אוי לי מימיני, אוי לי משמאלי (Woe am I from my right, Woe am I from my left): Intermarriage and the Dilemma of the Committed Modern Orthodox Jew (Part Two: The Left))

[Introduction, Part One]

The Left

So, Avi, if you disagree so fervently with these attitudes, surely you agree with us? My response is an unequivocal no. Let’s jump back a bit and understand how the post-denominational position (including people who are privately Orthodox) came to be and explain its rationale. Afterwards I will explain why I consider it no less extreme and unacceptable as the Right’s position.

For a long time, many if not most Jews who intermarried voluntarily wrote themselves out of the faith, either by converting or simply dropping all or most of their “identity markers”. Even more prominent was the overwhelmingly negative attitude of Jews of all stripes (those who were against assimilation) to intermarriage without some sort of “conversion” to the Jewish people – including the secular. The tactics for coping with this were different – from sitting shiva and excommunication to some degree of co-option. Assimilation was a constant issue for Diaspora leaders, and the studies pointing to increased rates of mixed marriage caused sleepless nights among many.

Somewhere along the line – historians will debate the when and where – this negative attitude collapsed. This is the case not only among the unaffiliated Jews who desired full integration in American society, Jewish people be damned, but also important segments of the Jewish media and “planning” elite. This is not even a matter of desperate measures like the Reform movement’s decision to accept patrilineal Jews as full-fledged members of the tribe. We are talking about wholesale acceptance, if not endorsement of this phenomenon, no strings attached.

The reasons for this position are twofold: pragmatic and principled. The pragmatic argument runs thus: All the scare tactics have failed. Despite the millions invested in Jewish education, Holocaust awareness &c, the overwhelming majority of Jews – in the states and elsewhere – is not interested in giving up integration and possibly love for the sake of endogamy. We need to switch gears, and instead of using sticks, pull out every carrot available, with the hope of keeping as many Jews as possible from completely leaving the Jewish orbit. Besides, many Jews are actively searching for their own identity free of denomination. Surely we should answer their call rather than turn them away.

The principled argument is simply a justification of this state of affairs, founded on full-fledged endorsement of the present liberal-pluralist weltanschauung. Demanding endogamy is racist, they argue, or at least bespeaking an irrational fear of persecution that belongs to another era. America is wholly accepting of, if not outright endorsing, mixed marriage and a plurality of positions. Once can marry whomever one wants and maintain one’s identity. We should accept anyone who so much as declares themselves Jewish, not out of pragmatism but on liberal principle.

I’ll begin with the pragmatic argument. Certainly, contemporary Jewish society is changing, not always for the better, at least in terms of its longevity. On the one hand, the degree of acceptance of Jews by host, non-Jewish nations in this day and age is unprecedented. There are virtually no societal barriers standing in a Jew’s way (except perhaps the issue of support/negation of Israel, but that is a topic for another time). It is also true that there are many new and exciting “Jewish renascences” occurring all over the world, be it in the form of Limmud events and non-denominational Batei Midrash, to the flourishing of Jewish studies and cultural events throughout the world.

However, this silver lining hides a much larger and darker cloud. Jewish affiliation – with any movement, no matter how liberal – is in complete free-fall. A recent study by Brandeis University showed that every denomination has a high defection rate – from the Orthodox (17%) to Reform (15%) to cultural/other (almost 50%). Most of these drop-outs end up in the rather meaningless category of ‘just Jewish’.

As Anshell Pfeffer pointedly noted, the primary cause of this defection is simply apathy. For all the overblown pomp and circumstance surrounding every new attempt at ‘Jewish renewal’ or ‘Jewish events’, most unaffiliated Jews are either indifferent or at least not committed enough to Jewish identity to invest in it or make sacrifices for it. Most studies I’ve seen bear me out that affiliated Jews (regardless of affiliation) are less likely to marry out. They are also probably more likely to insist on some kind of conversion and/or the raising of their children in a Jewish atmosphere. Thus, the high intermarriage rate is simply an extension of this wide-spread indifference to Jewish continuity.

