Forward screenshot of Jeremy Kalmonofsky article

What If They Said White Instead of Intermarriage?

As an intermarried Jew still deeply committed to Jewishness in my own family and in the world, when I read pieces bashing the intermarried, I am deeply hurt. There have been Jews on the wrong side of history throughout history, whether defending slavery (“the Bible allows it!”), denying women’s equality, or excluding gays and lesbians. Today, blanket statements about intermarriage should appear equally as antiquated.
But more than that, I just can’t understand how acceptable it seems to these folks, who simply don’t care that this debate is over. It is the last throws of a kind of supremacy, and because of that, I can’t help but read the pieces through the lens of racism. What if instead of pure-breed Jews, they were talking about white racial purity? For your convenience, each time we see such a piece, we will replace a few key words to demonstrate how it makes so many of us feel, starting with:

Why I Will Not Simply Accept Inter Mixed-Race Marriage
Our Community’s Future Should Trump Individual Choice
By Jeremy Kalmanofsky
The Forward, March 8, 2015
Over the past two years, influential Conservative rabbis have begun flirting with performing mixed-race intermarriages and with relaxing conversion whiteness standards, or at least wringing their hands at Judaism’s white people’s traditional endogamy norm and the distress it is causing interfaith mixed-race families.
Given pervasive interracial marriage — 58% of all American Jews whites marrying since 2000 wed gentiles blacks — it may seem improbable that my colleagues in the Conservative rabbinate will resist the tide indefinitely. But I hope we do. Conservative Judaism whiteness would be strengthened if we continue to insist that the integrity of Jewish white marriages demands that both partners commit to living as Jews white people.
I don’t insist on endogamy because of any reactionary instincts. I enthusiastically support liberal policies on homosexuality and gender equality, even though these reject traditional norms.
Also, I am not driven mainly by grim demographic data, although it really should sober up interracial-marriage advocates. No one should draw optimistic policy conclusions without reckoning with the finding in 2013 by the Pew Research Center that only 20% of interracially-married parents raise their children as Jewish by religion white, while nearly twice that many, 37%, do not raise their children as Jewish white in any way whatsoever. By contrast, 96% of in-married parents raise their children as Jewish by religion Caucasian.
Instead, this Conservative rabbi asks: What would my Judaism whiteness look like if I took a more liberal approach to mixed-race intermarriage?
It seems to me that those flirting with more permissive policies emphasize what should be marginal and ignore what should be central. Like all good liberals, they want to make people feel affirmed and happy, which are worthy enough goals. But they focus too much on individual choices and not enough on shared community.
I understand why rabbis want to say yes to Bridget Helen and Bernie Tom Willis (characters in a topical 1970s sitcom, young’uns). Most rabbis are nice people who would rather celebrate than disappoint our congregants. Also, let’s be honest: Community rabbis live and die by our relationships. So besides our emotional bonds and ethical instincts, we have a vested interest in making congregants happy. It hurts to say no to Bernie’s Tom’s parents, especially if they decamp for the Reform synagogue.
Those who favor performing mixed-race intermarriages insist that this step would make the Jewish white community warmer and more accessible. No matter how nicely you say it, declining to perform someone’s wedding implies a cruel rejection. Better to perform the interracial marriage, advocates say, in order to draw the couple toward more Jewish white experience, fellowship and education for their kids down the road.
Moreover, we Americans are a romantic breed. Love is all you need, isn’t it? If human love is “as holy as it gets,” as Berkeley’s Rabbi Menachem Creditor recently told The New York Times, then rejecting a couple’s marriage because one partner is the wrong religion race seems, well, monumentally unholy, not to mention bigoted.
If “love” and “openness” seem persuasive, it is because they have to do with individual fulfillment, not religious racial community. We are 21st-century Americans, great-grandchildren of the Enlightenment who value liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People flourish only when they are free.
As important as freedom is, however, classical Judaism whiteness orients by a different compass. Inherited Judaism whiteness is meaningful thanks to its shared norms, shared responsibilities and shared aspirations, derived from a common past, pointing toward a common future. We’ve always known that individuals are atoms, but only when we are part of a molecule can the Jewish white family confer that sense of shared history and destiny.
That’s why Conservative Jews whites, at least, dare not worship at that American shrine of “whatever is best for you.” Our tradition calls us instead to take on shared norms to honor our shared past and advance toward our shared future. To interracially marrying couples, I would say something like this:
Judaism Whiteness is a covenant among our people and between God and us. It’s demanding. But that’s what makes it deep. Please link your individual lives to this eternal community, which is bigger than us and devoted to loftier missions than our own happiness (though we want you to be happy). To those not born Jewish white, please join our people. Make our history and destiny your own. If you choose not to join right now, don’t worry, we will wait for you, and hope one day you’ll wish to join your spouse and children. For now, have a civil wedding, and we’ll wish you mazel tov.
There is nothing immoral in marrying gentiles black people. It doesn’t make you a bad person. But extra burdens and additional obstacles do make it more difficult for interracialfaith families to keep Israel’s covenant. Not impossible, but hard. The only way to succeed is to venerate the covenant and your membership in it.
Yet by offering an interracialfaith couple some form of Jewish white wedding, rabbis communicate instead that Jewish white tradition is a beautiful, profound spiritual resource from which individuals may sample when it adds the right note that enhances their personal lives. That’s true, but not sufficient. For while a nonconverting gentile black spouse could say that her Jewish white wedding ceremony pleased her spouse or her in-laws, or was lovely, it cannot be her own, and so it cannot summon her to join our shared past, shared future and shared mission.
As a heterodox but halachic Jew whitey, I hasten to add that traditional norms are not necessarily the best ones. I celebrate my movement’s radical transformations on gender equality and sexuality — not because they widened the sphere of freedom and privacy for women and gay men and lesbians to pursue their happiness, but because they helped people fulfill the covenant better, enabling more Jews whites to do more mitzvot and build better families.
Celebrating interracialfaith weddings cannot clear that bar. It would instead diminish a sacred covenantal tradition, and risk making liberal Judaism whiteness into a jumble of traditional gestures that might please individuals but demand nothing from them.
Can there be any clearer example of such dilettantism than a recent report about an interracialfaith couple so serious about their respective faiths races that during Passover Thanksgiving they take Catholic communion collard greens together over consecrated matzo Wonder bread? That makes them neither observant Jews whites nor part of the Body of Christ. It just makes them incoherent.
In the end, mixed-race intermarriage is not the problem, and rabbinic officiation is no solution. The question is whether we rabbis offer only the relatively scanty promise that Judaism whiteness can enrich our lives, or teach that there can be no Judaism whiteness without the covenantal community of Jews whitey.
Jeremy Kalmanofsky is a rabbi at Ansche Chesed, in Manhattan.

