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Traitor or Tribe Member? Handling the Intermarried

August 16, 2007 By:
Rabbi Avi Shafran
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One can't help but feel sad for Noah Feldman. In spite of his considerable professional accomplishments -- a law professorship at Harvard, three books, a slew of well-received essays and a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, to name a few -- the young Jew is clearly stewing. A bubble of his own imagining has burst in his face.

What he imagined was that in its embrace of both Judaism and elements of contemporary culture, the "Modern Orthodoxy" of his youth granted Jews license to abandon as much of Jewish religious observance as they deem appropriate. Expressing his anger in a recent New York Times Magazine piece titled "Orthodox Paradox" -- coolly, to be sure, but the hurt seeps thickly through the poised prose -- Feldman describes how the Boston-area Jewish school he attended as a child and teenager went so far as to crop a class-reunion photograph to omit him and his non-Jewish, Korean-American fiancée, whom he later married.

But the Photoshopped portrait is only the professor's anecdotal hook. What Feldman really resents is that his erstwhile school, along with some of his mentors and friends, spurn him for his decision to marry outside his faith.

No one is rude to him, he admits. None of his former teachers or friends, he writes, would refuse to shake his hand. But Feldman knows they deride him for the life path he has chosen, and that offends and perplexes him.

Feldman's umbrage is misplaced. There is a reason why, to Orthodox Jews -- and many non-Orthodox, no less -- no matter how embracing they may be of the larger world, intermarriage represents a deep betrayal. It is more than a violation of Jewish religious law; it is an abandonment of the Jewish past and an undermining of the Jewish future.

Because marriage -- arguably the most important choice in a Jewish life -- is not a partnership, but rather, a fusing: "And they shall be as one flesh," in the words of Genesis. Since a spouse is part of oneself, the personal consequences of intermarriage are profound, as the communal ones are in Feldman's case; his children are not Jewish.

Judaism views the Jewish people as a special and hallowed entity. The Jewish faith is clear about the ultimate redemption of the world: It is dependent on the Jewish people's remaining a nation apart in fundamental ways. One way is in our basic beliefs -- for instance, that God gave our ancestors His law and never subsequently changed it. Another is in our commitment to the integrity of the Jewish people qua people -- our commitment, in other words, to marry other Jews.

There is ample reason to feel sympathy for Jews who intermarry. On a personal level, there are reasons to not cut off connections to intermarried friends or relatives. It is not unheard of for non-Jews married to Jews to actually guide their spouses back to Judaism and to themselves convert.

At the same time, though, there is simply no way -- not in the real world -- to warmly welcome intermarrieds without welcoming intermarriage. No way to make the Feldmans feel accepted for who they are without making potential Feldmans view intermarriage as innocuous. No way to "devalue" the gravity of intermarriage without dulling the truth that every Jew is an invaluable link in the Jewish chain of generations.

If one begins with the premise that intermarriage is dangerous to the Jewish people and the Jewish mission, then the intermarried cannot enjoy our acceptance. There may be quibbles about the means by which we express our rejection of their choice, but the absence of any communal expression of reproach is nothing less than an invitation to intermarriage.

To my lights, it doesn't seem extreme in the least for a Jewish school to make clear to an intermarried alumnus that despite his secular accomplishments, it feels no pride in him for his choice to intermarry. I wouldn't expect an American Cancer Society gathering to smile politely at a chain-smoking attendee either.

It is painful, no doubt, to be spurned by one's community. It is painful, too, for a community to feel compelled to express its censure. Sometimes, though, in personal and communal life, no less than in weightlifting, only pain can offer -- in the larger, longer picture -- any hope of gain.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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