Intermarriage Redux (sermon)

Yom Kippur – 5771 / September 17, 2010
Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff
Temple B’nai Or, Morristown, NJ

OK – a quick show of hands: How many of you were invited to the wedding this summer?

How many of you knew what wedding I was referring to?

Yes – I am referring to the wedding of Marc and Chelsea. It was clearly the wedding of the summer. CNN called it the wedding of the century. And since we are only ten years into the century, we could even say it was the marriage of the millennium.  And for those of us who see the world through Jewish eyes, it was also the intermarriage of the millennium.

The wedding of Chelsea Clinton from a mixed Baptist/Methodist background and Marc Mezvinsky from a Conservative Jewish background on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in July brought the topic of Jewish/Christian intermarriage into our national public discourse.

For most of us, the marriage of a Jewish person to a person of another faith background is a family fact of life. Were I to ask for another show of hands, which I am not going to DO, I would imagine that the vast majority of us have family members, nuclear or extended, who are intermarried. Perhaps you yourself, or your parents, are married to a person of another faith. Or perhaps it is your child or grandchild, a niece, nephew, uncle, aunt, cousin.

Intermarriage is commonplace in our world. In that there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that the high rate of intermarriage reflects an acceptance of Jews in American society, on the college campus, and in the workplace. Despite the fact that anti-Semitism is still crawling around in dark places under the rocks, we have found a true and open welcome on these American shores, where most everyone has internalized Dr. King’s dream that we judge each other solely by the content of our character.

That is the good news. The bad news is that, due to a number of factors, intermarriage being the highest on the list, there are now fewer Jews in our goldena medinah, this golden land. Our teacher and friend Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis says “the reasons [for the decline] are many: a… Jewish birth rate, below replacement level…; fewer Jewish immigrants…; a flattening of conversions to Judaism; and, of course, the burgeoning effects of non-marriage, late marriage, and intermarriage.”

Approximately half the weddings in America involving Jews are intermarriages. That means that for every three Jews getting married, two will marry each other and one will marry “out.”  Among the families with two Jewish parents, nearly all of the children are raised Jewishly, in some way. Within intermarried families, that figure drops to about 38%.  Most troublesome of all, the chance of an interfaith couple having Jewish grandchildren is somewhere between 4% and 8%, although I would venture to say that the intermarried grandparents here at Temple have a somewhat higher percentage. Dr. Sarna notes with astonishment that2,345,000 Americans reported having Jewish grandparents but not being Jewish themselves.”

There are those who blame Reform Judaism for the problems of assimilation and intermarriage. They are perhaps a little right, but on the whole, they are essentially and historically wrong. Reform Judaism was officially founded by Mr. Israel Jacobson, exactly 200 years this past July – so, happy anniversary to us! According to the “uninformed narrative,” before Reform Judaism came on the scene, everyone was Orthodox and there was no assimilation. And then came some who did not want to be as Jewish, so they invented Conservative Judaism. And then there were Jews who did not want to be Jewish at all but imitate their Christian neighbors, so they started Reform Judaism.

Sorry, but that is not the way it happened. In truth, Napoleon had already brought down the ghetto walls and enabled the civil emancipation of the Jews. Thousands of European Jews, young Jews, were already assimilating into the larger society, having no option but to leave their Judaism behind. For the most part, Reform Judaism arose to give them Jewish options.  Reform Judaism did not create assimilation; it was a response to assimilation. The intention of most of the Reformers was not to lure traditional Jews away from Judaism, but to bring back to Judaism a generation of Jews whose entrance into the modern world left them with little or no accesses into Jewish life.

They did this by forming home prayer groups and later Temples with prayers in Hebrew and German, organ accompaniment, and sermons delivered in German. Of course, the traditionalist rabbis (they were not called Orthodox back then) had a fit. They declared Reform to be off limits, claiming that their innovations violated Jewish law. (It was actually at that time that they declared that any innovation is a violation of Jewish law — chadash asur min hatorah — and that is when the term “Orthodoxy” came into use.)

But the Reformers knew their Talmud and codes and gave as well as, if not better, than they got, supporting their Reforms from within traditional Jewish law. There was one legal principle that was used at one point to justify their departure from the tradition. It is known in Talmudic discourse as Eit Laasot, which means literally, “It is a time to act.”[i] The principle is derived from a word-play in rabbinic literature from a verse in the Bible (Psalm 119:126). “Eit la-asot ladonai — it is time to act for the Lord – hay-firu toratecha – for they have annulled your Torah.” But the Torah text has no vowels and the ancient Rabbis played around with the vowels, and changed the word for “they have annulled” into a command “You must annul!”  Thus they read into it this principle: There are times when you have to act for the Lord and protect Judaism; and if that means annulling less important aspects of Jewish law, then you do what you have to do.[ii] It was the Rabbis’ way of saying that if something in Judaism is broken, you do what you must do to fix it.

