Let’s shatter the taboos on marrying non-Jewish men
My wife and I have several Jewish female friends in their mid-30s who are still single. When any of them visit, our Shabbat talk inevitably turns to the people they are dating and how difficult it is to find a nice Jewish guy with whom to start a Jewish family and raise Jewish children.
One unpartnered friend, a rabbi, actually flew to Israel for in vitro fertilization and is now pregnant.
“I wish I would be married by now,” she says. “But since I’m getting older and haven’t found a soul-mate yet, I’m going to start my own family.”
These Jewishly involved single women could have other options, but those aren’t sanctioned by the Jewish community. That’s a mistake. It is time to remove the stigma from dating and marrying non-Jewish men.
The word “intermarriage” has been the convenient scapegoat for many of the ills in American Jewish life. Countless sermons have been wasted on this topic, and its specter has launched numerous fund-raising campaigns for institutions that usually have little clue on how to creatively adapt to a changing community.
As a result, many of our Jewish leaders and even major philanthropists are finding that their grandchildren are not necessarily being raised Jewishly.
But not every interfaith marriage is a threat to Jewish continuity. My wife, who is a rabbi, generally does not officiate at interfaith weddings. But when a widowed Holocaust survivor and close friend of ours wanted to marry another close friend, my wife was supportive; clearly they were not going to have any children.
Which value is more Jewish? Holding the Jewish community’s line on not performing interfaith marriages or the happiness of this couple? If my wife were a member of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, even attending this wedding would be grounds for expulsion.
One way of adapting would be to sanction, even encourage, Jewish women in their 30s to date and marry non-Jews. I am not suggesting that it is preferable for Jewish women to marry non-Jewish men, although I have seen a fair share of religiously unenthusiastic Jewish men hold back their wives’ spiritual quests.
However, I do believe that rather than remaining single, it is clearly preferable for single Jewish women in their mid-30s to marry non-Jewish men who are supportive of their spiritual journey and who will raise halachically recognized Jewish children.
To not enthusiastically embrace this idea would mean that our community is not concerned about the happiness and self-fulfillment of many of its most committed members. To denounce this idea fails to recognize an important, yet largely unstudied trend in Jewish life: That women, more than men, carry the spiritual spark of Judaism.
According to Sylvia Barak Fishman of Brandeis University, based on the percentage of bar to bat mitzvahs, more girls than boys are now affirming their commitment to the Jewish people. This is a remarkable development given that the bat mitzvah is a 20th century innovation.
Check out nearly every Jewish teen program, and you will see a gender mismatch: 60 percent girls to 40 percent boys. Sometimes female involvement is even higher, as in Brandeis University’s Genesis Program, which attracted 40 girls and 20 boys last summer.
This imbalance applies to Israel programs, camps, youth movements, and non-Orthodox day schools, and has tremendous ramifications for the future of Jewish life. Even the Maccabiah sports games attract more girls than boys.
The implications of the gender gap in Judaism are great and extend far beyond the teen years. Synagogue membership and attendance rates are higher for women. Interfaith marriage is about 20 percent lower for Jewish women than for Jewish men. Personal religiosity, home rituals, participation in adult education, and other indicators of commitment to Jewish life tend to be higher for women than men.
A comprehensive 1997 survey by the American Jewish Committee found that the feeling of being Jewish is “very important” for 60 percent of women and 41 percent of men.
Empowering and embracing Jewish women as spiritual ambassadors of the Jewish people to potential non-Jewish mates is a mitzvah on many levels.
First, they will be better able to participate in the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” either by childbirth or adoption, in a more conventional family unit. Second, it allows our community to grow in strength and numbers, thus creating a critical mass of people to sustain our institutions, traditions and values.
Third, the impact of this kind of sanctioned intermarriage on the Jewish gene pool is positive, thus lowering the chances for couples to face impossibly painful decisions about the abortion of fetuses that will be born with Tay Sachs or other debilitating genetic diseases. Fourth, it sends an inclusive message about Jewish living to unaffiliated Jews who once wrote off the community as being out of touch, parochial, or racist.
I would rather dance at the interfaith wedding of my Jewish female friends who will raise Jewish children than continue to cling to an outdated communal expectation that perpetuates loneliness and lacks compassion.
The writer is editor and publisher of www.interfaithfamily.com