The Basis for Jewish Opposition to Intermarriage
One of the most worrisome and least understood subjects of Jewish life is that of intermarriage. Besides the lack of objective information regarding the subject, it is very complex from an emotional point of view.
On the one hand, parents feel that when their child marries a non-Jew, he or she is breaking the millennia-long chain of Jewish continuity and they do not want to allow that to happen. On the other hand, they feel uncomfortable to openly oppose intermarriage because of its racist connotations. Why disqualify someone as a potential marriage partner just because he or she was born of a non-Jewish womb? It seems to be a discriminatory attitude.
In order to analyze this subject, it must be divided into parts:
1) What is the basis for the opposition to intermarriage?
2) How can a Jew oppose intermarriage without contradicting the natural instinct that he has
to fight discrimination, especially after all that we have suffered throughout history as a result
of racial discrimination?
3) What explanation can one give to his or her non-Jewish friend to justify the refusal to consider them for marriage?
The primary source upon which the prohibition for a Jew to marry a non-Jew is based is to be found in the Bible (Deut. 7:3): "You shall not marry them (the gentiles, about which the Bible speaks in the previous verses), you shall not give your daughter to their son and you shall not take his daughter for your son."
The reason for this prohibition is clearly spelled out in the following verse: "Because he will lead your son astray from Me and they will serve strange gods…" ("Strange gods" can also be interpreted to mean those ideals and ‘isms’ that do not conform to the dictates of the Torah, and before which one bows his head and dedicates his heart and soul.)
The Talmud (Yevamot 23a) points out - and Rashi quotes it in his commentary on the aforementioned verse - that from the precise expression of the verse (he-and not she-will lead your son astray) we can derive two things. In the event that your daughter marries "their son," he will eventually lead astray your sons (in other words, your grandchildren, who will still be considered your sons) from the path of the Torah. In the event that your son will marry their daughter, her children are no longer considered your children, but her children. They are not considered Jewish.
It is clear then, that we are not dealing here with racial discrimination which is borne of a personal and subjective attitude that the Jew has vis-à-vis the gentile. What we are talking about here is an objective, Divine command that is accompanied by an explanation. If your son will marry a non-Jewish woman, the children born of this union are no longer considered to be your children. In the event that your daughter marries a non-Jew, inevitably your grandchildren will stray very far from the path of Judaism even though they will still be considered Jewish.
Taking into account the primary responsibility that the Jew has to fulfill the precepts of the Torah, it is evident that it is mandatory that Jews marry within the faith, because if not, it will be impossible to continue fulfilling the obligation that one has to manifest Divinity in this world which is possible only by fulfilling G‑d’s will. Intermarriage is a clear contradiction to G‑d’s stated will.
In order to better understand this issue, we must clarify another point. Not only is it prohibited for a Jew to marry a non-Jewess, it is impossible for a Jew to marry a non-Jewess. Just like in the case of siblings, although prohibited, it is possible for them to live together, it is possible for them to cohabit, it is even possible for them to procreate, but there is no possibility for marriage to take place.
The laws of the Torah are as (or more) objective and inalterable as the laws of nature. The same way that one cannot alter the law of gravity, for example, one cannot alter the laws of the Torah. The Torah student or sage does not look to create laws, but to discover the Divine structure that is inherent in the universe and life.
What is Marriage?
If we attempt to answer this question, we will find it very challenging to explain what exactly is the function of marriage in general. If two people love each other, why not live together? The day they will decide not to share their lives anymore, each one will be free to go his or her own way! Even if they declare their commitment through marriage, the day that they do not want to remain married any longer they anyway have the option of divorce. What, then, is the purpose and function of marriage?
Many answer that marriage is nothing more than a formality, a social norm that gives ‘legal status’ to the couple. But to say that marriage is simply a social norm, implies that it has no true, intrinsic value; that it is arbitrary. What happens in the event that one does not care about human authority or social stigma, is it then OK to live as a couple and have children without being married?
It seems to me that the only true basis and justification for marriage is that it is a Divine institution. It was G‑d’s idea. The idea for marriage has its roots in the Bible. Even though there are many social systems that do not base themselves on the Bible and nevertheless recognize the institution of marriage, that does not refute the fact that the origin and true value of marriage is of Divine origin.
