Observation: 'But she's not Jewish'

How is it that highly educated Jews in the 21st century still advocate for endogamy?

A COUPLE looks at each other while waiting to get married at Havana’s Beth Shalom synagogue in 2007 (photo credit: CLAUDIA DAUT/REUTERS)
A COUPLE looks at each other while waiting to get married at Havana’s Beth Shalom synagogue in 2007
(photo credit: CLAUDIA DAUT/REUTERS)
"I heard Ben broke up with his girlfriend. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.”
“Why not?” “They weren’t good together. They were always fighting.”
“Well, that’s a relief, I guess.”
“Not really. He’s got a new girlfriend. She’s even worse.”
“What’s wrong this time?” “She’s not Jewish.”
“But do they get along?” “Oh yes, they are very compatible. I’ve never seen Ben happier, in fact. They want to get married.”
“So what’s the problem?” “I told you already. She’s not Jewish.”
“But do you like her?” “Of course. But I’d rather he was unhappy with someone Jewish than happy with someone who’s not.”
This is a composite of a real conversation I’ve heard many times over the years in the Jewish world. It’s always struck me as wrongheaded. If you were to substitute a different ethnic or religious descriptor for “Jewish,” you would be immediately (and rightly) called out for prejudice.
Just think of the 2017 hit movie The Big Sick, where Kamil, a Pakistani Muslim, falls for Emily, who is white. Kamil’s parents, who spend much of the film trying in vain to arrange a marriage for their son, don’t approve. It’s not hard to guess which side we’re supposed to root for.
But in the Jewish world (and for other groups where tribal continuity is a key religious or national value), combating intermarriage is so important we check the moral outrage we’d have for other groups at the door.
There’s a word for this: endogamy. Merriam-Webster defines endogamy as “marriage within a specific group as required by custom or law” and adds that the practice is “characteristic of aristocracies and religious and ethnic minorities in industrialized societies but also of the caste system in India and of class-conscious nonliterate societies such as the Masai of Eastern Africa.”
How is it, then, that highly educated Jews in the 21st century still advocate for endogamy?
It makes sense when you’re in the thick of it. If you believe that Jewish tradition is beautiful and valuable, then sticking to “one’s own kind” may be the best way to ensure that continuity. And certainly, over the years, it’s been a highly successful ethnic strategy.
It’s less of an issue in Israel with its Jewish majority, but it’s not entirely absent either. An interfaith candlelighting at the First Station in Jerusalem for Hanukka last year was repeatedly disrupted by protests from Lehava, an extremist group whose name is a Hebrew acronym for “Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land.”
Most Jews would agree that support for endogamy sounds outrageous when applied to other groups. Moreover, it’s totally out of sync with today’s millennials, for whom endogamy is an absolute no-go.
That includes millennial Jews in the Diaspora, where dating someone who’s of a different faith is not just a demographic reality but a politically correct imperative.
Anti-endogamous millennials can argue that, now that we know more than our ancestors did about genetics, in-marrying is a biological mistake, leading to a greater chance of propagating DNA mutations and depleting genetic diversity.
Endogamy conflicts with the liberal American values I grew up with. And yet, I’m conflicted. I love being Jewish, so I married a Jewish woman.
But that muddled message is increasingly falling on deaf ears. You want to win the intermarriage battle among Millennials? You can’t – at least not without promoting what comes across as racism masquerading as religion.
Move to Israel like we did as a solution, where our children have a much more likely chance of marrying another Jew? That might work for some, although these days, most Jews making aliya from Western countries are those already supporting endogamy.
Embrace both patrilineal and matrilineal descent, where a child is considered Jewish if either the child’s father or mother is? That increases the pool of Jews but still doesn’t address the core liberalism vs endogamy dilemma.
My colleague Dan Libenson has been thinking about this, too. Dan cohosts the podcast “Judaism Unbound,” which tries to imagine what the future of Judaism, particularly in North America, will look like.
Judaism’s deep-seated cultural attachment to endogamy has made Jews “who marry non- Jews feel ‘less than’ in the Jewish community and it makes them less likely to get involved,” Libenson says. That aversion creates a self-fulfilling feedback loop that works against the Jewish community’s objective of increasing meaningful Jewish engagement.
If Judaism is defined around an idea “that intermarried Jews and their families cannot by definition achieve, they are going to be more likely to see it as something that is not for them,” he adds.
Libenson imagines that if Judaism were to adopt an anti-endogamous position, that message would eventually fall by the wayside. “It might take a few generations and we may see decreased Jewish practice in the children of intermarried couples in the meantime, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will stay that way.”
More than that, Libenson doesn’t think the communal aim “should be easy continuity. I don’t see ‘some Jewish practice continuing through the generations’ as a worthy goal. Endogamy is basically a way to avoid the hard work.”
The argument against endogamy is, for the Jewish Diaspora, much like the case I’ve made in previous columns for a Jewish future in Israel driven by datlashim (formerly religions Jews). Both involve extraordinary struggles for the soul of our people and will require intense creativity. But we can’t avoid either.
Can we wish Ben and his partner a happy life together? Can we afford not to?
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com