Is it just me, or do the conversations surrounding intermarriage feel more than a little unhelpful?
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Can a Jew marry someone from a different background? Should Jewish clergy officiate at such weddings? For decades, these questions have represented the totality of the intermarriage discussion. The topic reared its head again recently when Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a prominent Conservative rabbi in New York City, published an impassioned defense of his refusal to officiate at weddings between Jews and non-Jews.
These types of discussions may indeed be important, especially for clergy and Jewish communal policy makers. But I fear that Jewish leaders’ obsession with discussing intermarriage through the prism of permissibility risks trivializing Judaism as a religion of policies, rather than as a fountain of relevant and enduring wisdom and values.
The challenge for Jewish leaders in our time is to offer a Judaism that helps people thrive. This requires identifying what is truly relevant and meaningful to people’s real, lived experience. What are people really struggling with? And how can Judaism help?
So let’s be real, for a moment, meeting people where they are, without judgment: Most Jews are not especially concerned with what Jewish tradition forbids or permits in the realm of relationships. By and large, Jews who marry non-Jews do not do so as a rejection of their ancestors’ tradition. Rather, they are striving to fulfill a deeply human yearning, one embedded into the very fabric of Judaism: “It is not good for the human to be alone" (Genesis 2:18).
Finding a suitable partner– a “fitting helper” in the Torah’s words – isn't easy. The Babylonian Talmud echoes and affirms this reality: “Matching couples is as difficult as the splitting of the sea” (Sotah 2a). This difficulty is compounded when one limits his or her pool to less than 1 percent of the general population. What if Jewish leaders acknowledged the fact that, for so many, finding love can be challenging and confounding? What if, instead of trying to finger-wag Jews into endogamous relationships, we offered compassionate and nonjudgmental support to people, drawing from the riches of our tradition, as they seek to couple?
Marrying Jewish offers no guarantees
The Jewish tradition has plenty to teach those seeking love besides a preference for in-marriage. Jewish wisdom is just as relevant to those who marry outside the faith as it is for those who marry within it.
For example, Judaism teaches that marrying Jewish is not a guarantee of a successful relationship. Take King David, for example. David was a nice Jewish boy who was married to a nice Jewish girl named Michal. But David and Michal had totally different approaches to their religion. Michal, the daughter of royalty, preferred a faith of formality, decorum and order. David, on the other hand, related to God through a fervent, emotional, personal and wild spirituality. So, “when Michal saw David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart,” and their relationship disintegrated (I Samuel 6:14-22). On the other hand, biblical examples abound of solid relationships between Jews and non-Jews.
Judaism invites us to seek a partner whose values are compatible to ours. In the (gender-biased) words of the Babylonian Talmud, one should “go after a woman similar to yourself and do not bring strife into your home” (Yevamot 44a). This value is true regardless of the actual religious tradition a partner ascribe to or practices. Two members of the same faith can relate to their religion in radically incompatible ways, while people of different backgrounds can be oriented to faith in harmonious ways.
Our ancestors also offered a contrasting piece of wisdom that is important to communicate to people looking for love: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens the wits of another” (Proverbs 27:17). In other words, successful relationships are as much about contradistinction as they are about similarity. Of course, one should seek a partner who shares his or her most cherished values, but we should neither expect nor want a partner who sees everything the same way we do.
Judaism offers that we should aspire to a partner who honors us for who we are but who also helps balance, support, strengthen and nurture us to become the best person we can be.
This is the lesson of one of the greatest love stories in Jewish literature (found in the Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 50a). Before becoming one of Jewish history’s greatest sages, Rabbi Akiva was a poor, illiterate shepherd who fell in love with a beautiful aristocrat named Rachel. Rachel loved Akiva despite his poverty and despite her father’s protests. But when Rachel saw Akiva’s lack of compassion for a poor beggar, she demanded he go study Torah. He went away for 24 years, and came back with 24,000 students and a reputation as a scholar and saint. Without a spouse who pushed him to grow, Akiva would have remained an impoverished, uneducated, and, more importantly, unkind, person. We all could use a Rachel in our lives.
Again, this value is meaningful regardless of the religious tradition a partner ascribes to or practices. Two members of the same faith can fail to strengthen each other, and two people of different backgrounds can sharpen each other in myriad ways.
If Jewish leaders shifted to teach young people these and other pieces of relationship wisdom, rather than harping on the importance of in-marriage, we could help people truly flourish and, as a result, bring them closer to Judaism, regardless of who they marry.
Rabbi Michael Knopf was named one of America's Most Inspiring Rabbis by The Forward. He is the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow. You can follow him on Facebook.