Let me compare this concept with a similar phenomenon. Where does the seven-day week come from? Why does a week have seven days and not six or eight? The weekly cycle of seven days has its origin in the Seven days of Creation. For one who believes in the Bible, the seven-day weekly cycle has profound spiritual significance. For one who does not believe in the Bible, the seven-day week is merely arbitrary. In other words, for one who accepts the Bible as the ‘blueprint’ of Creation, the seven-day week has a raison d’etre. For one that does not believe in the Bible, the seven-day week makes no sense. The same is true regarding marriage. For one who does not believe in the Bible, marriage does not make very much sense. It is simply a formality instituted perhaps to ensure the inheritance of the children. For one who believes in the Bible, the concept and institution of marriage assumes a much greater and more profound significance, as we will see.
The Talmud and Kabbalah teach us that marriage is not merely a union between two totally independent individuals. Marriage is the reunion between two halves of the same unit. A couple shares the same soul, which, upon birth, divides itself into two incomplete halves. Upon marriage, they reunite and become, once again, complete. What we are dealing with here is not only a union on the physical, emotional and/or intellectual level. What we are dealing with here is a union on the deepest, most essential level of self. There are souls that are compatible for marriage and there are souls that are not. Besides the case of mixed marriages, the Bible enumerates a list of invalid ‘marriages’, for example the ‘marriage’ between a biological brother and sister or between a man and a woman that is married to another man, in other words, incest or adultery. The Bible is not talking here only about prohibitions, but facts. In the aforementioned examples, there can never be any marriage, even though it is physically possible to cohabit and procreate.
Based on the above, we have a very simple explanation for the non-Jewish friend as to why we cannot consider him or her as potential marriage partners. It is not due to a defect that they have. It is simply due to the Biblical concept of marriage to which one – as a Jew - feels obligated to adhere to.
A hypothetical case: What would happen if a Jewish boy and girl decide to marry and are very much in love with each other and half an hour before the marriage ceremony is due to begin they find out that they share the same biological parents? Would they marry anyway? Obviously not, and the fact that they cannot marry each other does not imply that their declared mutual love was false… Love is a very important factor in a marriage relationship, but it is not the only factor that determines the legitimacy of a marriage.
It is possible that a Jewish boy will find compatibility with a non-Jewish girl (and vice versa) and would like to create a family with her. This apparent compatibility is possible only when neither of them manifests their essence. As long as the Jew does not care about the fact that he or she is Jewish and the non-Jew does not care about his or her personal origin and essence, everything seems fine. What will happen the day that either of them ‘wakes up’ and decides to care about who they really are? All of a sudden the incompatibility appears. In other words, as long as neither of the two cares about their essence, they can feel compatible with someone who is essentially opposite. The minute that either of them discovers their true identity, the relationship ceases to have any true meaning.
I know quite a few mixed couples that were very much in love until the moment that their children were born. All of a sudden they have very heated arguments regarding the education of their children, even though they had long ago resolved the issue theoretically. The Jewish mother wants to circumcise her son, for example, while the non-Jewish father does not want his son to be different than him. All of a sudden the incompatibility takes center stage, but it is already very late – they have now produced a child whom both parents and sets of grandparents wants to consider their own…
Of course, many examples can be brought of Jewish couples that have conflicts. We must, however, explore the facts and see if they really live their lives according to the norms delineated in the Torah. At least, the Jewish couple always has the potential to live their lives according to G‑d’s will.
A question arises: what happens in the case of a non-religious Jew or Jewish atheist? Does this incompatibility with a non-Jew still exist? After all, if one does not care about his religion, why care about it when it comes to choosing a marriage partner?
What is a Jew?
In order to answer these questions, we must explain another basic concept: What is a Jew? What distinguishes a Jew from his non-Jewish neighbor? Please note that I am not asking here ‘Who is a Jew?’ but ‘What is a Jew?’ because the answer to the question ‘Who is a Jew?’ is very clear: one who was born to a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism according to the laws stipulated in the Torah. This does not, however, answer the question ‘What is a Jew?’
People often answer this question by saying that being Jewish means ‘feeling a sense of belonging to the Jewish people’. This is a not a satisfactory answer. It simply transfers the question of identity away from the individual. What, then, is the Jewish People? A Nation composed of individuals that have no other identity other than belonging to a People that has no definition? It is like saying that the definition of ‘tree’ is: ‘part of a forest’. The reasoning is the other way around. Once I know what a tree is, I can then define what a forest is by saying ‘a group of trees’. I cannot define what a tree is simply by saying: ‘part of a forest’!
