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Edgar Bronfman has delivered his opinion on intermarriage, a sensitive subject for American Jews and a problem for the North American Diaspora ("dispersion") or what Jews generally call the Gola ("exile").

About half the Jews in North America are currently marrying non-Jews, and about 70% of their children are raised as non-Jews (see here). Concern about intermarriage is not a question of religious bigotry or "racism." It is concern over the disappearance of our people. We may be doing something very wrong if given the choice, people are not choosing Judaism. On the other hand, it may reflect not much more than the law of averages. In a really integrated society where most people are non-Jews, the chances of finding a Jewish mate are pretty small, and they shrink as the society becomes more truly integrated.

Bronfman's 'solution' is that Jews must 'accept' intermarried couples. He told Ha'aretz:

"Judaism must open up and fully accept families where one of the parents is not Jewish. If a revolutionary change is not made in the present rejectionist attitude toward mixed couples, the Jewish community in America will shrink and lose its influence, and American support for Israel will be in danger."

That seems to be elementary. In a free society, nobody can legislate or dictate the religion or ethnicity of someone else's marriage partner. A religion or group that insists on trying to do so is going to have very few followers after very few generations.

I accept anyone if they are civilized, regardless of religion or ethnicity, and everyone else should too. But if they don't consider themselves to be Jewish then it won't help, will it? Even if every Jewish family and every congregation, Zionist group and Jewish center, opens up its hearts and its doors to mixed couples and says "We accept you" (as what?) it won't make them a part of the Jewish people if they don't show up or do not identify as Jews. American support for Israel will not be any greater either. Even if American support for Israel depends on the tiny American Jewish community, the presence or absence of a cadre of people who don't care about Judaism or Israel would obviously not matter. What matters is not who is married to whom, but how they feel about Israel.

The question is, why non-Jewish partners do not want to convert to Judaism and why so many mixed marriage couples are not raising their children as Jews (whatever that might mean). If the reason is that they feel rejected by Judaism, then acceptance of such couples might help. But if the reason is that neither partner considers the issue important, or that Judaism is not sufficiently attractive, or that the Jewish partner got married in order to get away from being Jewish, than accepting intermarried couples is not going to save Judaism. Jews will continue to intermarry, and in a few generations there won't be many Jews left in the United States to accept them or reject them.

I have not seen any studies of the reasons why people intermarry without insisting that their partner convert to Judaism. The reasons may be various:
- I am not religious, so why should I ask my partner to become Jewish?
- Too many hassles to become Jewish.
- Non-Jewish partner refuses to be Jewish.
- I am trying to get away from Judaism.

Likewise there are apparently not a lot of studies on what the offspring of such marriages feel. Results of at least one study done in 2005 suggest that most of the young people "not being raised as Jewish" in fact do have some Jewish identification, along with feelings of alienation if their mother was not Jewish and they are therefore not Jewish according to Halachic law. This does suggest that being more accepting of mixed marriages and their offspring will help. Having a Bar Mitzvah seems to be the factor that correlates most strongly with being Jewish, so the study recommended providing opportunities for Bar Mitzvah. But correlation does not prove causation. Do they not feel Jewish because they didn't have a Bar Mitzva, or did they not have a Bar Mitzva because they don't feel Jewish? If all your friends go to St Aloisius''s for Mass on Sunday, who are you going to invite to the Bar Mitzva?

But the problem is not intermarriage, but Judaism and the relation of people to Judaism. People who marry a non-Jewish partner and don't insist that that partner convert usually do not care much about Judaism. They would be just as apathetic had they remained single or married another nominal Jew, and just as unlikely to "raise their children as Jews."

Judaism is a matter of religious identification, and most Jews in the United States are either not religious or do not have a particularly strong allegiance to their religion, or are repelled by their religion. In any case, their relation to Judaism is not strong enough to be a factor in choosing a mate. Jewish culture and Jewish religion does not have enough meaningful and attractive content to hold these people, and they aren't worried if their children are no longer part of the Jewish people. Bagels and lox and Yiddish jokes are very nice, but the loss of same probably isn't going to prevent anyone from marrying Mr. Right or Mrs Right if Right happens to be Methodist or Hindu or Catholic or even Muslim.

