In Defense of In-Marriage, Community, and Particularism

August 21, 2018 | Chaim Strauchler and David Wolkenfeld
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In May, Michael Chabon, known primarily as a writer of fiction, gave a commencement address at Hebrew Union College in which he attacked particularism in all of its forms, the Jewish prohibition on intermarriage, and the Jews of Hebron, proclaiming his own disillusionment with Judaism altogether. Chaim Strauchler and David Wolkenfeld respond:

The absence (or the vilification) of identity is self-defeating. If you want to be a good universalist, you need to have a solid and particular identity. Judaism has done this throughout its history. Judaism has something to teach the world at a moment when so much political debate surrounds borders and the interface between particular and universal identities: [at its best], religion helps people discover the humanity of those on the other side of its boundaries. . . [I]t can be easy to find refuge in Chabon’s facile diagnosis: all boundaries that distinguish between and among people are artificial and deleterious. Chabon suggests that Jewish in-marriage creates a “ghetto of two.” . . .

In truth, in-marriage is a battle against a much more restrictive ghetto—the “ghetto of one” that increasingly characterizes 21st-century life, with its associated selfishness, indulgence of narcissism, and concomitant loneliness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently revealed that since 1999 suicide rates across most ethnic and age groups in the United States are up 25 percent. Loneliness, depression, and feelings of despair beset so many people in our atomized world. . . . Marriage, family, community, and peoplehood (as well as proper medical care) are tools in helping people find meaning and purpose so that they may overcome what ails them. Religion provides the institutional and social structure for a life of meaning and purpose.

As rabbis who work with couples in preparation for their marriages and afterward, we believe that Chabon fails to understand the true meaning of marriage. Every marriage, no matter the religious identity of its parts, is a ghetto of two. Ghettos exclude. Marriages exclude. Each couple has its own special memories and its own secret language; this is a feature and not a bug of marriage. Marriages build the souls of those who are supported by loving lifelong companionship. Shared values make this more possible. Marriages are a [microcosm of] what community can achieve in freeing us from the prison of ourselves—the ghetto of one—in which selfishness and judgment destroy our ability to love and be loved. . . .

[Of course, it’s necessary to] have content and meaning in Jewish life other than simple perpetuation. . . . If the only Jewish value that is important is marrying someone Jewish, then that indeed ought to be questioned. In modern North America, Jewish continuity for its own sake, without any content, will not perpetuate itself—in this, Chabon is right.

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