It is also obvious that I cannot define what a Jew is based on his or her fulfillment of the Mitzvos, because here, too, the reasoning goes the other way around: One has the obligation to do Mitzvos because he or she is Jewish. I cannot say that one is Jewish because he or she fulfills the Mitzvos. Consider: a recently born baby is Jewish even though he or she has not fulfilled a single Mitzvah and has no conscious awareness of faith! A Jewish baby boy is circumcised because he is Jewish; he is not Jewish because he is circumcised.
What, then, is a Jew?
After studying the matter for many years and having countless conversations with Jews of every degree of observance and belief, I think that the most convincing and coherent answer is that the distinguishing element of the Jew is the Neshamah (soul) that every Jew possesses. The soul of the Jew is different than the soul of the non-Jew. They have different characteristics, potentials and needs. Every Jew has essentially the same type of soul as any other Jew. This Jewish soul is inherited from his or her mother. It is the common denominator that connects the Russian Jew with the Syrian, Yemenite, Canadian or Uruguayan Jew, even though they do not speak the same language and may have different customs and habits. The only meaningful difference between one Jew and another is the level and intensity of expression of this common essence. In some, this essence manifests itself constantly, while in others, it expresses itself once a year and in others it may express itself once in their lifetime.
This definition of ‘What is a Jew?’ does not contradict the aspiration that one may have to be a ‘citizen of the universe’, because in order to really be a ‘citizen of the universe’, one must fulfill his or her specific role within the universal community. Being a ‘citizen of the universe’ does not imply denying the particular role that one has, but, rather, inserting oneself into society with a clear identity and purpose.
What Are the Special Characteristics of the Soul?
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad Movement, defines it as follows: A Jew does not desire to, nor can he separate himself from G‑d.
It is possible that a Jew is not conscious of the fact that by certain acts he is affecting his relationship with G‑d. Were he to be aware of the consequences of his actions, he would not willingly sever his relationship with G‑d. Every Jew has his or her ‘red line’, which he will not cross even if he has to pay for it with his life.
Many Jews are Jewish in spite of themselves. They live a life denying their condition as Jews, but at an unexpected situation, when their defenses are low, and they are distracted, their Jewishness jumps out. There are many Jews that invest time, energy and resources to deny their Jewishness. Even though they might vehemently deny it, this behavior is but another manifestation of their undeniable Jewishness, for if they were really not Jews – as they claim – why is it so important to them to deny it?
So, we see, the problem does not begin when a Jewish boy wants to marry a non-Jewish girl. The source of the problem is the fact that he has been deprived of a true Jewish education to the point that he or she doesn’t even realize what it means to be a Jew and the inherent incompatibility between him and his non-Jewish girlfriend.
To many, the opposition to mixed marriages may appear to be elitist and even racist. Why disapprove of a marriage only because one of the members is not Jewish? A Jewish boy who wants to marry a non-Jewish girl might think to himself: ‘What hypocrites! What practical differences are there between my day-to-day behavior or that of my parents and that of the non-Jewish woman that I want to marry?’
It would be very difficult to defend this - apparently hypocritical – resistance on the part of the parents, if not for the fact that we can attribute it to the Neshamah that they have, after all. Their Neshamah does not allow them to accept their child’s crossing this ‘red line’ which serves to (for all practical purposes) irreversibly sever the chain, even though they themselves may not be able to explain why it bothers them so.
In other words, their opposition to their son’s intermarriage is not incoherent. It is their lack of observance of the Mitzvot on a daily basis that is incoherent and inconsistent with their essence.
The Conversion Option
One of the solutions that are proposed to solve the problem of intermarriage is to convert the non-Jewish partner to Judaism. "Why lose two souls, when we can gain one?…" Is conversion a valid option?