13 thoughts on “What If They Said White Instead of Intermarriage?

  1. I’m not going to bash intermarriage. Intermarriage is not the problem. The problem is that there is a strong correlation between those who lack a Jewish education and a firm foundation in the faith and those who choose to intermarry. Once a Jew has decided to intermarry, it’s silly to give them a hard time.
    I will say a couple of things, however.
    Advocating endogamy is simply not the same thing as arguing against interracial marriage. First of all, no one is arguing that endogamy be state-mandated, as racial marriage was. Jews can marry whomever they want. I can understand that some intermarried couples want a rabbi’s blessing, but even if some Conservative rabbis choose not to perform intermarriages, virtually all welcome intermarried couples into their synagogues, and none advocate outlawing intermarriage.
    Second of all, promoting endogamy is about promoting a shared set of practices and religious beliefs, and not about simply promoting a view of racial purity. No one in any major movement objects to black Jews marrying white Jews. Virtually no one in the Conservative movement says that being a Jew is better than being a Gentile. People who favor endogamy would say simply that if you practice Judaism, the best way to ensure that your children also practice Judaism is to marry another person that practices Judaism. And every piece of data that we have shows that this is true, and also that the converse is true; if you do not marry another Jew, your children are simply unlikely to practice Jewishly. Being Jewish is a valid way of life that practicing Jews have a right to perpetuate. Being White is not a way of life.
    Third, in light of that data, it is more than a little self-serving for those who endorse intermarriage to criticize those who promote endogamy, and, as one Jewish leader did in the Jewish Week last year, to blatantly distort the Pew poll. There is a qualitative difference here that the statistics bear out. And while I would never bash intermarried couples for being intermarried, those that complain about the rhetoric of Jewish leaders who favor endogamy should at least acknowledge that reality.

  2. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, and I fully acknowledge that there are Jews for whom ethnic or racial background is a serious component of their Jewish identity. But I also won’t hesitate to say that those Jews are wrong. Judaism is not a race: the existence of born Jews of every race and color completely refutes that view. And frankly, I find it deeply hurtful that you could equate religious endogamy with racial endogamy, since it erases my experience as a Jew. When I came out of the mikveh as a newly-minted Jew, my DNA didn’t change. My racial background is exactly the same as it was 8 years ago. The beauty of the Jewish people is that it can be joined by those who wish to join it, and I sincerely hope that the openness of our society to relationships between Jews and non-Jews leads to many, many more sincere converts.

  3. The obvious rejoinder to this post is that religion is different from race because religion is a set of practices and beliefs (or, in the case of Judaism, a big umbrella that encompasses many types of practices and beliefs), not just an accident of birth.
    But the rejoinder to the rejoinder is that not all Jews (and not all non-Jews) are religious, and opposition to intermarriage (whether from the rabbinic officiation perspective or the demographic panic perspective) tends not to be limited to opposition to marriage between a religious Jew and a non-Jew. Drawing a sharp distinction between the marriage of two secular people of Jewish descent and the marriage of two secular people only one of whom is of Jewish descent edges closer to racism.