‘Free Market’ unaffiliated Judaism, bereft of a solid base of communities and long-term commitment, certainly sounds good to the American mind. It is a disaster for Jewish longevity. For all the obsessive focus on the young and the unattached, the primary concern of Jews has always been the family and the raising of the next generation of Jews. One cannot understand the often excessive investment in Jewish education throughout history without understanding this fundamental principle. ‘Hipster Judaism’ and its offshoots is a nice fad, but that is all it is – a fad, a fleeting phase that has no real lasting power. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the world does not ‘belong to the young’. It belongs to those who choose to continue to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and thus continue their heritage. The others will simply be forgotten in a generation.

It is thus that I have serious doubts regarding the idea of ‘outreach’ to intermarried couples. If we are unsuccessful in maintaining even the commitment of undeniably halachic Jews or even ‘just Jews’, what chance is there of maintaining Jewish continuity among any significant portion of those who have taken the ultimate step out in this regard? Not only are our resources limited, but the overwhelming majority of Jews are so averse to endogamy that they will not make even the most minimal effort to encourage Jewish continuity. In such circumstances, is not ‘reaching out’ to intermarried couples while hundreds of thousands leave the committed a matter of misplaced priorities? Is it not like trying to run after the horse that not only escaped the barn but has made it to another village, while other horses are within easier reach?

It’s not that I’m against outreach; quite the contrary. It’s just that I’m against running after the people who don’t really care at the expense of people who still do to some degree. For the latter, people willing either to have their spouse undergo some kind of conversion or at least raise their children Jewishly, I believe we should go a long way.

While I obviously hold that only halachic conversion makes one a full Jew in my eyes, I believe that we Orthodox need to find ways to establish a ‘middle’ halachic status between goy and Jew for those who have undergone a non-Orthodox conversion and are Jewishly committed. This is not unprecedented; in the past there were many groups who accepted only part of Judaism and who were treated differently halachically than others. This is the case whether it was Samaritans, or groups in Turkey and the Arabian peninsula (in the time of the Mishna and Talmud) who were God-fearing (our God) even if not fully cognizant or accepting of all halacha.

Even if we can’t go that route, I believe that we should at least make allowances for relaxed or at least lenient acceptance of children of such marriages if they are raised in a Jewish home. There is more halachic wiggle-room here for compromise, and since our ultimate concern is the Jewishness of the children, surely ‘et la’asot’ should be the rule here.

In sum, I am highly skeptical of the lasting effects of such wholesale endorsement. While I would embrace anyone who wishes to at least ensure the Jewishness of the next generation, to the extent that I can, I believe the ‘pragmatic’ attitude spends too much time on the end result and not enough on the cause. Its optimism is admirable, but I prefer to deal with sociological reality.

All of which leaves us with the principled retort: what difference does it make if ‘outreach’ works or not? To demand endogamy is racist, and any individual is free to do as they choose. Not only that, but to sanction them socially is bigoted and illiberal (if not outright ‘undemocratic’). We should be celebrating this great mixing of cultures and accept whatever decision Jews make, even if it means their ‘Jewishness’ is paper-thin or non-existent. You have no right to object, and to say that these are ‘your principles’ – well, this is the same with suicide bombers who also ‘stick to their principles’.

Let me start with the name-calling that usually accompanies principled supporters. To compare objection to intermarriage without conversion to the principles of Taliban and/or suicide bombing is beyond reprehensible – it is beneath contempt. Such tactics represent simplistic street demagoguery of the lowest sort, of the type that makes usual political discourse seem positively genteel. Such arguments rely on logic so superficial and deeply flawed that they do not merit a response.

Nor do I accept that it constitutes ‘racism’, since my attitude, and the attitude of many, is that if you convert, you are a Jew. Period. I, and many other moderates, reject the essentialist or ‘racist’ concept of a genetic or ‘blood’ difference between Jews and non-Jews. If you become a committed Jew, then that is all there is to it. My objection is not racial, it is on the grounds that I should accept a blatant rejection of commitment to Judaism on the grounds that everyone can do what they want consequence-free. To reject the community’s simple request that your spouse joins them and expect to be welcomed with open arms is not just an exercise of free will. It is also tantamount to spitting in someone’s face and expecting for the recipient to comment on the rain.

