In-Marriage: Less About Boundaries Than Family Ties


Intermarriage is the hot topic in Conservative Judaism. Several prominent rabbis have announced that they are now performing intermarriages. Quite understandably, this radical innovation within a branch of traditional Judaism has aroused many additional colleagues to offer their opinion on the matter.

I want to address recent articles by two movement leaders. One is by Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and the other is by Rabbi David Hoffman, vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Both articles oppose Conservative rabbinic officiation at intermarriages. I likewise am in opposition. Rabbis Skolnik and Hoffman’s conclusions are my conclusions. So why this article? The answer is, with the greatest respect to my colleagues, I suggest that they might be coming at the problem from the wrong direction.

I imagine that every Conservative rabbi empathizes with a mixed-religion couple who fall in love. Mixed marriage is perfectly respectable in an open society, and the numbers are growing. Conservative rabbis who oppose officiation are being asked to justify their stance. Rabbis Skolnik and Hoffman do so by framing their opposition in terms of the need for boundaries. They emphasize that the Torah establishes boundaries, not just in marriage but in almost all matters. Without our reviewing both relatively short articles at length, suffice to say that Rabbi Skolnik uses the word “boundaries” seven times; Rabbi Hoffman, an astonishing 21 times.

“Boundaries is not a positive word. It’s restrictive [and] divisive.”

Yes, there need to be boundaries. Jewish law does indeed deal in such categories as kosher vs. treyf, permitted vs. forbidden, sacred vs. mundane. But boundaries is not a positive word. It’s restrictive, it’s divisive. Ironically, within the present political climate in America one of the most objectionable ideas to many liberal Americans—Jews prominently among them—is the notion of “building walls” and insisting on exclusions. An emphasis on boundaries is not the way to make a case for in-marriage and against intermarriage.

I am opposed to intermarriage because we Jews are a small but very proud people. We are a people who first brought some crucial ethical values to the world, and we are a people who—in every age, despite adversity and hostility—have worked to embody and enlarge those values.  We are a people who value intellect, curiosity, philanthropy and compassion, among other creative and life-enhancing virtues.

The vehicle through which these values have endured throughout many centuries of oppression is the Jewish family. This is not a blockbuster idea; I simply mean that the story of the Jewish people is, genealogically, the story of a Jewish mother and a Jewish father raising Jewish children.  Repeat, in the next generation. This pattern has been going on for about 3,000 years.

“The vehicle through which these values have endured throughout many centuries of oppression is the Jewish family.”

The building block of Jewish continuity is the nuclear Jewish family.  And the Jewish people as a whole are, basically, one large-scale family.  Judaism is a profession of faith, but also a family of kinship. Admittedly, there is a large ethnic component to my view so I want to emphasize that Judaism is open to all people who wish to choose it.  I personally have officiated at scores, if not hundreds, of conversions to Judaism, involving people of all ethnic backgrounds, origins and orientations.

But essentially we are a people, which to me is akin to saying, we are one large family.  This family endures because we marry within the extended family and thus we remain within the family. I suppose that understandings and arrangements could be worked out such that we will soon be a syncretistic people.  We are already hearing that some people are Jewish and some are “Jew-ish.”  There are patrilineal Jews and matrilineal Jews and there are the progeny of conversos and there are, or may be, remnants of our lost tribes.

“We are committed to in-marriage—because the Jewish people have always had a unique covenant with God and we have always had a covenant with each other.”

But in the end, Judaism is borne by “Am Israel”—the community known as the Jewish people. I believe I can speak for Rabbis Skolnik and Hoffman, and probably for many of my other colleagues, in saying that we oppose intermarriage not because we want to keep other people out and not because we want to be the gatekeepers at the boundaries. No, we oppose intermarriage—rather, I should say, we are committed to in-marriage—because the Jewish people have always had a unique covenant with God, and (for those who may find that too abstract a notion) we have always had a covenant with each other. The Talmud teaches that “All Jews are responsible for one another” (Sanhedrin 27b and Shavuot 39a).  We are meant to engage with the entire world, but our continuity depends upon being a people who are particularly bound with each other.

There’s no point in building a fence to keep people out of a garden if the fruits within are not admirably luscious and ripe. I stand for in-marriage and eschew intermarriage because I am committed to the distinctive fruit that grows within the garden of Judaism — and, perhaps even more, to those men and women who continue to labor within, tending to the precious plants and vines.

Rabbi Stephen Listfield is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement and lives in Atlanta, Ga.