, they include movies, plays, and music that celebrate the unconventional and tear down the traditional family. 

As a film reviewer in the New York Times recently noted: “Motherhood on the big screen is typically viewed with pity, sentimentality or resentment, and romantic love tends to be treated in a similarly reductive manner, as an impossible dream or a state of earthly bliss.” To this we may add that heterosexual marriage itself is usually portrayed as an unfailing locus of betrayal—or as an institution whose time has long since passed. In an environment so hostile to “conventional family life,” it’s no wonder that the desirability of marriage has become an open question among younger Jews. For its part, Jewish tradition comes down solidly on the other side.

 

I wish I could agree with Eric Yoffie’s optimistic vision of the American Jewish future. Although he and I share a desire to be realistic, we see very different realities.

Noting the slight rise in the percentage of intermarried families who claim to be raising their children as Jews, Yoffie comments, hopefully: “there is no reason why that figure should not be at three-quarters or higher.” Unfortunately, there are very good reasons why nothing of the sort is in the cards. Perhaps a third of intermarried families nationally state they are raising their children as Jews; but how are we to square this with the fact that many of these families also claim to have Christmas trees in their homes and a significant proportion decline to enroll their children in any program of formal Jewish education? In what sense, then, are the minority of intermarried families claiming to raise their children as Jews actually doing so?

As for the other two-thirds, they are overwhelmingly unavailable to hear Yoffie’s message. They do not join synagogues or Jewish organizations; they are distant from centers of Jewish life—both geographically and emotionally. He implores us “not [to] turn our back on intermarried Jews and their non-Jewish spouses.” I agree: that is why I am in favor of programs to introduce them to Judaism and encourage their conversion. But realism also requires us to acknowledge the many difficulties encountered by intermarried couples in negotiating their differences.

In my article, I cited the research of Bruce Phillips of the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, who employs a cost/benefit analysis to understand why most intermarried families are unwilling to spend money on educational and religious services that are of benefit to only one spouse. I would add a further impediment: namely, the emotional price that spouses must pay to resolve religious differences. If, as Yoffie repeatedly argues, realism ought to guide our policies, isn’t it high time to get real about who is turning their backs on whom?

By stating such truths, Yoffie contends, we are embracing a “strategy of despair”: The “last thing” that parents of intermarried adult children “want to be told is that an intermarried child means that they have failed and all is lost.” But nowhere in my article did I blame parents whose children have intermarried; to the contrary, I went out of my way to reject the idea that intermarriage is primarily a symptom of poor Jewish socialization, noting that some Jews “whose parents are highly engaged, who have benefitted from the best the Jewish community has to offer, …nevertheless, for one reason or another, have ended up in an interfaith marriage.” Nor did I portray intermarriages as “inevitably” resulting in the “loss” of grandchildren to Judaism.

What I did and do counsel is precisely realism: the odds are far longer for intermarried families. Do we not exacerbate the situation by telling people what we think “they want to hear”? American Jewish life might look quite different today if more rabbis had informed Jewish parents that a few hours a week of religious school for their children would result in little Jewish literacy and even less commitment, especially if Judaism was not actively modeled in the home.

Yoffie boils my message down to three words: Jewish leaders should “just say no.” I don’t recognize this caricature of my thinking. My essay counsels a proactive approach to the conversion of non-Jewish spouses and concludes by urging that we “extend a true hand of welcome.” Still, Yoffie is correct that I am not afraid to say no.

Sure, the religious culture of the Jews contains much that is positive, uplifting and joyous. It also contains prohibitions. Just saying no to intermarriage may indeed, as Yoffies observes, fall on deaf ears—if all that Jews have been taught is that their religion ratifies whatever they wish to do and believe. Here, too, realism dictates an acknowledgement of the need for boundaries in the maintenance of any society. No community can thrive without norms; and those norms usually include don’ts as well as do’s.

 

Speaking of norms: Steven M. Cohen observes that I “call for strengthening the norms that have historically promoted in-marriage and discouraged out-marriage.” This, he writes, situates me with a “normative school” on the question, as opposed to a “welcoming school” that seeks to “dispel perceptions that Jewish groups or leaders harbor negative attitudes toward the intermarried.”

But this is a trick that self-styled “progressives” constantly play: we, they say, have no norms; we’re merely being inclusive. It would be more accurate to characterize both “schools” as having norms that they seek to enforce. Whereas I am moved by historical norms, those who disagree with me find it normatively unacceptable to speak about the downside of intermarriage for the future of Jewish life in this country. Where possible, moreover, adherents of the so-called “welcoming school” also seek to punish institutions and individuals who disagree with them. They silence Jewish leaders by threatening and sometimes acting to withhold funds. Like so many who march under the banner of “inclusion,” they have no compunctions about excluding those who differ.

