by Tzuri Hasson –
I recently read the excellent article “Interfaith Couples and Jewish Education: Valuing Grandparents by Faustine Goldberg-Sigal, one of my fellow writers here on Jeducation World. The article discusses intermarriage, a topic that hotly discussed among scholars, educators, private individuals, religious organizations and even government organizations. Intermarriage has had an undoubtedly major influence on the Jewish people and Judaism today, and will certainly continue to do so in the years to come. The matter is less relevant here in Israel, where most citizens are Jewish and there is conflict with the largest non-Jewish population in the country. It is much more relevant in the Diaspora, where intermarriage rates can reach up to seventy percent (according to data from the Jewish Agency for Israel), a number that should cause alarm for us as Jewish educators.
In the article, Faustine did not address the causes or effects of intermarriage and assimilation, nor how we could prevent it if we wanted to. Rather, she approaches the topic by accepting reality and seeking the best possible way to work with it. Faustine’s suggestion offers two areas that can be worked on. The first is to encourage an openness required to overcome the taboo the Jewish people have towards intermarriage. The second, and central area, would be to rely upon and support grandparents connected to Jewish traditions, who will instill within their grandchildren a love of Jewish tradition. According to the article, if we can create a place within the communal consciousness for grandparents, we will succeed in maintaining the next generation of Jews.
Before I go on to discuss my views on these suggestions, I would like to share my own personal connection with the topic. As I have discussed in the past, I am currently training to become a shaliach, and thus studying the Diaspora intensively. The topic of intermarriage, the issues that exist and how to address them often arise during our meetings. On a personal level, my wife, who came to Israel from the United States, is the daughter of a mixed couple, her Jewish mother married a Catholic man. Additionally, my sister-in-law has married a Christian, clearly fitting into the statistics.
On a broad level, I find much of Faustine’s idea to be excellent. It is an outside the box idea that offers a creative and realistic approach to the topic. She looks at reality directly, and instead of just complaining, seeking to deter, or at best offering only a very specific solution, she offers a universal idea that can be applied to many communities and the homes of any mixed couple where there are close grandparents dedicated to maintaining the family’s Jewish spark.
Despite this, in my opinion, there are serious issues in what Faustine recommends. First of all, removing the taboo from intermarriage, which she acknowledges is a difficult obstacle to overcome, can be problematic. The taboo, in its current form, acts to prevent many Jews from marrying other people, and is an important signifier that someone considers themselves a member of the Orthodox community, even if they do not observe all the mitzvot. The taboo is one of the key things that keeps them from finding a non-Jewish spouse. In contrast, in Reform communities where the taboo has somewhat dissolved, we see that the phenomenon of assimilation is booming. Thus, if we, as a community were to come out with a statement that intermarriage is not a terrible thing and that it does not create concern for the Jewish future, then marrying a gentile would no longer be viewed as an issue and be prevented.
We must also be aware that grandparents are not always figures to be trusted in terms of passing on traditions. It is very possible that Faustine’s statements are true in France, where there are far more traditional Jews and chances are grandparents hold to Judaism and happily pass it on to their grandchildren, a more fragmented generation that may not be entirely committed. However, in the rest of the Diaspora, the situation is often quite different. Throughout much of the Diaspora, the secularization process began much earlier, and the idea of traditional Jews who care about Judaism and its continuity, even if they are a mix of “kiddush in the evening followed by a party”, is more distant. In the case of my wife, the small amount of Jewish learning she received came only from her great-grandmother, who she was very fortunate to even know. That small amount of generational transference was not much, she did not know that Pesach lasted eight days until she reached her twenties. Further illustrating the point, the only Jewish learning her nephews and nieces, with their non-Jewish father, will receive from their grandparents are yearly short evenings out, more of a big dinner, and a Chanukah gift.
It must be added that the attitude that it is how one feels and sees themselves that defines them as a Jew is very dangerous. At least in the eyes of Jews who observe halakha and believe that Judaism is matrilineally inherited, which is related to a biological connection to spiritual motifs that are part of Jewish religion and tradition. The voices that call to break this connection and undermine it jeopardize these spiritual traditions and their ability to continue to exist.
The struggle against assimilation is a difficult one, one that we often lose out on, but that does not mean that we must accept the situation. In spite of my difficulties with Faustine’s arguments, I believe that her ideas have great merit and should be examined. I just believe that they should be incorporated very carefully, so as not to send a message that could damage Jewish tradition and continuity and dispel a taboo that, to a large extent, helps us. I do support Faustine’s approach, that we must not push interfaith couples away and treat them as lost, rather we should work to bring them closer and so they may return to as fully halachic Jews, not just those who “feel Jewish.” We must find a way to do so without sending a message that marrying out is acceptable. Of course, I fully acknowledge that this is a complicated, challenging and sensitive topic that must be approached carefully.