  4. It’s over for the conservative movement.The truly religious will go orthodox , the rest will go reform.

  5. It rather sickens me when people flippantly excuse Judaism as a “race.” We are not a “race.” We are a religious/tribal family. The problem with intermarriage is that today, when a Jew marries a non-Jew, there really isn’t an effort for the non-Jewish spouse to accept Torah. If Jews were to marry non-Jews who underwent Orthodox conversions to Judaism, then intermarriage wouldn’t be an issue. But this is not the reality. In reality, the Torah forbids intermarriage, unless proper conversion is completed. But since conversion is treated so flippantly today, in general, Rabbinic authorities have shunned intermarriage…And for good reason!

  6. Do Conservative Rabbis gives a crap about the actual commitment to Judaism for someone who passes the mitochondria test? If they did this argument would hold water. But we all know it doesn’t. Plenty of Jews who haven’t spent a day in Temple after their Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah get married by Conservative Rabbis. Sometimes, even that standard is too demanding.
    Endogamy is conceptually distinct from racism. Practically, they’re the same. Conservative Rabbis have a lot more work to do to make their view less obviously biased and arbitrary. Writing another hackneyed article about commitment and tradition won’t do it when it’s still mostly about mitochondria. I’ll admit, however, that I’m happy the phrase “silent holocaust” wasn’t used.
    But whatever. Keep on marrying purebloods in the hope that their kids will become committed Jews, when their parents come maybe come for High Holidays. Everyone else can piss off. Or you can be exceptional and convert. But honestly, who in their right mind would do that when they can go somewhere else where the community will accept them as they are. Once that happens, conversion may require work. But it will be work done freely.

  7. Yehuda Yisrael writes:
    The problem with intermarriage is that today, when a Jew marries a non-Jew, there really isn’t an effort for the non-Jewish spouse to accept Torah.
    But why should they, if the Jewish spouse doesn’t necessarily accept Torah (by whatever definition) either?
    If Jews were to marry non-Jews who underwent Orthodox conversions to Judaism, then intermarriage wouldn’t be an issue.
    There is no such thing as “non-Jews who underwent Orthodox conversions to Judaism” (unless you hold that Orthodox conversions are invalid).

  8. No matter what one may think of intermarriage, you can’t compare it to racism, homophobia, or gender discrimination. You can’t change your race, sexual preference or gender but you can change religions. Secular folk can have secular weddings. It is just unfair to ask a Rabbi who holds that the marriage ceremony means something when both parties are Jewish and is meaningless if one or both sides of the partnership are not Jewish. It would be an affront to Christianity for a Jewish couple to have a Christian wedding because it is meaningless to them.
    We should not be quick to ridicule the teachings of any religion. If Rabbi Kalmanofsky believes that an intermarriage is not appropriate for any reason, who are we to challenge his beliefs. There are many officiants who will put together a wedding ceremony that will fit any couple who asks. There are many Rabbis who believe that a marriage of a couple of two different faiths makes the Jewish ceremony meaningless. They are entitled to their beliefs as the couple are entitled to their own. Why do we criticize the Rabbi for the decision a couple has made?

  9. I’m curious why several people took this as an opportunity to bash the Conservative movement, which *does NOT* perform intermarriages. It does accept that there are people who are intermarried, and as such, attempts to undo the damage by accepting those families into our communities, encourages Jewish life (and when possible, conversion) and being clear about who is a Jew (and how easy it is to become one).
    I think it’s insulting to non-Jews to pretend that there’s no big deal about choosing not to be Jewish. If you are aren’t Jewish there is *nothing wrong with that* but it also means that one is choosing not to take part in the Jewish community. That’s it: it’s not racism, because Judaism isn’t a race.
    Respecting non-Jews means respecting that they are choosing not to be Jewish, which means that they are choosing not to participate in decisions about religious practice, take a lead role in synagogue life, recite Jewish prayers, and be married according to the laws of Moses and Israel, since those laws don’t apply to non-Jews.
    Anyone who wants to do those things can choose to do them – anyone – all they have to do is become Jewish.
    Unlike race, which no one chooses, and privilege, which people get or do not get through no action of their own, Judaism is equally open to anyone who wants it.
    This piece is, IMO, massively insulting to Jews by Choice, non-Jews, and people of color. Not to mention endogamous Jews. Don’t want to be part of the Jewish people? Fine, you don’t have to be. But let’s not play games here.

  10. Jewish interfaith marriage is as wrong now as it was when Bridget Loves Bernie first aired on CBS. Judaism is not a race, so that analogy does not hold. I miss Dave Boxthorn. I’m sure he would have had a good reply to this post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.