By his own account, Cohen falls into neither of these two camps. Yet he is honest enough to provide powerful ammunition to each. From my perspective, his masterful overview of present trends significantly augments my own analysis. Three of his points are especially worthy of attention.

First, Cohen dismisses out-of-hand the “statistically insignificant” fact that intermarriage does not necessarily lead to “a departure from Jewish life.” All of us know some strongly committed Jews who have been raised by intermarried parents, and such Jews are to be fully embraced. But in the aggregate of people raised in intermarried homes, they represent a small and atypical population.

Second, Cohen probes the charge that intermarried families stay aloof from organized Jewish life because they feel rejected by the Jewish community. Yet in their responses to survey questions, he writes, intermarried families on the whole do not voice concerns about being accepted in Jewish communal settings. Those who accuse Jewish institutions of being insufficiently “welcoming” have created a false narrative.

Third, Cohen addresses the phenomenon among younger survey respondents of a “distancing” from Israel, Much of this, he states, can be accounted for by intermarriage. If we remove children of intermarriage from the equation, the American Jewish population as a whole appears to be strongly connected to Israel (despite criticism by some of particular Israeli policies). I will up the ante here by noting that some of the most virulently anti-Israel statements emanating from the North American Jewish community in recent years have also come either from children of intermarriage or from Jews who are themselves intermarried.

Indeed, a new trope has emerged in some of these writings: “I used to call myself a proud Zionist, but my non-Jewish spouse has opened my eyes to the evils of Israeli society.” The spread of this kind of thinking may be added to the list of ways that intermarriage is producing outcomes inimical to the flourishing of Jewish life.

 

The burden of Cohen’s article lies in his four “purple” solutions to the impasse between the “normative” and “welcoming” camps. I sympathize with his desire to find a means of bringing together a deeply divided Jewish community. His first two solutions, indeed, seem to be extensions of what I myself suggest: support for all kinds of current and new venues aimed at helping young Jews to meet and associate with each other, and investments in programs to encourage the conversion of Gentile spouses. I doubt, however, that the latter proposal would win plaudits from “welcomers” who regard any talk of conversion as insulting.

Cohen’s remaining two solutions seem unlikely either to bridge the chasm dividing Jews or necessarily to improve matters. Correctly understanding that, for many non-Jewish spouses, conversion to Judaism may be a bridge too far—some may be unable to break with the religion of their birth, others may be unable to embrace the Jewish belief system—Cohen proposes a means of enabling them to join the Jewish people without converting to Judaism. This new form of belonging, in his view, might encourage more intermarried families to raise their children as Jews, and is worth a try. I am skeptical: we lack any grounds for believing that Gentiles with no commitment to Jewish life will be more likely to raise their children as Jews because just because they have been re-labeled as members of the Jewish people. I am also opposed: traditional norms instruct us that joining the Jewish people means saying both that “your people is my people” and that “your God is my God.”

Cohen’s final suggestion seems even more farfetched. The Jews, he writes, even though they constitute under two percent of the American populace, should work to bring about a redirection of marital trends in American society overall, thereby redirecting Jewish trends in the process.

This “solution” raises a serious question. Given that non-Orthodox Jews march in lockstep with prevailing attitudes and patterns of behavior within advanced American society, how can they possibly reverse specific trends that happen to be damaging to their interests without addressing the larger forces driving those trends? In any case, the whole idea of trying to change America bespeaks a wild overestimation of the influence wielded by Jews as a group, not least when it comes to protecting their own collective interests.

 

Harold Berman is a three-fold insider to the intermarriage wars: he was once intermarried; as a federation executive, he learned first-hand how average Jews struggle with the myriad challenges posed by intermarriage; and, in confronting the reigning orthodoxies of the outreach industry, he has personally suffered from efforts to marginalize him. We should listen when this informed participant tells us the existing response to intermarriage is seriously flawed.

Berman asks why advocates of outreach are not interested in learning about “which kinds of communal approaches—what kinds of welcoming—succeed with the intermarried.” His question reminds us of the remarkable lack of curiosity about intermarriage displayed by the American Jewish community as a whole. Sylvia Barack Fishman notes, for example, that many young Jewish men harbor negative feelings about Jewish women, and vice-versa—a phenomenon noted for decades but rarely investigated. Would it not be of interest to policymakers to understand the genesis of this hostility, so that measures might be taken to counteract its baleful consequences? Another issue: why do intermarried families tend to be quite distant from if not actively antagonistic toward Israel? Wouldn’t it be helpful to find out?