What was broken for our Reform forebears was Judaism itself. What was broken was the fact that a generation of newly emancipated Jews had only two options before them: stay Jewish, but in the darkness of the middle ages, or leave Judaism and bask in the in the light of modernity; and young Jews were leaving in droves. There had to be a way for the Jew to be Jewish and modern at the same time, or else Judaism itself might be lost. For the Reformers, it was eit laasot — a time to act. Eventually they stopped trying to win arguments with the traditionalists. They maintained what they felt was essential, reformed other aspects of liturgy, theology and practice, and discarded that which they felt could or should be left behind.

In this inclusive spirit of our founders and with the vision of the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, Reform Judaism has since opened the doors to Jewish life to literally thousands to whom they had been previously shut, including gays, lesbians, the transgendered, and, with the greatest impact of all, Jews by Choice and Jews who had married persons from different faith backgrounds.

Which brings us back to today’s topic.

Today marks another anniversary of sorts, a chai anniversary. It was 18 years ago Yom Kippur that I addressed the topic of intermarriage from this pulpit. I acknowledged how many interfaith couples had made difficult decisions to be part of synagogue life and to establish Jewish homes. I thanked them then, just as we did earlier, especially the non-Jewish parents raising Jewish children, for the incredible gift they had given and continued to give.

To teens and young adults, I encouraged honesty and respect, for themselves and for others whom they might date. And to parents who hoped their children would marry other Jews, I urged them to give their children warm Jewish family memories and to encourage them to be Jewishly involved, especially after Bar/Bat mitzvah.   To Jewish parents of the intermarried, I urged them to be great Jewish role models for their grandchildren. There is one other thing I would add if I were rewriting that sermon today: I would throw in a suggestion to young intermarrieds and inter-engaged to get a particular four-letter “F” word out of their vocabulary, the word “fair.” I would tell them – as I do all the time – parents should care less about what is fair between themselves and more about what is in the best interest of the children, regardless of how “fair” it is to one parent or the other. If he prefers chocolate milk and she lemonade, then it is only fair that they fill up a glass half with chocolate milk and half with lemonade and tell their child, “Drink!”

Frankly, there was nothing I said in 1992 that I would not say now  In many ways, things are today as they were back then, only more so, quantitatively speaking.  But for me, more important than the quantitative changes have been the qualitative changes: changes within Jewish identity, changes in the consciousness of many who intermarry, and finally, changes within me.

As many of you read in my congregational letter in July, in my 30th years in the rabbinate, I will now begin to perform some intermarriage ceremonies.  As many of your sensed, this decision was one with which I have been wrestling for years.

Here’s why: One of the things that has changed through the years is the nature of Jewish identities. Younger people today have multiple identities. Their Jewish identity, as strong as it may be, is but one of many portals through which they see themselves. Many, like Mr. Mezvinsky, see no contradiction between feeling strongly Jewish and marrying someone who is not. They don’t see themselves as marrying “out,” they are just marrying. Also, people are getting married later – at a time in life when they are looking for a deeper spiritual connection. More and more want a Jewish wedding, not for their parents but for themselves.

Most compelling for me has been the sincerity and commitment of so many non-Jewish spouses — so many of you — who are raising Jewish children, I mean totally, unambiguous, committed Jewish children. Our movement’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, refers to you as heroes of Jewish life… and you are. The thanks and blessing you received this morning here on this bimah are thanks and blessings you earned.

Ultimately, it was you, it was watching your families’ Jewish lives that led me to change my position regarding officiating at intermarriage ceremonies. It was not about the statistics. For me, Jewish life is not about counting heads, it is about looking into faces.  It’s not about how many bodies we can gather, but what kind of souls we can engage and nurture, what kinds of Jewish homes we can construct and sanctify.

And the more I looked into the faces of those who have truly consecrated their family’s religious identity as Jewish, I began to see that my place could and should be there with them from the beginning, to name and bless the holiness of the commitment they were making to each other and to having a Jewish home. I also hope to be able to talk with more couples about something much more important than the wedding, which is the marriage and the home they will create together. What I am doing is not going to save the Jewish people. But as Dr. Sarna says, “Whether assimilation or revitalization ultimately predominates will be determined day by day, community by community, Jew by Jew.”

So as I wrote to the congregation back in July, Consistent with my understanding of a Jewish wedding as the sanctification of a Jewish household, I will marry those couples who make an informed, mutual and public commitment to establish a Jewish home. If blessed with children, the couple commits to raise and educate them as Jews with a positive and unambiguous Jewish identity. For couples who do not envision having children together, commitment to the continuity of Judaism is affirmed through study and synagogue affiliation.

I will officiate at intermarriage ceremonies, not in the hopes that it might someday lead to Jewish choices, but as a recognition that informed Jewish commitments have already been made and deserve to be honored and embraced.

Seeing it in this way, my position is not a theological compromise that would have me perform weddings with less than a whole heart. Neither is it a practical compromise made in the hopes that people would feel good (or at least not feel badly) about Judaism and/or Temple and/or me. Rather, this position allows me to do what I think is consistent with my understanding of Reform Judaism and is in the best interest of Judaism, the Jewish People, and these specific Jewish persons; and I wholeheartedly welcome the opportunity to be so involved.