SO what would you do if a relative of yours invited you to an intermarriage in a church, they might ask?

The truth? I don’t know. I might not go. Those who know me would know it is not because of bigotry, but because I simply cannot make that leap. It would be because I cannot come and say ‘mazel tov’ and rejoice at such a ceremony. Even if I did, I would make it clear on no uncertain terms that my coming is for family, and in no way, shape or form constitutes acceptance, passive or otherwise, of what is going on.

Why don’t you keep your big, primitive mouth shut, they might ask? After all, he lives life the way he wants and you live life the way you want! What’s the difference? Who are you to judge him?

If I saw my Orthodoxy as merely a social commitment, a mere lifestyle bereft of true, binding principles, this argument might have some force. This, however, is not the case. When I say I am Shomer Torah Umitzvot, I mean it in the deepest, most profound sense. I may not always be successful at observing everything. Lord knows I’ve had my share of crises of faith. But more than anything, I am bound, willingly, heart and soul, to God and his Torah.

Obviously I recognize that reality is complicated. Indeed, my faith – certainly halacha – is nothing if not the constant struggle and clash between different and equally important principles. As I wrote above, there are many cases where I would be willing to bend over backwards to be accepting if it means keeping people Jewish.

But that is not what you are asking, nay demanding of me. What you, and all your post-denominational colleagues are saying is that I should take my deeply held value system, one for which I am required to give up my life if need be, and stomp on it. As far as you are concerned, in any conflict between liberalism and Orthodoxy (or even religion), liberalism automatically wins. You are saying that I must openly declare – my declarations to God and society to the contrary – that I have no real religious principles. All I have, according to you, is a primitive lifestyle which you in your ‘benevolence’ permit me to lead so long as I don’t bother anyone else.

This is something I will not do, not now and not ever. I genuinely believe in good social relationships between human beings. That includes Jews and non-Jews and Jews among themselves. If that means we agree to minimize or at least ‘agree to disagree’ on many issues, then so be it. But I will not lie and say I think it’s OK, or that ‘everybody’s right’. I will not commit such an open betrayal of self, or indeed make any such betrayal. You don’t like it? It makes you feel uncomfortable? Tough. You think I’m delusional for holding to two contradictory sets of real principles? That’s your problem. I deal with it just fine.

So, after all this, what is my position on the subject? I’m still trying to figure that out. All I know is that I will not follow the pat answers of asylum-bound lunatics.

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About AIWAC

Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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3 Responses to אוי לי מימיני, אוי לי משמאלי (Woe am I from my right, Woe am I from my left): Intermarriage and the Dilemma of the Committed Modern Orthodox Jew (Part Two: The Left))

  1. Harold says:

    Avi,

    Very nice and thought provoking set of articles (I agree with most of what you wrote). There are actually some of us who are working on this middle ground, who have been on both sides of the fence, so to speak (even establishing an organization that will address this issue). Please see my recent article in the New York Jewish Week, responding to Steve and Cokie Roberts’ assertion of the “anything goes” mindset (with their new interfaith Hagaddah):

    http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial_opinion/opinion/beyond_conversion_becoming_jewish_family

    or my wife’s article from this summer in the wake of the Clinton/Mezvinsky wedding:

    http://www.aish.com/jw/s/100466579.html

    I live in Israel, so please feel free to e-mail me. I’d be happy to get together and chat.

    Harold Berman

  2. Harold says:

    Incidentally, although the 17% OTD rate for Orthodox Jews is troublesome, it also shows how far we’ve come. Back in the 50s and 60s, and before BTs were much on the radar screen (thus no one entering as people were exiting), the rate was well over 50%.

  3. Pingback: The Most Important Issues of the Day for Modern Orthodoxy | QED

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