And to return to Berman’s own question: shouldn’t an effort be made to learn which intermarried families are most likely, and/or least likely, wholeheartedly to embrace a Jewish identity? If nothing else, answers to this last question could help move us from scattershot approaches to more targeted programs. All in all, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that lack of interest is a sign of willed ignorance.

Berman is on to something important when he proposes sending out so-called conversionary families to speak to the intermarried. Converts and their Jewish-born spouses could serve as powerful models for the undecided, especially if they can attest to the ways in which they and their children have been immeasurably enriched by living active Jewish lives. Might some funder support a pilot project to test the potential impact of such personal testimonies?

 

Benjamin Silver speaks for a generation of young Jews who have suffered irresponsible neglect by their elders. In one symptom of the laissez-faire modes of Jewish education today, Jewish campus programs seem to offer but two options—either a hands-off approach by traditionalists afraid to come across as too directive or a make-it-up-as-you-go-along Judaism on offer by progressives. As I read him, Silver is asking: what happened to the adults? Is no grownup prepared to advocate a Judaism of norms and expectations?

Perhaps the saddest section of Silver’s essay is his invocation of a traditional Catholic attitude toward marriage, summarized by him in the words: “one cannot live a full lay Catholic life if unmarried.” He plaintively wonders why “no one is urging” his generation to think of Jewish marriage in just those terms: as a means to “achieve a fulfilling Jewish life—a life of learning, ritual observance, strong family affiliations, love of the Jewish people and even of the divine.”

 The reason, to state it one final time, is crystal clear: according to the all-too operative norms in many sectors of the American Jewish community today, it is unacceptable to speak of marriage as a Jewish ideal, and it is forbidden to identify in-marriage as a responsibility Jews owe to their people. In this respect, Silver reminds us that the intermarriage wars reflect in microcosm the larger malaise afflicting American Jewish life. For fear of giving offense or sounding too pushy, we have incapacitated ourselves from stating what we expect of Jews and what we believe makes for “Jewish flourishing.” Younger Jews read us perfectly, and therefore many are adrift.

 

Some final observations: As an academic, I have sometimes been dismissed as incapable of grasping what those in the trenches of Jewish life experience first-hand. Unlike rabbis, educators, cantors, and organizational leaders who must look people in the eye when they set policies about intermarriage, I have the luxury of examining the problems at a distance. I don’t have to counsel couples contemplating intermarriage or speak to parents of adult children who are intermarried or work with children of intermarried parents.

I do not minimize the agonizing decisions that confront today’s Jewish leaders—decisions all the more wrenching because they affect the lives of long-time members of our communities, friends of our families, active co-workers in our agencies, generous board members, and allies. But precisely because I am not struggling with the particulars of individual case after individual case, I am free to take the measure of the radically new communal policies that have resulted from the cascade of ad-hoc decisions—and what I see worries me greatly. Not only are we turning our backs on fundamental ways of understanding and transmitting Jewish identity, but no long-term strategy is in place to drive our choices.

If we continue to sacrifice the long-term future for quick fixes, what scenario of American Jewish community is likely to unfold? I see a community turned away by mixed messages and confusing signals, or drifting ever deeper into soft religious nihilism.

My message to those who set policies, therefore, is first to do no harm to the larger Jewish enterprise. As you grapple with the manifold challenges posed by intermarriage, consider the long-term consequences of your actions. As you face ever more unreasonable demands to accommodate the perceived needs of the hour, ask yourself how your decisions will contribute either to enhancing or to injuring the Jewish collective. And don’t ignore your core members: those deeply dismayed by the current state of American Jewish life even as they struggle valiantly to communicate to their children the permanent and enduring rewards of a Jewish life.

All of my respondents seem to agree with me on the urgent necessity of a strategy that will encourage more Jews to marry Jews and more intermarried families to convert to Judaism. They also agree that the desired medium is an embracing, compelling, and “thick” Jewish religious culture: a therapy at once exigent and rejuvenating. Isn’t that the direction forward, before it’s altogether too late?

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Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is the editor of The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish Landscape, based on a project he recently directed, and is currently completing three projects on aspects of Jewish day-school education.  His essays on Jewish life in the United States appear regularly in Commentary.

More about: Eric Yoffie, Intermarriage, Jack Wertheimer, Jewish marriage, Steven M. Cohen, Sylvia Barack Fishman