Intermarriage and The NonCommitted Jew

We would begin by asking you not to reject a way of life which you do not know.  And please do not fool yourself - you really do not know Judaism.  The few hours of bar or bat mitzvah chanting, wrote Hebrew, and spitball shooting which you probably experienced each week at Hebrew school simply cannot enable you to know or to judge Judaism.  You may be able to judge the Judaism (or lack of it) of your youth, but the Judaism that has survived 3,500 years, the Judaism that bequeathed to the world God and universal morality, the Judaism that survived Pharaoh, Rome, the Crusades, Chmelnitzky (who murdered nearly one-third of the Jewish people in 1648), Hitler and Stalin, and the Judaism that today puts the Jewish people at the vortex of human affairs, is the authentic and powerful Judaism of which, sadly, you know very little.

We therefore appeal to your mind to begin to study authentic Judaism and Jewish history, and we appeal to your heart to begin experiencing Judaism as the beautiful way of life that it is.  Once you have studied and developed intellectually and experientially as a Jew, you are, of course, free to reject Judaism.  But we think it fair to say that rejection out of ignorance of the most significant moral ideas in history is intellectually unjustifiable; and the rejection of the Jewish people with its embattled 3,500 years of history, and its present battle for survival, is ultimately as self-denying as it is selfish.

In the eyes of the rest of the Jewish community, the intermarrying Jew is abandoning ship while committed Jews are fighting to keep it afloat. In addition to perpetuating the ideal of perfecting the world in a world which increasingly evokes cynicism rather than idealism, committed Jews feel a personal commitment to ensure that the Jewish people survive.  Marrying people who share these commitments, creating a Jewish home with them, and raising Jewish children are the core of Jewish survival.  In maintaining our ancient struggle on behalf of our ideals and our people, the Jews have answered Hillel’s two questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” Now you, too, must answer these questions.


Consider the following: If you say that being Jewish has no meaning for you, are you certain that this is so? What were your reactions, for example, during the three weeks prior to the Six-Day War when it appeared that Israel might be annihilated? What were your reactions on and after Yom Kippur 1973, when once again the Jewish state was threatened with destruction? How did you feel when Israel freed the Jewish hostages at the Entebbe airport? Did you follow the news on those days with no greater interest or frequency than usual? Do you generally feel as personally uninvolved in Israel’s struggles as your non-Jewish friends and co-workers most likely do? How did you react to the television production of Holocaust? If indeed your emotional reactions to these events was in no way exceptional, perhaps being Jewish really does mean little or nothing to you.

But, if the Nazi Holocaust, or the possibility of Jews again being slaughtered (in Israel, or elsewhere), or the disappearance of the Jewish people through assimilation affects you emotionally more than it does your non-Jewish friends, chances are that being Jewish means more, perhaps much more, to you than you think. And it is eminently possible that in the near future it will come to mean far more than at present. In fact, should such a change take place, you will be in good company.  Many of the foremost Jewish leaders of the last hundred yeas were people who in their youth were completely disinterested in being Jewish, and who only later in their lives came to realize the centrality of Judaism to themselves and to the world.

Theodor Hertzel, the founder of modern Zionism and the man ultimately most responsible for the creation of Israel, was an assimilated Jew until he discovered how profoundly Jewish he was during the Dreyfus case in 1894 when he heard French mobs shouting “Death to the Jews.”

When Moses Hess, the man who converted Friedrich Engels to socialism and influenced the young Marx, was in his twenties, he considered Judaism irrelevant. Yet within two decades, this father of socialism broke with Marx and Engels over the amoral nature of their ideology, and Moses Hess devoted all his later years to working for Judaism and the Jewish people.  His book Rome and Jerusalem, written in 1862, begins as follows:

Here I stand once more, after twenty years of estrangement, in the midst of my people; I participate in its holy days of joy and mourning, its memories and hopes, its spiritual struggles in its own house and with the people among which it lives…..A thought which I had stifled forever within my heart is again vividly present with me; the thought of my nationality, inseparable from the inheritance of my ancestors, the Holy Land and the eternal city, the birthplace of the belief in the divine unity of life and in the future brotherhood of all men.  This thought buried alive, had for years throbbed in my sealed heart, demanding outlet.  But I lacked the energy necessary for the transition from a path as apparently remote from Judaism as mine was, to that new path which appeared before me in the hazy distance. [1]

Another such Jew was a Russian poet of such extraordinary talent that Maxim Gorki, the father of Soviet literature, predicted that he would become one of the great Russian writers.  Yet, with apparent suddenness, Vladimir Jabotinsky decided that it was more important to help fellow Jews establish their own homeland than to devote his life to poetry.

Had you asked any of these men when they were twenty years old if being Jewish was of any significance to them, let alone a reason not to intermarry, they would have probably ridiculed the question.  Yet within a few years each of these men discovered that being a Jew was the most important thing in his life.

Since a similar change in your own philosophy of life and identification is a real possibility, consider how you would feel should you discover one day when Israel or Jews elsewhere were in great danger, that while you were deeply troubled, your spouse did not care nearly as much as you, or perhaps not at all.  Or consider how you would feel if you wanted to contribute to a Jewish cause and your spouse objected. Or consider how self-conscious you might feel should you decide one day to start reading about Jewish history or Judaism. We are not asking you to imagine the impossible, for we have repeatedly come across sad cases (including marriages between two Jews) wherein one spouse begins to feel much more for Judaism and /or the Jewish people than does the other.

This development can become a major source of tension, for once you have incorporated ideals into your life they are not easily lost.  Unless you are certain that being a Jew is never likely to be a factor of significance in your life, it is advisable that you discuss your present and potential Jewishness with your potential spouse.

You may also wish to take some time out to better know yourself as a Jew or to introduce both you and your potential spouse to Judaism and to Jewish life.  Once both of you have studied Judaism and experienced Jewish life, you will be in a far better position to assess how important your Jewishness will likely be to you and to your marriage.  You will be able to ascertain which one of three possibilities is likely to materialize: your being Jewish is unlikely to ever be important to either of you; under certain circumstances (such as when you have children, or at Christmas time, or with an eruption of anti-Semitism in our society) your being Jewish is likely to be important to you and therefore intermarriage is inadvisable; or Judaism has begun to interest your non-Jewish friend, and he or she may want to convert.  Whatever your conclusion after studying and experiencing Jewish life, your consideration of the question will greatly reduce the likelihood of your Jewishness becoming a source of marital tension.

Marriage is difficult enough without the added problem of differing values, religions, and roots. Before you intermarry, a dispassionate consideration of this potential source of tension can only help.

[1] Rome and Jerusalem, M. Waxman, transl. (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1918); emphases ours.

MAIN PAGE: Intermarriage…Why Not?

by  Dennis Prager & Joseph Telushkin
Posted in: Jewish Beliefs & Philosophy;  Relationships & Family