It seems that lack of Jewish education is strongly correlated with intermarriage. The intermarriage rate among Jews who did not receive Jewish education is 43 percent and among those who received some kind of Jewish schooling is 25 percent. Once a gain, we should not rush to the conclusion that more Jewish education will prevent intermarriages. If the Pope got a Jewish education he would still be Catholic. There is often a reason why the person did or did not get a Jewish education that relates to family identification with Judaism. Orthodox Jews give their children a Jewish education, and Orthodox Jews do not intermarry. However, we could not prevent intermarriage by forcing non-orthodox Jews to send their children to Yeshiva day schools or even to Hebrew day schools. They wouldn't do it unless they want to do it.

Tf the problem is not a "racist" or religious bigotry issue, then intermarriage should not be an issue of concern. The real issue should be that we want people to identify themselves with the Jewish people, and the real problem is that they are not doing so. Intermarriage is just a symptom of the disease. The real issue is what Jews think about Judaism, not who their mother was or who their father was or whom they married.

But what is "Judaism?" How can we insist that people adhere to Judaism if we can't define it in any way other than finding a Jewish mate or having a Bar/Bat Mitzva? Orthodox Jews know precisely what they mean by 'Judaism', and that is fine for them. But most Jews are not going to become Orthodox, so that is not a solution for the rest of us. We are Jews,and will assert that we are Jews adamantly, but what does that mean? In 2001, the AJIS survey found that about 1.7 million American Jews are in the "Jewish - No Religion category." In the AJC Survey of 2007, 29% of respondents classified themselves in the "Just Jewish" category, and only 8% reported that they are orthodox. "Jewish" can't be based only on religion, and certainly not on a single brand of religion.

A large percentage of Jews seem to base their identity on the Holocaust, an embarrassing finding and not a basis that can be attractive to future generations of Jews. A discussion of Jewish identity here doesn't seem to be more satisfactory, and is indicative of the sort of confusion that Jews have when trying to grapple with the question of Jewish identity. The author of the article announces that

The Jewish past and Jewish tradition are no longer identifying elements of Jewish identity and might even be divisive for ever-growing numbers of young Jews in Israel and other communities around the world.

Whether you believe that "Jewish" refers to a religion or a people, this statement is a nonstarter. Nationhood is based on a shared past - real or imagined, as well as identification and belonging, and religion is based on tradition. The author, Tzvi Bisk asks

In Israel today, what do Ethiopian, Haredi, Russian Jews, and 3rd generation kibbutz sabras and development town residents have in common? In the Diaspora, what do Jews from Argentina, San Francisco, and Paris have in common? What do agnostic Jews have in common with the Haredim? What is the force unifying gay Jews, children of “Yordim” [Israelis living outside Israel], and Jewish children of mixed marriages, such as the 45% of those on college campuses who still identify as Jews?


He wants to build Judaism around a shared "covenant with the future" in modern "mitzvot" of working on alternative energy projects and building a better hi-tech world. But I am not sure that Haredim will participate in that future. If that is to be the definition of the Jewish people, then those who enter this covenant may have much more in common with Barack Obama or a Chinese Chemist than with a Haredi or a Jewish auto mechanic or checkout clerk in a supermarket. And if Israeli Arabs participate in building this future, will that make them into Jews?

What I have in common with Ethiopian Jews and (most) Haredim, is that we all identify with the Jewish people. We have thrown our lot in with the Jewish people, and we share an understanding of a common past. We recognize that we share a common fate as Jews, different from that of other nations, and we accept that fate. That may be the most important thing that binds us. When we say Gola it evokes certain definite associations that it does not evoke for Chinese or French people, and when we say "Jerusalem" or "David" or "Solomon" they mean a different thing to us then it means to non-Jews, because of the way we perceive our personal relation to Gola, Jerusalem, David, Solomon and other mooring points in Jewish identity.

We can't base Judaism on "shared values" either. I do not share a lot of the values of anti-Zionists or religious fanatics and they do not share mine, but we are all Jewish. I share a lot more values with John McCain or Barack Obama or Mother Teresa than I share with a Jewish felon or the Rabbi of the Neturei Karta, but the Jewish felon and the Neturei Karta Rabbi and I are all Jewish, while McCain, Obama and Mother Teresa are not.

