Naturally, intermarriage is a hot button issue in Judaism. It seems that nothing that one can say will placate those who do not hold the traditional halakhic (Jewish jurisprudence) position in Judaism. If one does not hold by the halakhah, discourse becomes strained, if not impossible, especially when it comes to Jewish status.
The Reform position is well-known and since I do not subscribe to that position, I will leave it to others to address it.
Conservative Judaism, historically, has held positions which are closely in line with the traditional halakhic position, that one is Jewish if born of a Jewish mother or duly converted by a Beit Din—Rabbinical Court.
How all of this applies varies and it appears that regionally even within orthodoxy there are varying standards.
Nonetheless, traditional Judaism holds that there can be no marriage between Jews and non-Jews.
It is not a question of how much the couple loves one another, or how wonderful they are. The halakhic answer is, no. Now, if the non-Jew is truly sincere in their wish to become Jewish through halakhic means, then it would appear that they may marry the Jewish partner.
But even this is not so straightforward. I would be less than forthcoming if I did not point out that there have been and are religious communities that frown upon conversion for marriage purposes, even if there is some real sincerity in the desire to be part of Judaism.
In America we speak of intermarriage, meaning a Jew marrying another of a non-Jewish origin. In other countries, such as Australia, Jews do not speak of “intermarriage”, rather “marrying out.” It appears to me that in America we emphasize the joining in, whereas in other countries the emphasis is on the loss of another Jew from the Jewish fold.
In fact, I think that it can be borne out statistically that more than the Jew brings in another to the Jewish fold; a Jew is lost to Judaism altogether when they marry a non-Jew. The Jew generally joins with the majority population, rather than the non-Jew becoming “Jewish.”
When asking about a couple intending to raise their children as Jewish, the fact remains halakhically, that any child born to a Jewish mother is Jewish by definition.
Any child born to a non-Jewish mother is not Jewish by definition, period. If the child upon reaching maturity desires of their own volition to convert, they may convert, just as any other person could, but the fact that the couple decided to intermarry and raise the child as Jewish, does not ipso facto make the child Jewish, from an halakhic point of view.
I know that this is not the prevailing position in Reform Judaism. As a matter of fact, I personally, had been asked to participate in the conversion of an adopted child of a Reform Jewish couple (both Jews), where their Reform rabbi would not convert the child, feeling that the non-Jewish child was raised within the “temple” and did not require any further steps to ensure Jewishness.
The couple did not follow their rabbi’s direction and sought an halakhic conversion, by a duly constituted Beit Din—Rabbinical Court.
On another occasion, I was asked to sit on a Beit Din converting a natural born child of an intermarried couple, where the mother was non-Jewish, but the couple had previously agreed to raise any children born of their union as Jews.
I declined to sit on that Beit Din, as I feel that if the child desires to become Jewish when they reach their majority, they can at that time choose to become Jewish.
As I stated at the outset, this position is in accordance with the standards of halakhic practice and may not be popular amongst non-halakhic segments of the Jewish population, but that is the historic Jewish position within Rabbinic Judaism.
One of the most difficult issues facing the contemporary Jews is intermarriage. From the time of the Bible, the Jewish community has acknowledged that the best way to pass on values and beliefs is in the context of Jewish family life. As a result, Jews promoted endogamy, or in-marriage. In the book of Deuteronomy, we find warnings against intermarriage: "You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For you will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods..." (Deuteronomy 7:1-3) In the fifth century, when the Ezra, the Scribe, returned from Babylonia to rebuild Jerusalem, one of his first decrees was to force Jewish men who were married to non-Jewish women to divorce their wives.
Yet the Jewish tradition is not monolithic on this topic. The Book of Ruth tells the touching story of Ruth, a Moabite woman, who marries a Jewish man and is then widowed. Ruth returns to Judea with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and eventually marries Boaz, a relative of her husband. Their great grandchild of Ruth and Boaz is none other than David, the great king of Israel, and the progenitor of the Messiah. The Messiah, then, is a descendent of an intermarried couple! Although later tradition would identify Ruth as a “righteous proselyte,” nothing is ever said about her conversion in the Bible.
We struggle with intermarriage in the contemporary world. On the one hand, Jewish children are encouraged to live in and benefit from the larger cosmopolitan world in which they live. They attend the best schools and work in a world in which they have contact with people of diverse faiths and backgrounds. On the other hand, Jewish parents want their children to carry on the ‘chain of tradition’ and to maintain Jewish homes. Many young Jews are woefully ignorant of their culture and faith, Jewish identity only becomes an issue once they meet someone and fall in love.
Conservative Judaism has struggled with the issue of intermarriage. Conservative Rabbis will not perform intermarriages or attend such ceremonies. To do so is grounds for expulsion from the Rabbinical Assembly, our rabbinic organization. Yet we have not turned a blind eye to this question, either. In recent years, the Conservative Movement has engaged in an active program of out-reach to welcome intermarried couples into Conservative synagogues. Such couples are encouraged to participate in almost every aspect of community life. Conservative synagogues and their leaders walk a narrow line by endorsing endogamy but encouraging participation of intermarried couples in Jewish life. The Conservative Movement continues to maintain the traditional standard of matrilineal descent. This means that someone is considered Jewish only if he or she has a Jewish mother or has converted according to the standards of Jewish law and tradition. I think you will find that most, if not all, Conservative rabbis are open to assisting couples in such matters.
