Oedipal Jews: Making Sense of Intermarriage through the Haze of Illusions and Fear

1. Why Does Intermarriage Matter?

Some explosive antagonisms in the Jewish community simmer below the threshold of expression or even conscious awareness.  On occasion, these conflicts erupt in a public forum, revealing pain and loss, complex struggles and confused affinities.  The debate rages for some time, fueling clashing perspectives, voices of wisdom and yelps of hatred.  Then passions subside, and we return to the choreographed normalcy of daily life, hoping to forget our latest glimpse of the heart of darkness.  But, over the centuries, we’ve learned the value of remembering.

Like the Passover story that Jews worldwide will soon be re-telling, the story of Jewish intermarriage warrants a periodic re-examination.  This story, too, remains largely unchanged, with the same essential questions and controversies flaring up, now and then, and fading in predictable patterns.  But with time, Jewish intermarriage only acquires greater resonance.  Here’s why:

  • Controversies around intermarriage don’t last long in the media, but the underlying trends and tensions continue to evolve, gaining greater urgency, stirring passions in and around Orthodox Judaism.  Specifically, the National Jewish Population Surveys (NJPS) track a steady multi-decade increase in the intermarriage rate.  According to the NJPS reports, the number of American Jews marrying someone of a different religion grew from about 13 percent before 1970 to nearly 50 percent in the latest survey.  Recently, two sociologists re-calculated this rate by excluding mixed-ancestry Jews who are most likely to intermarry.  Not surprisingly, they came up with a lower estimate for the current intermarriage rate.  However we calculate the intermarriage rate, it remains clear that most measures of Jewish identity continue to weaken, a trend manifested not only in the intermarriage rate, but also in declining synagogue attendance, weaker attachment to Israel and the continuing dispersion of American Jews from areas of highest concentration.
  • We see a similar weakening of cultural insularity beyond the Jewish world.  A recent Pew Research poll found that marriages across racial and ethnic lines reached an all-time high in 2010.  As sentiments about racial and ethnic differences soften and dissolve, the increasing mainstream acceptance of intermarriage calls for a re-examination of the continuing traditionalist resistance to the blurring of sacrosanct social constructs.  Indeed, the resistance remains uniquely puzzling.  Based neither on race nor ethnicity, neither age nor class distinctions, the Jewish fear of Jewish intermarriage protects a far more elusive boundary.
  • We should also remember this controversy because, even when it doesn’t grab headlines in The New York Times or The Jewish Week, it affects millions of people.  Granted, the problem doesn’t lend itself to easy quantification.  It doesn’t rank high on the list of leading causes of death.  It entails no criminal acts (usually).  But it does cause tangible and tragic pain: loving relationships forcefully ended, hearts broken, healthy men and women thrust into serious depression — infantilized, grief-stricken families and rabbis gushing with anger and invective.
  • The issue is also worth revisiting simply because it is interesting.  Jewish intermarriage raises important questions about the meaning of Jewishness, the scope of Orthodox Judaism’s moral authority, and the state of the dialog between Orthodox Judaism and secular Jews.  Further, the intermarriage debate often turns into a classically Freudian psychodrama that gives voice to high-minded and oppressive authority, tentative rebellious impulses as well as human beings whose lives have suffered greatly from the former, the latter or both.

I wrote this essay with the conviction that everyone affected by this unsettled issue would benefit from talking about it openly, not because talking or writing about it offers easy guarantees of a neat settlement – it doesn’t – but because open inquiry offers some hope that we’ll all find greater peace with the questions this issue raises.  So, let’s talk.

2. Remember the “Orthodox Paradox”

Jewish intermarriage doesn’t often attract national media coverage, but it did about five years ago.  On July 22, 2007, a lengthy essay (Orthodox Paradox, by Noah Feldman) in The New York Times Magazine confronted Modern Orthodox Judaism’s aversion to intermarriage.  The story was based in part on Feldman’s personal experience as a yeshiva alumnus ostracized due to his marriage to a Korean-American woman.  Feldman’s essay drew thundering condemnations from leading lights of Modern Orthodoxy — in particular, Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Norman Lamm and Rabbi Shalom Carmy.  Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, on the other hand, responded with a far more sympathetic assessment of Feldman’s predicament.

Sadly short-lived, this controversy instructively revealed the complex dimensions of intermarriage.  It reminded us that, as most divisive issues, intermarriage fuels angry reactions and predictable antagonisms.  With remarkable consistency, the putative voices of Orthodox Judaism decry every instance of intermarriage as a surrender to infantile passions, an act of treason, and a continuation of a silent post-war Holocaust.  Likewise, secular Jews and atheists point to illiberal orthodox dogma as the chief culprit, a hate-filled refrain that ruins lives.