The assets of nationhood or peoplehood are non-tangible. They are not absolutely superior. Israel is not the largest or most comfortable or most aesthetically pleasing country in the world. Jews value learning and hard work, but so do Chinese and some other peoples. Our national cultural and tangible assets, like our children, are valuable because they are ours and we love them. They are generally attractive only because we share them and understand them and identify with them. French people and Italians and Greeks and Americans are equally proud of their land, and their past and their values. That includes not only French people or Italians or Americans who have been living in their land for hundreds of years, but those who may have joined their people only two or three or four generations ago. Some of the most avid and proudest American patriots are newly nationalized citizens. So it is not a matter of genetic or "racial memory."

So what can we do to increase Jewish identification in the Diaspora and in Israel? We can teach our common history and culture and explain why we are proud of it. We can make Jewish education attractive (and in the United States - inexpensive) so that people will want their children to get a Jewish education. We can base Judaism on personal choice rather than accident of birth, because in modern secular societies that is what it is, and we must provide a reasonable route for others to join our people or remain with our people even if they are not religious.

This is not easy. It is also dangerous. If the criteria for Judaism are not based on not mechanical ones based on either birth or religious observance, we need to define for ourselves what constitutes Judaism and who cannot be a Jew, as well as what can do to become a Jew and we perhaps need to decide on recognized institutions that will grant such recognition both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Rather than excluding people, we must invite those who wish to join us and share our common fate to do so. The orthodox rabbis will object that this takes the definition of "Judaism" out of their hands and will divide the Jewish people. It will divide the Jewish religion perhaps, but it will do so only if the rabbis insist on the rigid halachic definition of Judaism. Another way, that can circumvent rabbinical hegemony, is to define membership in a "Hebrew Nation" or an "Israelite people." History and circumstances are already taking the matter out of the hands of the rabbis in any case.

Ami Isseroff


Original content is Copyright by the author 2008. Posted at ZioNation-Zionism and Israel Web Log, http://www.zionism-israel.com/log/archives/00000611.html where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Disributed by ZNN list. Subscribe by sending a message to ZNN-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by e-mail with this notice, cite this article and link to it. Other uses by permission only.

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You are quite right. The problem is the appalling lack of knowledge or concern Diaspora Jews have about Judaism.In catholic countries such as Argentina,Jews celebrate all Christian holidays and most Jews have no inkling of when our own celebrations take place. It is the minority that pay for a seat at a synagogue for the High Holidays. The snob appeal that garden cemeteries have far outnumber the burials that take place in the community´s , despite the fact that the money that is demanded goes for aid and not into somebody´s private pocket.
5 out of two Jews that participate in Jewish institutions, buy a plot in a " garden of peace" where chance may make one find a resting place beside a defunct nazi, but the flowers are so pretty...These same people , who integrate the hundred and one community commitees -I suspect for social reasons-, have taught their children nothing and of course they end marrying outside the faith , sometimes with a mock rabbi performing together with a priest.Scientific minded Jews find religiosity more alien to their convictions, and many have replaced belief with Zionism. Althaugh I find Jabbads´ practice too akin to that of sects, and too proach to wealthy members, they are succeeding in attracting a lot of Jews. Especially those who , without their intervention would lean towards Sai Baba or some other such belief in magic.
Children of mixed parents who carry the Jewish sounding name, feel closer to Jews than the ones who have christian sounding names, in spite of the fact that those are Halachically Jewish and the others are not.

opensoc, Monday, October 13th


The Jewish tribal laws regarding membership in the tribe have been clear and unambiguous since the time of Ezra at least: a Jew is one who either (a) was born to a Jewish mother, or (b) one who has been accepted into the tribe, since the time of Ruth the Moabitess, by the elders, or in our time the rabbinate after an arduous ordeal we generically refer to as "conversion." In fact, it is acceptance into a tribal nation. I think changing it has terrible implications. We should all teach our sons that if you marry a nice gentile girl, the penalty is that their children will not be part of the nation.
It is severe, but if you tinker with the rules, soon you do not have a nation. You have a meaningless hodgepodge.

Jgarbuz, Saturday, October 11th


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