The Human Spirit: Where we draw the line

It is one thing to embrace intermarried couples and encourage the non-Jewish partner to explore Judaism; it is quite another to endorse it outright.

bride and groom 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
bride and groom 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Call her Mrs. Isabelle. A tall, strict teacher in my Connecticut elementary school, Mrs. Isabelle wore her gray hair braided and wound around her head. She always wore a smock. She taught the other second grade class, and I was glad I was in Mrs. Cohen’s. Mrs. Isabelle scared me, but not because of her hair or smock.
At home, I’d overheard the strangest story about her. Her parents had sat shiva, undergone the seven-day mourning ceremony for her. At seven years old I suspected she was at least partly a ghost. In my town, hardly anyone was observant, but intermarriage was rare – six percent in the US. Mrs. Isabelle’s parents drew their personal line. She could marry the man of her choice, but was out of the family, their own and certainly the Jewish family.
When I was in high school, I traveled around Connecticut as a Young Judaea leader and urged my peers to draw a personal line and restrict ourselves to dating only Jews. This, I argued, guaranteed our marrying only a Jew, since it’s unlikely we would fall in love and marry anyone we hadn’t dated. Why take a chance? My teenaged lectures were based more on Zionist ideology than religious observance per se. Back then, intermarriage was a shocking 13 percent. I saw it as a looming threat to the Jewish continuity.
Somehow, the percentages nudged up to 40, then 50, percent. More Jewish men marry out than Jewish women. Life is humbling and full of surprises. No matter how religiously observant we are, even if we live in Israel, there is no guarantee that our offspring will fall in love with and marry Jews.
I’m sure, like me, readers know of Jews from every nuance of Jewish experience marrying out.
Of course, a loving, meaningful Jewish upbringing and strong Jewish education does increase the likelihood of someone preferring a Jewish mate as a life partner. My own youth movement, Young Judaea, once conducted a survey that suggested that participation significantly raised the probability of members marrying fellow Jews.
WHAT IF a Jew does intermarry? I have long found compelling the argument that Rabbi (and Jerusalem Post columnist) Shmuley Boteach put forth in his seminal two-volume work, Moses of Oxford (published in 1994) in answer to a Jewish student: “You are a Jew and you shall always be a Jew… As such you have an obligation to the Jewish God and the Jewish people. Marrying outside of the faith is not a license to disengage oneself from Jewish life. I therefore expect you to continue coming to Friday-night dinner, studying and arguing Judaism with me, and to continue your immense contribution to our activities.”
If said student would be a good enough example of Jewishness to his wife, then “perhaps one day she would seriously consider exploring Judaism with a view to embracing it and joining his people.” A young Rabbi confronting real life outside Crown Heights and Bnei Brak, he met a reality at Oxford University where students were more inclined to intermarry than not. His controversial decision to embrace couples already intermarried was ahead of its time.
That is not to say that Rabbi Boteach didn’t boldly attempt to prevent intermarriage, or encourage non-Jewish partners to explore Jewish faith with a view to conversion. He never endorsed intermarriage.
No endorsing. Herein lies the difference. Sitting shiva isn’t going to stop intermarriage and my self-imposed ban on interdating didn’t seem to win many followers (although it certainly worked for me). But we have to stop short of jumping on the bandwagon of shoulder-shruggers who endorse intermarriage.
HENCE, I want to go on record as differing with several of my fellow columnists here at The Jerusalem Post who expressed admiration for the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinksy. Rarely do we see such a public diminution of sacred symbols of Judaism, reducing them to folklore. My heart went out first to the women and men undergoing the arduous process of acquiring Jewish knowledge and practice, undertaking what often seems like walking a maze of Rabbinic requirements for the privilege of standing tall under a chuppah, the symbol of a Jewish home. We’ve personally had the happy opportunity to help a number of converts along this beautiful if challenging journey. The much-heralded wedding sends a confusing message to them and to those who are undecided about intermarriage.
I am most disappointed that two of my contemporaries, Rabbi James Ponet and Arnie Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, would play a role in this wedding.
Rabbi Ponet was once a founding member of an orthodox congregation in Jerusalem and is a long-time Jewish spiritual leader at the elite Yale University. He knew exactly which traditions of Judaism he was de-valuing, as he guided the young couple in their choice of ceremony.
In such a public ceremony, can we see this as anything but legitimizing intermarriage? Nor can I understand how Arnie Eisen could have attended the reception. True, he had a personal relationship with the bride and groom, and probably their families. But the moment he took on the mantle of Chancellor of one of America’s most significant religious movements, he was no longer the private Arnie Eisen – but the representative of Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordechai Kaplan, Saul Lieberman teachers like Judith Hauptman and thousands of Conservative clergy in cities and enclaves all over the United States who have drawn a line and refused to conduct or attend weddings of intermarrying couples, with or without officiating non-Jewish clergy (at the cost of insulting many of their congregants).
Certainly, Chelsea and Marc who were brought up in families where public gestures count, would have understood his decision to decline.
He could have invited them for Shabbat dinner at his home after the wedding, but an appearance at the wedding was a public statement of approval. Leadership matters.
The Clinton-Mezvinksy marriage, the most public intermarriage since Henry Kissinger married Nancy Maginnes in 1974, needs to remind us to work harder to instill love and pride in the Jewish heritage in our children and in our extended families. We should be nurturing the many Jewish singles who would like to wed but for whom finding a mate is increasingly difficult. We need to make conversion, with its daunting commitment to be part of the Jewish people, user-friendly. And, like it or not, we have to draw a line or two.
This is the Jewish month of Elul, time to do accounting, not just in our personal behavior, but about what we’ve done for the Jewish people in 5770. Bring on the shofarot. It’s time to wake up.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who concentrates on the wondrous stories of modern Israel and its people.