Pump Down the Volume

“Intermarriage is, in a sense, an act of treason to our people for, instead of bringing new Jews into the world by marrying a Jewish wife, one would be contributing to the decimation of our people and the ‘Final Solution’ that Hitler and his followers began and nearly accomplished.”

“Further to the left on the Jewish intermarriage debate are modernists who view interfaith marriages as a contribution to a multicultural society that enriches lives. (One columnist) says that opposition to intermarriage is racist.”


These two diametrically opposed quotes about intermarriage — offered here without attribution so as to not to fan the flames against a particular group or person — are perfect examples of what causes meaningful dialogue on an important issue to shrivel and die. And as many religions observe celebratory holidays at (Gregorian) year’s end and families consider embracing mixed traditions, it’s an important time to discuss the need for respectful discourse about such a sensitive issue.

There’s no question that the Jewish world is greatly conflicted regarding intermarriage. Some see it as an ultimate death knell to our community. Indeed, with 47 percent of American Jews marrying non-Jews, the numbers don’t bode well in the long term for a stable or increasing population. In fact, it’s expected that within 30 years, the American Jewish population will dip below 5 million.

Others see it as a natural consequence of assimilation. We choose to live in and among all members of society, and as a result, we are part of a larger community that (hopefully and in many instances) embraces cultural and ethnic diversity. Why should we be any different than other groups? Moreover, many who enter marriages outside the faith either become Jews or strongly support their spouse’s involvement in the community, and make positive contributions in religious schools, synagogues and other institutions.

Having disparate viewpoints, however, does not give license for Jews to treat fellow Jews as criminals or hatemongers on this issue (or, for that matter, on any other). Discuss, analyze, present, agree or disagree, sure. But the incendiary language at the head of this article only discourages community.

Consider likening intermarriage to Hitlerian acts. To compare one’s personal marriage decision to the Shoah both places an insulting burden on that individual and trivializes the deliberate murder of 6 million. No wonder so many intermarrieds turn away from synagogue life and from contributing to Jewish institutions — who would want to be a member of a club that wouldn’t want you as a member?

On the other extreme, to label one “racist” for opposing intermarriage is both damning and hyperbolic. To have pride in one’s heritage, and to embrace an imperative in Judaism that makes its perpetuation essential, hardly implies hatred or bigotry toward other backgrounds or ethnicities. Those who throw such stones had better be pure as the driven snow to make such accusations. And, of course, none of us is.

So why the inflammatory rhetoric? It’s tempting to dismiss it by saying “everyone’s doing it.” (Read: Fox/MSNBC). The beauty of linguistics has given way to a constant barrage of loosely drawn and disrespectful noise. How utterly ironic that as we’re besieged by instant and constant communication, we’re beset by an inability of disparate voices to share, reflect and appreciate varying viewpoints.

In the case of intermarriage, as with many sensitive issues, it’s so much easier to just shout from one’s corner, show disdain toward those who disagree, and embrace self-satisfaction. Besides, why discuss when there’s no way to reach consensus?

Well, most simply put, because we don’t discuss only to agree. We discuss to understand.

Discussion for its own sake is a major connector. To listen to others, gain their perspective, respect their opinion though different from yours, is at the heart of how social and community fabric is created and nurtured. If we retreat to corners, the potential for harmonious living dwindles rapidly. The potential for continued community dwindles rapidly.

We appreciate that in this Era of Vitriol it may come across as Pollyannaish and insipid to simply say, Listen and Learn. Everyone’s expected to have a sharply honed, bombastic voice that can slice through the fog of cacophony. In the case of such a divisive issue as interfaith marriage, however, we believe that respect and understanding are very important starting points.

As a Jewish publication it is our somber responsibility to encourage and build community in a way that reflects Jewish values of intelligence, tolerance, compassion. It is not our role to suppress disagreement. Yes, it may be uncomfortable, but so what? Better to advance than to retreat, for with retreat from communication comes the defeat of community.

In this holiday season we encourage those who are brave enough to do so to have even the most basic of conversations about this and other challenging issues with their fellow Jews. It’s not even necessary to argue; just inquire, listen, nod, process and use the opportunity as one to grow closer to those with whom you may disagree. It may cause some inner angst, but if we can all act as adults, the payoff far outweighs the pain.