02/19/2014 04:06 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2014

Jewish Intermarriage and Israel

Just as, when reading Gemara, the commentaries often provide insights that simply were not visible in the text itself, so too in discussions about modern life. Certain texts are taken as canonical in some sense or other, and much ink (virtual and otherwise) is spent commenting on the true meaning of that text. No text in 2013 fit this description for the Jewish world more than the Pew Center's Portrait of American Jews. While that is hardly news at this stage, four months after its publication, I have recently come across a surprising and noteworthy piece of commentary, which deserves much further thought.

Professor Steven M. Cohen, an eminent Jewish sociologist, spoke about the report on a panel at Pardes this winter. He spoke eloquently, and reiterated -- in a way only those who know the facts can -- that intermarriage must be taken seriously in the non-Orthodox world, regardless of what one thinks of its inherent merits or demerits. As befits an expert in any field, he spoke with the confidence that comes with knowing his subject intimately, having studied the American Jewish community for over forty years.

One claim he made, however, surprised me. Professor Cohen spoke of the declining Jewish engagement of Jews born to one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent, citing in particular their attachment -- or, more accurately, their lack of attachment -- to Israel. He then argued that there was no doubt in his mind that, were more Jewish children being raised in more Jewishly connected homes (and here we can set aside the debate about whether those homes would have to be homes with two Jewish parents), that attachment to Israel among Millennial Jews would be stronger.

The Pew Report bears out the claim that younger Jews are less inclined to cite attachment to Israel as a central aspect of their Jewish identity, and there is no doubt that Professor Cohen was raised to be the Jew he is at a time when attachment to Israel was even more prevalent than it is now, even for his generation. To claim, however, that the decline in my generation's attachment to Israel is principally due to our being a generation of less connected Jews is to cling too strongly to the ideology that the modern State of Israel is and always will be a bona fide marker of a Jew's commitment to his or her religion.

As a committed Jew myself, born to two Jews, and planning to become a rabbi, this claim bespeaks a greater trend in the unendingly depressing state of discourse about Israel among world Jewry. As much as anything else, this must serve as a wake-up call. We need to begin training ourselves (and others) to listen to each other when we speak about Israel.

In this case, we (younger, committed Jews) need to get the message across that there are other reasons why we -- not only 'cultural Jews' or 'Jews of no religion' -- are seen to have lessened (or abandoned) our attachment to Israel. Prime among them is that we do not define engagement with Israel purely as support for Israel. We know that critiquing Israel is a necessary, if sometimes difficult, part of forming and maintaining a robust relationship with a country that speaks in our name. Thus, when we see Israel acting -- politically and religiously -- in ways that we do not believe serve Israel's or Judaism's best interests, we feel inclined to speak out. Simply decreasing the rate of intermarriage among the next generation of Jews will not fix this problem. Talking about Israel, and the ideals that we hope it to embody, might.

Conversely, I find that my generation of non-Orthodox Jews is too dismissive of the worry underlying much of what Professor Cohen (and many others) said in reaction to the Pew Report. The research demonstrates that children of intermarriage tend to be less committed and less strongly identified Jews. Intermarriage, therefore, does pose a threat to Jewish continuity. As uncomfortable as my generation often is with Jewish particularism, we need to find ways to preserve those traditions and practices which drew us to Judaism in the first place and create Jewish spaces for the next generation to explore the tradition as we have.

I was not in the room when Professor Cohen spoke, so I did not have the opportunity to bravely stand up and complicate the picture he was painting. It is incumbent upon all of us, though, to do just that within our own communities. Judaism has always thrived on vibrant, passionate debate. If nothing else, we owe it to that tradition to take off our kid-gloves and treat the conversation about Israel with the seriousness that it deserves.