We find that Judaism does recognize the possibility of a non-Jew converting to Judaism. The proper conversion process, known as Giyur, is very simple. It consists of three steps: 1) Circumcision (in the case of a male); 2) Immersion in the Mikve (ritual bath); 3) Acceptance of the 613 precepts in their totality. These three steps must take place in the presence of a valid Rabbinic tribunal. (A valid Rabbinic tribunal consists of three Rabbis that accept the Torah as the word of G‑d and their fulfilling the 613 precepts in their personal day-to-day life.) Judaism does not believe in proselytism, because not everybody needs to be Jewish in order to find grace in the eyes of G‑d and have his place in the world-to-come. For the non-Jew it is sufficient to respect the Code of Laws known as the Seven Noahide Laws in order to deserve the choicest spot in Paradise. In the event that a non-Jew sincerely desires to become a Jew and live a life in accordance with the norms delineated in the Torah for the Jew, we accept him with open arms, once he or she has undergone a proper Giyur.
It is obvious, though, that in the event that one wants to convert to Judaism as a result of his or her desire to marry a Jew or Jewess, it is highly unlikely that the motives for conversion are sincere.
I am reminded of a story in which a Jewish boy decides to marry a non-Jewish girl. The boy’s parents insist that she study the basics of Judaism before agreeing to the marriage. The girl accepts the condition and goes to study in a religious girls’ school. Even though her original motive was in order to satisfy the request of her boyfriend’s parents, as time went on, she discovered a new world and became genuinely interested in Judaism. After several months transpired, the boy called her to make the arrangements for the wedding. "Are you serious?" she asked, "do you think I intend to marry a boy who was willing to marry a non-Jewish girl?"
Regarding the argument that if we do not accept all types of conversion or mixed marriages, we will end up alienating the young Jews who marry non-Jewish partners or those that have undergone cosmetic conversions, however, if we accept them as Jews, we will be winning souls for the Jewish people:
First of all, Judaism is not a business, especially when based on lies and dishonesty. Judaism is based on trying to fulfill to the maximum of our capacity that which G‑d asks of us. We do not have to be more concerned about the future of the Jewish People than G‑d himself is. G‑d is as "aware" as we are of this argument and its supposed benefits for the future of these couples and the future of the Jewish People. Nevertheless, the Bible clearly states (Deut. 7:7), that G‑d did not choose the Jewish People because of their superiority in numbers or power, but because of their humility and because of the pact that he made with our forefather, Abraham. The Jews have survived and outlived all of their oppressors not because of their intelligence, wealth or political power, but because of their sincerity, authenticity and self-sacrifice in order to preserve and defend their pact with G‑d.
Moreover: However much we would like to or however much it may seem that it "pays" to accept these type of conversions, we do not have the ability to deny nor change the facts. It is not within our power to do anybody this "favor," the same way we are powerless to help a couple that wanted a baby boy and G‑d blessed them instead with a baby girl. We do have the power to make cosmetic changes, but that does not change the fact that what was accomplished was nothing but a cruel and dishonest mutilation and distortion.
The Jewish Concept of Conversion
It is interesting to note the expression that the Talmud (Yevamot 48b) uses when referring to (authentic) converts: "Ger shenitgayer kekatan shenolad dami," meaning: a convert that has converted is like a recently born baby.
When the Talmud speaks about a slave that has been freed, it does not say "a freed man that has been freed," but rather "a slave that has been freed." Why, then, when speaking about a convert, does the Talmud use the expression ‘a convert that has converted’ instead of ‘a gentile that has converted’?
One of the explanations that we find, is the following:
An authentic convert is one that, although born of a non-Jewish mother, is born with a Neshamah, a Jewish soul. It is this Neshamah that pushes him or her to become a full-fledged Jew or Jewess. In other words, we may say that this individual was born (destined or with a propensity to become) a convert. That is why a convert is compared to a recently born baby. The difference between the moment before and after birth is that before birth the baby is not an independent being, whereas as soon as it is born, it becomes an independent being. Following this analogy, a convert before his conversion is comparable to a Jew in an ‘embryonic’ stage, and does therefore not yet have the responsibilities of a full-fledged Jew. Only after having gone through a proper conversion, does he or she becomes a full-fledged Jew or Jewess. But, as we stated before, in order for this transformation to occur, one must undergo an authentic conversion and not the sterile cosmetic versions that abound, masquerading as more liberal options.
There are those that ask: Why must a convert be more religious than all those Jews who do not observe the Mitzvot and are nevertheless considered Jewish? In other words: If a non-practicing Jew is considered Jewish, why should we not consider as Jewish, a non-Jew who has undergone a non-religious conversion?
