In an attempt to preserve their membership and transmit their values to future generations, many religious faiths ban or limit intermarriage. Orthodox Christian churches, for example, entirely forbid marriage to those who have not undergone baptism.
Other groups allow intermarriage if subsequent children will be raised in their faith, while some practice endogamy in which men can marry nonbelievers (under the assumption that the husband will determine the family’s faith), while women cannot.
The phenomenon of Jewish intermarriage was recently highlighted by the
marriage of a Jew to Chelsea Clinton in a ceremony which included Jewish
rites. It highlighted the general acceptance and assimilation of
American Jewry, as well as the larger global trends of pluralism and
One might view it as a culmination of the Enlightenment process,
beginning with Napoleon’s 1806 demand that Jews drop their ban on
marrying gentiles, even as the “Sanhedrin” of scholars he assembled
insisted that these marriages would not be recognized under Jewish law.
Since its 1844 Braunschweig convention, the Reform movement has
permitted intermarriage on condition that the government allows the
child to be raised as a Jew, even as it officially discourages it by
forbidding rabbinic participation in interfaith nuptials.
While intermarriage has exponentially increased in the last decades, a
recent study of American university students sponsored by the Hillel
Foundation showed that a paltry minority of offspring from
intermarriages identify themselves as Jews (37 percent with a Jewish
mother, 15% with a Jewish father).
The Bible condemns intermarriage as a threat of corrupting influences
that will lead to idol worship (Exodus 34:15-16). These fears were borne
out in many biblical stories, including the illicit relations of
Israelite kings. The prophets Ezra (9:2) and Nehemiah (13:23-8) fought
vociferously against such marriages, as did scholars in the Maccabean
era. Additionally, particular prohibitions were leveled against marrying
members of nations which historically mistreated our nation
(Deuteronomy 23:4, 8).
While the Torah explicitly prohibits marrying members of the seven
nations who occupied the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 7:3), the sages
debated whether this proscription covers all gentiles, or if a rabbinic
edict expanded the prohibition (Avoda Zara 36b). While Rabbi Ya’acov ben
Asher followed the latter opinion (Tur EH 16), Maimonides, citing
Nehemiah, codified marital relations (indicating some form of
commitment) with a non-Jew as a biblical prohibition, while relegating
looser fornication to the rabbinic edict (Issurei Bia 12:1). The rabbis
specifically banned such behavior between Jewish males and a non-Jewess
during the Maccabean era, when Hellenism generated much social
assimilation (Sanhedrin 82a). All agree, however, that any nuptials have
no legal binding force (EH 44:8). Some further assert that any
intercourse with a non-Jew violates the general biblical prohibition
against fornication (Maharam Schick EH 37,155).
One biblical story that highlights the severity of this prohibition was
Phineas’s execution of Zimri for his public consorting with the
Midianite princess Cozbi (Numbers 25:6-8). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a)
justifies this extrajudicial behavior to eradicate such debauchery. The
commentators debate whether the openness of his depravity mandated
Zimri’s punishment (Beit Shmuel 16:4), but marriage, because of its
pronounced nature, certainly constitutes a public relationship (Kitvei
Maharatz Chajes II:996).
While the sages severely limited the permissibility of such zealousness
and ultimately deemed it unfit to be taught, it nonetheless indicates
the severity of such illicit behavior, making a person worthy of
spiritual excommunication (EH 16:2). Indeed, the Talmud homiletically
condemns men who consort with gentile women as unworthy of their
circumcision, their mark of Jewishness (Eruvin 19a). As such, many
talmudic edicts, especially relating to dietary norms, were enacted to
prevent excessive social intermingling (Avoda Zara 36).
The modern phenomenon of intermarriage, however, has caused a
development in conversion laws. According to talmudic law, a person may
not convert for the sake of marriage (as well as power, fear and money),
since this ulterior motive might indicate insincere acceptance of
Judaism (YD 268:12). Yet with the modern development of civil marriage,
Jews seeking to marry gentiles would marry civilly or easily convert to a
Given those prospects, rabbis Shlomo Kluger, Chaim Grodzinksi (Ahiezer
3:26-8), and Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe YD 3:109:3) permitted the
spouse to convert, on condition that other conversion requirements
(including the observance of Jewish law) are met. Some have further
contended that if the couple is already civilly married, we do not deem
this as a conversion for marriage, since they could live together
anyway; others retort that they still enjoy the social sanction to their
matrimony (Seridei Esh 2:75). While Rabbis Abraham Kook (Da’at Kohen
155) and Eliezer Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer 5:15) forcefully contended
that this violation of talmudic norms would only further encourage
intermarriage, the dominant contemporary trend advocates conversion in
this situation, highlighting the complex ways in which intermarriage has
impacted contemporary Jewish life.
The author, on-line editor of Tradition and its blog Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.