The Messianic Intermarriage Series
Those are the opening words of David Rudolph, Ph.d in his article Intermarriage Statistics. The title is rather modest and unassuming, given the topic, which is the pattern of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews and the impact of these marriages on Jewish existence. Heavy stuff, but Dr. Rudolph opens this article sounding like a friendly fellow inviting his audience for a casual stroll down the lane. Here's more.
What of the Gentile spouses of these intermarried Jews? Many of them attend mainstream synagogues with their Jewish spouses and are full members. They are not converts but Gentile members of these synagogues. Of the one million Gentiles married to Jews, 95 percent choose not to convert to Judaism. Most of these Gentiles are from Christian backgrounds and choose not to convert because of their Christian faith or heritage. In households with a Jewish husband and a Gentile Christian wife, it is often the Christian wife who is carrying the responsibility to raise Jewish children. She is typically the one who creates a Jewish home and brings the kids to synagogue.That sounds amazingly...hopeful. Frankly, after spending a fair amount of time listening to folks saying I've practically doomed the entire Jewish people because I'm a Gentile man who married a Jewish woman, it's nice to hear a word of encouragement or two. Dr. Rudolph was referencing Olitzky's and Littmans's book Making a Successful Jewish Interfaith Marriage which, in and of itself, is a stunning title given the topic. Can interfaith marriages be successful, particularly from a Jewish point of view (and I have got to buy this book)?
From this review of the book however, it's not a sugar-coated message:
It’s important to say it aloud and read it in print so that there will be no misunderstanding. Each partner’s values and sense of identity will be challenged. Family ties will be strained. Difficult decisions will have to be made, such as those regarding children. And you may question the choices you have made.Unfortunately, the book seems to be aimed (like most of these books are) at the "young couple" who just got married or who are about to get married. Nothing for us old folks who've been married for almost 30 years. Of course, in my case, it's been only about 10 years since my wife first started seriously exploring her Jewish heritage and only in the past 3 or so that she's been taking classes with the Chabad, so the "mixed-ness" of our marriage has only gradually increased over time.
My children are all in their early 20s, so we are past the point of raising them in a "proper Jewish home" but in retrospect, I have a lot to regret. Although I could never be a Jewish father, if my wife and I had started this journey on a different footing, I could have been a father who actively supported their Judaism from day one. Now it's up to each of them to negotiate their path as a Jew and to discover their relationship with God. Here's more from Dr. Rudolph's paper:
It is estimated that “over 50 percent of the children born into Jewish families in the last decade have one set of grandparents who is not Jewish.” There are now over one million children of intermarried couples. How are they being raised? According to the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-2001, the figuresDoesn't look hopeful. This is even worse:
- Christian 35%
- Jewish (Religion) 32%
- Jewish + Other 11%
- Jewish (Secular) 10%
- No Religion 8%
- Other 4%
“mixed-married households that initially try to create exclusively Jewish observances often drift increasingly into Christian activities as time passes… The desire to be ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ led many Jewish mixed-married spouses to incorporate more Christian observances into their households than they had originally intended”However Dr. Rudolph does include the following from Rabbi Arthur Blecher, an ordained Conservative Rabbi who leads a Jewish Humanist Congregation, from his book The New American Judaism:
All the denominations have responded to the perceived threat of intermarriage by setting up programs to encourage intermarried couples to raise their children as Jews. Although this makes sense, it is a narrow approach: There is no reason that partial Jews and mixed households cannot serve as conduits for the transmission of Jewish identity to future generations. Secular Jewish organizations and most independent congregations accept partial Jews and mixed families. If all congregations were willing to include partial Jews, a greater number of Americans of Jewish ancestry would then be affiliated with Judaism. A greater number could be encouraged to lead Jewish lives, support Jewish causes and raise their children as Jews.Putting all of this together, intermarriage is no picnic and a positive outcome is not guaranteed, but it's not automatically a disaster, either. Dr. Rudolph concludes his article with this forward-looking and sobering note from Rabbi Blecher:
But what happens when these Jewish-Christian children grow up? Currently American Judaism employs a coercive response regarding Jews and Christian faith: This is not what Jews believe; if you believe this, you are no longer a Jew. As more and more children of intermarriage become adults with Jewish-Christian identities, this approach will weaken Judaism’s influence in many American households. American Judaism might consider a persuasive response: You are a Jew, and this is not what Jews believe. A persuasive approach is just as firm as a coercive approach, but it promotes more active engagement with the individual, which is exactly what the Jewish community wants.While Rabbi Blecher's comment ends Dr. Rudolph's article on a note of hope, we also have to consider opinions such as the one Gene Shlomovich recently made on Judah Himango's blog post Sweet Forbidden Jew-Gentile Love Makin’:
I hate to sound pessimistic about the above statistic, but while it MAY sound like great news at first glace, one is reminded that MJism also has the highest intermarriage rates of any Jewish group, Messianic Jews are a tiny fraction of the total number of Jewish believers out there (most of whom are still in churches and practice nothing), MJ would suffers from extremely poor Jewish education for both the children and adults (believe me, I know from first hand experience with children who were raised in some of the oldest and most established MJ congregations), and that according to the traditional halachic status many of the MJ children are Gentiles.There is a truth involved in all this and the truth (and I should know since I'm living it) is that the children by and large don't grow up to live religious and traditional Jewish lifestyles. While they may self-identify as Jews, their actual day-to-day behavior does not mirror young adults who were raised in an observant Jewish home by two Jewish parents.
If intermarried couples within Messianic Judaism (or within any other form of Judaism) want their children to grow up and live as Jews, they will need to start at the very beginning to raise them as Jews. That will require, in my opinion, much more observance of the Torah, including the oral traditions, than most Messianics practice (which will be the subject of an upcoming blog).
David Rudolph, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Bible and Theology at Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, and Chair of the Theology Committee of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations.Dr. Rudolph's full article can be found in PDF form at Intermarriage Statistics.