In many congregations non-Jews are invited to attend services, participate in adult education and cultural activities and are actively welcomed to social programs in the congregation. Non-Jewish parents are honored when they participate in their child’s Jewish upbringing, even if they are not prepared to convert themselves. There are two provisos in most Conservative congregations – for a child to attend religious school, he or she must be Jewish. If the child’s mother is not Jewish, it may be necessary for the child to undergo conversion. Depending on the congregation, there may also be certain limitations about what the non-Jewish spouse can and cannot do in the context of religious services.
Changing attitudes toward intermarriage can be seen in the statement of the Joint Commission on Response to Intermarriage: "In the past, intermarriage...was viewed as an act of rebellion, a rejection of Judaism. Jews who intermarried were essentially excommunicated. But now, intermarriage is often the result of living in an open society....If our children end up marrying non-Jews, we should not reject them. We should continue to give our love and by that retain a measure of influence in their lives, jewishly and otherwise. Life consists of constant growth and our adult children may yet reach a stage when Judaism has new meaning for them. However, the marriage between a Jew and non-Jew is not a celebration for the Jewish community. We therefore reach out to the couple with the hope that the non-Jewish partner will move closer to Judaism and ultimately choose to convert. Since we know that over 70 percent of children of intermarried couples are not being raised as Jews...we want to encourage the Jewish partner to maintain his/her Jewish identity, and raise their children as Jews."
Intermarriage has long been an issue for the Jewish community. In order to preserve the Jewish people and its covenantal relationship with God endogamous marriage has offered the best hope for Jewish continuity.
In 1973 The Central conference of American Rabbis passed the following resolution.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, recalling its stand adopted in 1909 that mixed marriage is contrary to the Jewish tradition and should be discouraged, now declared its opposition to participation by its members in any ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage. The Central Conference of American Rabbis recognizes that historically its members have held and continue to hold divergent interpretations of Jewish tradition. In order to keep open every channel to Judaism and K'lal Yisrael for those who have already entered into mixed marriage, the CCAR calls upon its members:
1. to assist fully in educating children of such mixed marriage as Jews;
2. to provide the opportunity for conversion of the non-Jewish spouse, and
3. to encourage a creative and consistent cultivation of involvement in the Jewish
community and the synagogue.
While this resolution continues to represent the official stance of the Central Conference of American Rabbis much has changed since 1973. In the late 1970’s Rabbi Alexander Schindler called on the Reform movement to welcome interfaith families and reach out to them and to the “unchurched”. He established within the Union for Reform Judaism (then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) an Outreach Department. The URJ and Reform Rabbinate have taken the lead in welcoming the intermarried families in their congregations and helping them establish Jewish homes and raise Jewish children and welcoming those who wish to convert.
While in the past it was assumed that Jews who married non Jews were leaving the community, today that assumption is false. The rate of interfaith marriage has continued to climb as Jews have found greater acceptance in society and people marry later than they did in 1960’s and before. It is also clear that many Jews who marry someone who is not Jewish want to remain within the Jewish community and raise Jewish children. In a large number of cases the non-Jewish spouse is willing to help establish a Jewish home and support the raising of his/her children as Jews.
In March 2010 the CCAR Taskforce on Intermarriage after more than two years of study offered a comprehensive report to help rabbis whether they officiated or not to better serve the intermarried Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, President of the CCAR, said “When a Jew marries a Jew, there is a greater likelihood of Jewish continuity. But in the case of intermarriage, the opportunity for Jewish continuity is significant, especially if there is effective rabbinic leadership. Today we focus on the very positive fact that rabbinic outreach to intermarried families makes a difference in bringing intermarried families into our synagogues and Jewish life.”
It seems clear that intermarriage will continue. Therefore, it is important to arrive at strategies of welcoming which strengthen the Jewish community. Jewish identity is in a process of transformation and how we handle intermarried families is crucial. One of the most controversial aspects of welcoming has to do with the question of whether a rabbi will officiate and under what circumstances. Rabbis have developed different approaches to the questions of officiation. While many continue to feel unable to officiate if either the bride or the groom is not Jewish, others are willing to officiate under a variety of conditions. Many rabbis who officiate require the couple to join the synagogue, study Judaism and commit to having a Jewish home and raising Jewish children. Some rabbis who cannot officiate will offer a blessing either before or after the wedding in the synagogue on Shabbat or under the chupa when a judge or justice of the peace officiates or at the reception.
To reiterate which endogamous marriage is most likely to produce a Jewish family, there is a large potential to invited the intermarried to participate in the Jewish community have Jewish households and raise Jewish children.
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