I don’t think I was wrong before and now I am right, just as I don’t think rabbis who do not officiate are wrong.  Where I am now is the result of a very long and personal journey that I have taken and, in many ways, we have taken together. To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. This is my season – my particular time for this particular purpose. This is my eit laasot – a time to act – to set aside what had been long cherished for the sake of something valued even more. There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. And when couples come forward to embrace Jewish familyhood, it is a time to embrace them.

And as we embrace these couples, I will continue to urge Jews to marry Jews, not because intermarriage is morally wrong, which it is not, and not because Christians and Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus are not wonderful people – they are no more or less wonderful than Jews. I won’t encourage inmarriage because intermarriage is eating away at our numbers, which it is, but frankly, that concern is not really high on the agenda of most young people these days.  I will encourage inmarriage because, as many of you have told me, it is easier. If you hope to have a Jewish home and raise a family in the Jewish heritage, it is simply easier when you marry someone who shares that same heritage and those same hopes.

As I am sure many of our families here will testify, it is easier and less tense not to have to negotiate every venture into anything that smacks of religion. As Jim Keen, author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family, writes, “The interfaith couple cannot afford to leave the details to chance.” And still there are those, however, who avoid the issue totally rather than doing the hard work of negotiating and choosing, while the children get little of lasting identity or substance.

You see, friends, I love Judaism and think that living as a Jew as part of an historic covenant community is an incredibly meaningful, significant, and beautiful thing. I also believe that Judaism has something to give to the world. And in order for there to be Judaism, there must be Jews. That is why I am deeply committed to the meaningful continuance of the Jewish people. I want for us to have Jewish children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And that is most likely to happen when Jews marry other Jews. Those of our intermarried families who are raising Jewish children are in the minority, which is another reason why they are so precious to us.

So even as we sincerely embrace the intermarried, how can we encourage inmarriage? There are no guarantees, but there are ways to stack the deck. We encourage inmarriage by urging our children to be Jewishly engaged, especially into their teen years. We do that by showing our children that being Jewish and living Jewishly is more than a hobby or an after-school activity. We do that by getting them to Israel, through Birthright or whatever.  We do that by learning ourselves and engaging in Judaism as adults for ourselves, so it is not just something for the kids.  For if Judaism is a childhood thing, then there will be no reason not to leave it behind with other childish things.

We encourage inmarriage by keeping Jewish singles connected to the Jewish community and to each other, something that here at Temple and in the greater Jewish community we don’t do very well. I wish we had the time and resources here at Temple to do more in that regard, but there are a couple of things we are going to do this year.

I imagine you have heard of J-Date, the very successful Jewish online dating service. I would say that a quarter to a third of the weddings I am performing these days were created on, including many of the couples sitting amongst you. It does not work out for everyone, but it has for literally thousands.  So taking a cue from my friend and colleague in Marlboro, Rabbi Donald Webber (or as we call him up here, the other Rabbi Don), we are happy to offer the children of our members a free subscription to J-Date. Just have them get in touch with either Rabbi Zamore or me. Let them try it. After all, it couldn’t hoit!

We are also in contact with a new group called Jersey Tribe, a self-started group of mostly Jewish, mostly single adults in their 20’s and 30’s who are looking for meaningful connection.  The purpose of the group is not to make couples out of singles – that will happen or it won’t – but it will be to give them a community that will engage them and pull them closer to Jewish learning, living, and social action. And when such groups appear for folks in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and up, our doors will be open to them as well.

Dear friends, Reform Judaism has taken many turns in the past 200 years, and who knows what Reform will look like in another 200 years? That is why we call it “Reform” and not “reformed.” That is the nature of a movement that is Reform and reforming, not just reformed.

But this we know: Reform Judaism today is alive and well. There are many challenges before us and we are far from the hoped-for messianic era. But we are blessed by Jews of varying beliefs, or none, who support the life of the synagogue, the central communal institution of Jewish life. We are blessed by the women and men from different faith traditions who have enthusiastically thrown their lot in with the Jewish people, they and their families. We are ten-fold blessed with an approach to Jewish life that is modern, dynamic, creative, adaptive, inclusive, and, yes, innovative.

Later this afternoon, we will be hearing from a panel of four of our members, all of whom are in some way involved in intermarriage: the child of intermarriage, a non-Jewish father in a Jewish family, a mom whose daughter is engaged to someone not of our faith and someone who became a Jew by Choice after marriage. Before the afternoon service, I will be here in the sanctuary for an open discussion on intermarriage.

In a moment we are going to end the service with these prayerful words:

Hayom t’amtzeynu. Strengthen us this day.

Hayom t’varcheynu. Bless us this day.

Strengthen us, O God, and bless us this day.

Strengthen us with the pride of belonging to the family of Reform Judaism. Bless us with the warmth, the wisdom, and the personal affirmation it brings.

Strengthen all those who, through no little sacrifice, give us the priceless gift of raising their children in a faith not their own.

And bless all those who dedicate and sanctify their homes in Your Name and join us on this great Jewish journey.

Strengthen them and bless them all this day, for it is they who strengthen and bless us, this and every day.


[i] Rashi on Berachot, 54a

[ii] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Heavenly Torah: as Refracted through the Generations translated by Gordon Tucker, p. 737

©2010 Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff


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