A note from the Editor: “When searching for an archived article to share online this week, the following article on intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews caught my eye. As the child of a Jewish woman and non-Jewish man, I was intrigued to learn about the viewpoint that some members of the Jewish community hold regarding intermarriage. While my personal views differ from those offered in the article, it is my job as Editor-in-Chief to ensure that every student’s voice is heard, even if I disagree with it. Regardless of your opinion on intermarriage, this week’s Historical Ha’Am article is an incredibly well-written and interesting read that argues in favor of Jewish continuity, an issue, I think, that is held close to most Jews’ hearts. With that said, please enjoy the following Ha’Am article, written by Nathaniel Wyckoff in November of 1997:”
“One of the tell-tale signs of the high degree of assimilation of Jews into American society is the phenomenon of intermarriage: marriage between Jews and non-Jews (or gentiles). For many leaders and lay people in the Jewish community, intermarriage is a highly disturbing indicator of the continuing breakdown in traditional Jewish values among American Jewry. As the cultural barriers separating Jew from non-Jew wear thin, and gentile society becomes more accepting of Jews as fellow men and women, it becomes ever more possible (and probable) for Jewish people to marry practitioners of other religions or of no religion at all.
The most fundamental factor contributing to the remarkable rise in intermarriage over the past century has been the sore lack of a meaningful Jewish education for most American Jews. A jew who has very little or no substantive education in the values of Judaism is likely to see himself as simply an assimilated member of a homogenous American “melting pot” community, no different from his Mexican-American, Canadian-American, or Taiwanese-American neighbors. His Jewish identity is not positive; he may be reminded by the anti-Semite that he is a Jew, but his identification with the Jewish people is merely reactionary. Raised in a society that sees equality as an ideal, he finds the notion of restricting marriage to members of one’s own ethnic group to be racist or shallow; if being a Jew is simply one’s ethnic identity, then a Jew is no different from a Mexican, Canadian, or Taiwanese.
It seems increasingly common for Jews to identify themselves in this manner. In 1990, the Council of Jewish Federations conducted The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), in order to assess the social, religious, and demographic structure of the American Jewish community. In one part of the survey, respondents were asked, ‘When you think of what it means to be a Jew in America would you say that it means being a member of
- a religious group?
- an ethnic group?
- a cultural group
- a nationality?’
Answers were not mutually exclusive, and those surveyed could cite more than one group. The following observation was noted in the survey.
The low level of positive support for the religious group concept among “Core Jews” (born practicing Jews, born Jews with no religion, and converts to Judaism) is noteworthy; a majority of Jews by Religion (born Jews raised with Judaism as their religion and converts to Judaism) do not consider themselves Jews primarily because they are members of a religious group. Further analysis shows that less than five percent of all respondents consider being Jewish solely in terms of being a member of a religious group, whereas 90 percent define being Jewish as being a member of a cultural or ethnic group.
Whereas Jewish education has floundered for a highly significant fraction of American Jews, the overall level of secular education among Jews has far exceeded that of the non-Jewish white population. The educational gap between male and female Jews is narrowing, and a very high proportion of Core Jews are college graduates. According to the survey, the Jewish women who converted out of Judaism show a much lower educational attainment than the Core Jewish Population, and the gap in education between Jewish women married to Jews has narrowed in recent years.
The quest for higher education among American Jews has resulted into a postponement of childbearing and a tendency for many Jews to have fewer children. The NJPS demonstrated a trend among both secular Jewish women and women who practice the Jewish religion to delay childbearing until their late 20s and postpone it even into their 30s.
Children raised in households consisting of at least one Jewish person seemed, according to the survey, to be raised with a marginal Jewish identity. Only around 46 percent of all children in surveyed households were being raised with Judaism as their religion, and another 16 percent as secular Jews (born Jewish, practicing no religion). The remaining 38 percent of all children under 18 years of age in surveyed households were raised with another religion. In mixed households (households in which one parent is a born, converted, or secular Jew and the other is a Gentile), 28 percent reported raising their children Jewish, 31 percent reported raising their children with no religion, and 41 percent answered that they raised their children with another religion.
It would appear that a conscious decision to marry another Jew rather than a non-Jew is a decision based on values. The Jewish concept of marriage entails raising a family in the context of Jewish values. To do so in the traditional way is only possible if one is married to another Jew. As these values have declined, and Jews have simultaneously become more accepted into open society, intermarriage has become more possible. If normalcy is defined by majority behavior, then (in a near-reversal of a three-thousand-year-old policy) intermarriage has become the norm. The NJPS reports that while only nine percent of surveyed Jews who married before 1965 were presently married to non-Jews, 52 percent of those married since 1985 had married gentiles. In contrast, only 43 percent of marriages between 1985 and 1990 were between two Jews.
While Jewish community leaders often grieve over the large statistics on intermarriage and assimilation, and look for ways to connect Jews to each other in a positive way, many Jews wonder why there is such cause for alarm. Why, they ask, should one want to marry a Jew when the nearby gentile is just as attractive, humorous, kind, and intelligent as one’s Jewish friends and fellows?
The answer offered by religious leaders is only meaningful if one is cognizant of Jewish values and cares to uphold them. If one consciously marries a Jew, one has the opportunity to build a family-centered life based in Judaism. The lifestyle of a traditional, practicing Jewish family centers around events on the Jewish calendar such as the Sabbath and holidays, Jewish life cycle events, raising children in a manner conscious of their environment, and principled social interaction including extending hospitality to guests, giving charity, and doing acts of kindness. While some abuse occurs, Jewish families tend to have a much lower incidence of domestic violence than families in the population at large. If a couple chooses to follow the laws of family purity, which forbid sexual relations and certain types of interaction between husband and wife at certain times, then the husband and wife are less likely to see each other as objects of sexual gratification or mere domestic servants.
In households in which one marriage partner is Jewish and one is non-Jewish, these rituals and observances are generally seen as shallow actions to perform at best. One might choose to practice certain customs in order to satisfy one’s partner, but one would not (and could not reasonably be expected to) base one’s life around such values. Yet, two married people who understand the values of Judaism are able to build a life imbued with a certain sacred level of meaning. Such a life is precisely what the Jewish community is striving to preserve.”
-Nathaniel Wyckoff, November 1997