The answer is very simple. A Jew by birth is Jewish no matter what he or she may think, say or do. The same Torah that establishes this rule regarding the Jew by birth also establishes that one who wants to convert to Judaism must accept to fulfill the Torah in its entirety in order for him or her to be accepted as a Jew. If one should say that he or she is willing to accept 612 of the precepts but there is one precept that they do not agree with and will not do, we tell them: Who is forcing you to become a Jew? It is preferable that you not convert and continue to fulfill your mission in life as a perfect non-Jew, rather than ‘convert’ and find yourself in violation of the Torah’s law!
When you think about it, it is a very understandable and accepted criterion. If somebody was born in the USA, the US Constitution considers him or her to be an American, no matter what he or she does in violation of the Constitution. If, however, a foreigner wants to acquire US citizenship, but says that they do not accept a certain clause in the US Constitution, will they be accepted as citizens? Certainly, not. If you don’t like the Constitution of the United States, then become a citizen in any other country whose Constitution you do approve of! One who does not want to accept the Constitution of the United states in its entirety may be accepted as a legal resident, but not as a citizen. A naturalized citizen must accept the authority of the Constitution in its entirety in order to be accepted as a citizen.
Does anybody want to suggest that it be easier to become a Jew than it is to become a citizen of a country? Are G‑d’s laws more negotiable than human laws?
The Real Problem
Intermarriage is really a symptom of a much greater problem: the lack of a proper Jewish education.
What type of education are we providing for our children? Are we really giving them the experiences and tools necessary to be able to understand and appreciate the meaning and importance of being Jewish?
Also: what about our own personal Jewish education? How much time do we, parents, dedicate to our own personal spiritual development? If I do only that which I like to and I do not recognize the need to obey a superior authority, how can I expect my children not to do the same? They will surely tell me: Daddy, you do what you want to, why shouldn’t I do what I want to? If the father does not subject himself to any moral authority, why should he expect his own children to respect him and his values? Just because they were engendered by him? The maximum priority today must be upgrading the quality of Jewish education, both on a personal level as well as at the institutional level. We dare not conform to the minimum that our children are being given. We must demand the maximum. Would we send our children to a school from which they would graduate without knowing how to calculate the area of a circle or be ignorant of who Napoleon Bonaparte was? Why, then, should we accept a standard of Jewish education which does not enable the students to decipher a page of Chumash or Talmud in their original text or does not teach them who Rabbi Akiva, Abaye, Rava, Rashi, Rambam and Rabbi Yehudah Halevi were and what their contributions to Jewish thought and culture are?
I would like to conclude by sharing an episode that we experienced, soon after my wife and I arrived to Uruguay, and the lesson that we derived from it.
Our oldest son, Mendy, had been born soon after we arrived and due to our inexperience as parents, and especially in a new country, we did not manage to register his birth in time. As a result, we had to go through a special process of Tardy Registration. It is a process that takes several months.
In the meantime my wife and I wanted to travel abroad with our newly born son. Being that we are both Americans, we were able to have an American passport issued to our son.
We arrived at the airport, ready to travel. As we went through passport control, the inspector requested to see our son’s Uruguayan documents. We explained to him why we didn’t have them and he informed us that we were not allowed to take our son out of the country without the proper Uruguayan documents.
"What do you mean we can’t travel with our son?" we asked. "He has an American passport!"
"As far as we are concerned, he is Uruguayan and therefore needs Uruguayan documents," he explained.
"But he is our son!" we insisted.
"He is Uruguayan," the inspector declared.
We did not travel that day.
We learned a very important lesson from that incident: However much our son is our son, our rights do not supersede those of the State.
The same is true regarding our relationship with our children and their connection to the Jewish People. Before thinking about our personal rights as parents, we must think about the claims and rights that the Jewish People has to our children and the rights that they themselves have as members of the Jewish People. Our greatest responsibility is to give them the necessary tools so that they can appreciate and live their lives as Jews in the fullest sense.
The story continues.
Some nineteen years after the aforementioned conversation with the immigration official took place, I had the opportunity to once again speak to a Uruguayan immigration official while processing an exit visa for one of our children. I told him what had happened some 2 decades prior and the lesson that I had learned.
"You are mistaken in your conclusion," he said. "It is not that the rights of the State supersede the rights of the parents; the State is merely protecting and defending the rights of the child."
The lesson regarding Jewish education became even clearer.
Published on Chabad.org