Intermarriage and the Jews: What Would the Early Israelites Say?

Ancient Hebrews habitually married strangers, the bible shows; but the embrace evolved into fervid bans - until the modern day.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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“Samson and Delilah,” by Peter Paul Rubens (1609-10)
“Samson and Delilah,” by Peter Paul Rubens (1609-10)Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

On Shavuot, Jews around the world read the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of how the heroine - a Moabite woman - married her way into Judaism. Later rabbis adopted the story as a model of how a Jew may marry a non-Jew.

According to the story, after Ruth’s Jewish husband died, her mother-in-law urges her to find a new husband in Moab. Ruth refuses, saying “Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:6-7)

Ruth moves to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, where she meets Boaz, a relative of her dead husband. Following the advice of her mother-in-law, she enters his tent in the dead of night and seduces him. They marry and live happily ever after. Their son Obed, we are told, is King David’s paternal grandfather.

Click here for more on mixed marriages in Israel: A special project by Haaretz for Shavuot 2014.

This story so obviously supports mixed marriages that some scholars believe it was written in response to increased regulation enacted by Ezra the Scribe in the late 6th century BCE against marrying foreigners.

Reading the Book of Ruth in Tel Aviv, Shavuot 2005.Credit: Nir Kafri

Lots of exceptions to the rule

Based on the Hebrew Bible, intermarriage was quite frequent in early Israelite society. The Bible is full of Israelite men marrying foreign women. Abraham marries Keturah, who couldn’t have been a daughter of Israel as Israel, Abraham’s grandson was yet to have been born. Judah marries Shu’a the Canaanite. Joseph marries Asenath, daughter of the Egyptian priest Potiphera. Moses marries Zipporah, daughter of the Midian priest Jethro, the kings of Judea married all sorts of foreign princesses, and the list goes on and on.

Despite this apparent openness to intermarriage in the myths of early Israelite people, a current of disapproval of the practice also runs through the Hebrew Bible. Foreign women are often presented as temptresses, even in stories in which they are clearly the heroine, such as the case with Ruth of Moab and Tamar, the wife of Judah.

In addition to presenting foreign women as temptresses, some biblical stories are flat-out cautions against marrying foreign women, none more than the story of Samson. “Then his father and his mother said unto him, Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren, or among all my people, that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines? And Samson said unto his father, Get her for me; for she pleaseth me well.״ (Judges 14:3)

Everyone knows that this doesn’t end well for Samson. Delilah gives him a haircut, leading to his demise. But warnings are not laws: these would come about later in the Deuteronomic Code, probably introduced in the late 7th century BCE.

Don't go there, son

This Deuteronomic Code doesn’t forbid marrying non-Israelites outright. Rather, it lists seven Canaanite nations who are completely off-limits (the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites) of which “You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son.” (Deuteronomy 7:3)

The Deuteronomist goes on to explain the reasoning behind this decree: “For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the Lord will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly.” (7:4)

This passage from Deuteronomy is the source of all Jewish prohibitions on mixed marriages, and the reasoning given is the most prevalent explanation, from antiquity to this very day.

During the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE, the issue of intermarriage seems to have become a more acute problem in certain minds. The prophet Malachi decries it as profanity, and when the Judeans returned to their homeland, Ezra the Scribe (who was appointed by the Persians to lead the exiles back to Judea) expanded the law to not only encompass the seven banned nations, but all foreign nations.

Ezra not only expanded the law but enforced it retroactively, forcing all Judeans to divorce their foreign wives and excommunicating those who refused to comply.

Rabbinical Judaism continued in this line of reasoning, banning marriage with all gentiles, citing the passage from Deuteronomy (e.g., Avoda Zara 36b). In fact, according to the rabbis, marriage with a gentile doesn’t count: Anybody who “marries” a gentile doesn’t need a divorce in order to marry (Kiddushin 68b).

This somewhat dismissive logic did not completely bar intermarriage, though – because rabbinic Judaism allowed and allows to this day conversion of non-Jews into Judaism. In fact, the process of conversion we know today is based on the supposed conversion of Ruth.

According to the Talmud (e.g. Yevamot 46b), conversion, the rabbis surmised from what they read in the Book of Ruth, involved three stages: circumcision (in males), immersion in a mikveh ritual bath, and sacrificing at the Temple. Some rabbis added the injunction to “know the law” (Yevamot 47a). In modern times this has led to more and more difficult conversion processes in Orthodox Judaism.

At least he isn't worshipping a pantheon

During the Middle Ages, the ban on marrying non-converted gentiles set in the Talmud was respected - and often reinforced by civil legal codes in various European states that prohibited marriage between Christians and Jews.

Despite these laws, Jews still continued to marry gentiles, though to what extent this happened we don’t know. The fact is that a number of rabbis ruled that marriages of this type must be dissolved, most notably Moses of Coucy in 1236, so we may infer that they must have existed in the first place.

The spirit of the enlightenment first shone upon the Jews in the 19th century, as Napoleon ushered in the first steps towards Jewish emancipation in France and in the vast territories he had conquered. Napoleon’s legal code made it legal for Jews to marry whom they pleased and the Grand Sanhedrin (rabbinic council) convened by his order in 1808 ruled that intermarriage was no longer banned.

In 1844, the Rabbinical Conference of Brunswick ruled in favor of the legality of intermarriage, as long as the non-Jew in the marriage was a monotheist, and the laws of the country where they live allowed a child born to the couple to be raised Jewish.

Despite these early signs of Jewish liberality towards intermarriage, these decisions were viewed - and still are viewed - as highly controversial.

Orthodox Judaism has remained adamant that mixed marriages are unlawful and actually impracticable according to Jewish law. For the most part, the progressive Jewish movements, that is Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism, have also kept to Jewish Law as codified in the Talmud, encouraging non-Jews interested in marrying its members to undergo Jewish conversion before holding a wedding. That said, though not official policy in the Reform Movement, many Reform rabbis will marry Jews with non-Jews even without conversion.

In Israel, the religious ban on intermarriage is enforced by law.

Israel’s legal code on marriage and divorce is based on the old Ottoman law, which gives Orthodox rabbis a monopoly on marrying Jews. Since there is no recourse to civil marriage, Jews, who want to marry non-Jews must get around the prohibition by performing their nuptials abroad. When they return, usually from Eastern Europe or Cyprus, proof of their union in hand, the state recognizes their marriage.



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