Ask The Rabbi: Intermarriage interrupted

Where does the Bible prohibit marriage with non-Jews?

September 3, 2010 16:32
4 minute read.
MOSES TAUGHT that man can and must uplift and sanctify his material being.

Tanach 58. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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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.

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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 multiculturalism.

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 different religion.

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 (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.

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