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God's Covenant, Judaism and Interfaith Marriage

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In the weeks leading up to the Jewish High Holidays, pulpit rabbis across North America will spend countless hours preparing for their most listened-to sermons of the year. For 2010, "intermarriage" may be a popular topic thanks to the recent nuptials of Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton. Compared to years past, I believe significantly more of those sermons will be about welcoming intermarried couples into the Jewish community, rather than discouraging young people from following such a path. And that's a positive development.

Still, even among the most welcoming and inclusive sermons, there will likely be strings attached. Most rabbis will add caveats, perhaps using similar language as Rabbi Steven Wernick, leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, when he wrote about the Clinton-Mezvinsky intermarriage: "Judaism teaches that in-marriage is a mitzvah, a sacred act that we are commanded to fulfill. As such, it's always the preferred choice for Jews to make, contributing to the continuity of our peoplehood [emphasis added]."

Almost nowhere among Jewish leadership -- even in the liberal movements -- has there been a full shedding of the preference for in-marriage. And that preference for one type of family over another inevitably must lead to a lesser welcoming for intermarried families.

You simply cannot say, "We welcome everybody equally, but we prefer one kind over another." Maybe the difference in the way people are treated doesn't always manifest on the surface level, but it bubbles up. This is not to say that we can't discuss the challenges of raising Jewish children when one parent is not Jewish; what I'm talking about is the open preference for one type of couple over another, even when both may choose to raise Jewish children.

As an advocate for accepting intermarried families into the Jewish community, I have a rebuttal for every argument against a full welcoming, except one: "Because God said so."

When observant Jews take an exclusionary approach to intermarriage, I understand. If you're among the 15% or so of American Jewry who tries to keep all the mitzvot (commandments) all the time, and you believe intermarriage is a "sin," I won't argue with you. My challenge is to those among the other 85% of Jews, who pick and choose which mitzvot you find relevant and want to adhere to, but then use the "mitzvah" of in-marriage to criticize me for choosing a different sub-set of mitzvot to observe.

All of non-Orthodox Judaism would be greatly served if our leaders would finally admit -- and put into practice -- the reality of today's Judaism, which is (to paraphrase Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan) that Jewish law gets a "vote not a veto" in the lives of the overwhelming majority of American Jews. Mitzvot that seemed essential in the past, including in-marriage, are no longer considered ethical or moral litmus tests.

In the 1970s, when radical modern-Orthodox thinker Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg grappled with the full implications of the Holocaust, he concluded that God's withdrawal from earthly affairs and failure to protect His chosen people meant, quite dramatically, that "the covenant was broken." However, Rabbi Greenberg suggested that "the Jewish people was so in love with the dream of redemption that it volunteered to carry on with its mission." And in fact those who took up the "voluntary covenant," as he called it, were even greater than those who acted "only out of command."

The notion of "voluntary covenant" is a powerful one, and yet it seems to imply that the covenant itself is still an unbroken entirety. If you're going to take it on -- whether by command or voluntarily -- you take it all on. But that's not what I believe is happening among the majority of Jews.

Instead, we've adopted a "selective covenant." Vast swaths of mitzvot are completely irrelevant to our lives. And unlike what I've heard bemoaned from some observant quarters, it's not that if we were just more Jewishly-educated, we'd understand the beauty and relevance of the mitzvot enough to follow them. I know which mitzvot I'm rejecting, and I know why I'm rejecting them. Whether God withdrew as Greenberg and others have suggested, or died at Auschwitz along with so many of our relatives, or simply never was, to me the tradition is only relevant if it improves my life and the lives of those around me. I am never going to believe that separating milk from meat will make this world a better place.

With a "selective covenant," rejecting the dietary laws of keeping kosher (for example) does not mean rejecting Judaism. We can and do pick-and-choose which mitzvot are relevant to our lives, and I believe the majority of Jews among the 85% not-fully-observant would still say they're guided by the principles and morals they learned through the Jewish tradition -- even if it means reinventing some of those rituals as we go.

When it becomes important to modernize while maintaining a halakhic (Jewish legal) facade, like on gay and lesbian acceptance -- or women rabbis, or driving on Shabbat -- the Conservative movement demonstrates remarkable ability for Circ De Soleil-like theological contortions. Even the Reform movement's decision to accept patrilineal descent was based on a responsum. So if the liberal movements disagree that there's now a selective covenant, and instead believe we must still try to maintain all the mitzvot (or at least rationalize what we do based on the mitzvot), then I recommend they contort their way into equal acceptance of in- and intermarried.

Because for a majority of young Jews today, the mitzvah of "Not to intermarry with gentiles" is about as relevant as the mitzvah "To keep the Canaanite slave forever." And the harder our leadership tacitly or explicitly "prefers" one type of Jew over the other, the less ethical our community seems. This extends not just to the explicit preference of in-married over intermarried, but tacitly to rich over poor, married over single, white over other races, hetero over homosexual, and so on. I'm not saying that no boundaries should exist in Jewish ritual practice, just that the choice of a non-Jewish spouse, in and of itself, is no longer a decision that should be considered communally punishable.

Once you acknowledge a selective covenant, then objections to welcoming the intermarried are not based on what God wants but on what you want. And as another great theologian once said, you can't always get what you want. All those other fears about an equal preference for intermarried couples are just fears, and refutable. They raise Jewish kids less frequently? It went from 18% to 33% nationally in the ten years between 1990 and 2000, and it's at 60% in Boston; no reason to think we can't encourage those percentages higher. They care less about Israel? That's not a causal relationship; you don't change your feelings about Israel because you got married. They dilute Jewish ethnicity? We were never just one ethnicity. And so on.

Over the last quarter-century, nearly as many American Jews have married non-Jews as fellow Jews. Today, there are more intermarried than in-married households in the U.S., perhaps by as large a ratio as 60%-40%. The high rate of intermarriage can be seen as the defining opportunity to transform the Jewish community from an insular, tribal entity to a diverse and expanding peoplehood based on key common causes and beliefs. But first we have to make sure our common causes and beliefs are the right ones to be shouting from the mountaintops (hint: "don't intermarry" isn't one of them), and then we have to let go of the fear and begin genuinely welcoming as equal all who would select Judaism for themselves or their children.

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