Strangely, in this particular controversy, both these angry extremes seem more understandable and defensible than the middle ground occupied by conflicted affinities such as “sophisticated orthodoxy,” tame traditionalism, apathetic non-theism, pick-and-choose religious observance, and half-hearted liberalism.  This middle ground attracts people who proudly distance themselves equally from dogmatic orthodoxy and militant atheism.  These people have exited the womb of blind tradition, but they can’t sever the umbilical cord of token observances in obeisance of vestigial dogma untouched by enlightenment.  True neither to a fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture nor to the values of liberalism, they seek peace with both camps, trying to perform the notional impossibility of balancing hatred with freedom.

It’s a safe bet, in my view, that most Jews today espouse some form of this philosophy of multi-lateral appeasement.  They oppose intermarriage but mainly for “practical reasons” such as differences in culture and approaches to parenting.  At the same time, they feel that, intermarried couples should be treated nicely and lovingly by the same community that decries intermarriage as anathema.

This stance reminds me of a Communist-era Russian joke in which a school teacher asks the entire class to show the finger to God.  One of the students refuses to comply.  When asked why, he explains that, if there’s no God, there’s no one to show the finger to, but if there’s a God, why ruin the relationship?

In his story, Feldman poignantly reveals the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of rejecting an authority without rejecting it.  He tried to reconcile his personal choices with Jewish law.  He writes: “In the sense of shared history and formation, I remain of the community even while no longer fully in the community…If this is dissonance, it is at least dissonance that the modern Orthodox should be able to understand: the desire to inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously and to defy contradiction with coexistence. After all, the school’s attempt to bring the ideals of Orthodox Judaism into dialogue with a certain slice of late-20th-century American life was in many ways fantastically rich and productive. For those of us willing to accept a bit of both worlds, I would say, it almost worked.”

Though framed differently, this middle-of-the-road position ultimately accords legitimacy to the same conclusion that Orthodox Judaism advocates: do not intermarry.  Moderate non-orthodox positions on this issue ultimately reinforce and encourage Orthodox Judaism’s hostility toward intermarriage.  Because they lack conviction, these blasé philosophies humor the assumption that Orthodox religion holds moral authority or even legitimacy beyond the Orthodox community.  In ways blatant and inconspicuous, Orthodox assertiveness and complacent bourgeois traditionalism form an ironic duet that exacts a painful toll on Jews and gentiles alike.

3. Speaking Truth to Orthodoxy

So what would be a more principled response to the orthodox position on intermarriage?  What’s a healthier way to untangle the Oedipal tensions inherent in any rejection of traditional authority?  Does a more full-throated and sincere response necessitate a descent into angry recriminations?  True, the rejection of the “exalted father” at the heart of orthodox tradition constitutes an act of symbolic killing, but is there a healthy way to play out this inevitable storyline?  Is there a way to complete the act and not get wrapped up in anger and guilt?

In looking for answers to these questions, you can do no better than turn to the Hebrew Testament, the stories of Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:4–6) and Exodus.  Remember that Abraham smashed his father’s idols; he didn’t rearrange them or place them in a corner.  Importantly, this act of vicious rebellion led not only to the creation of a great nation, but it also ensured the father’s salvation.  Perhaps, this story captures an essential truth: we best honor our fathers by becoming ourselves.  Any student of Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell knows that this truth finds powerful expression across the great mythologies of the world.  In all of them, the lesson is the same: in Campbell’s words: “The finding of the father has to do with finding your own character and destiny.”

Indeed, many great creations begin with bold and rebellious visions.  Moses’s rebellion against oppression in Egypt inspired the creation of the Jewish nation and a theology that continues to shape the course of history, albeit with an imperfect record.  More recently, Copernicus’s irreverent inversion of the geocentric Ptolemaic orthodoxy revealed to humanity its true place in the cosmos, and Darwin’s rebuttal of the canonical creation story released humanity from the bonds of existential naiveté.  Human civilization continues to draw its life force from fearless spirits who refuse to subordinate their noblest impulses to pre-existing dogma.  Shouldn’t the same spirit govern one’s choice of a life partner?

Sadly, many people view historical acts of noble rebellion with a mix of awe and the detachment of an observer — the same way they view the performance of a circus acrobat: fascinating to watch, impossible to emulate.  The view is deeply misleading.  We may feel humbled by the staggering courage of world-changing rebellions of the past, but it’s a mistake to see ourselves as mere observers of the march of civilization.  In our small ways, we have to contribute; we have to help subvert the false orthodoxies that we understand.  We have to add our fuel to the continuing, even if futile, perfection of the world.

The alternative is unthinkable.  We can either stand on the shoulders of giants, or we can worship their inferior assumptions.   When we “kill” obsolete ideas, we should not apologize for the decision.  As long as we know that we are replacing bad idea with better ideas, we should complete the killing confidently, if not joyfully.  That may sound unsparing, but that’s life: bloody, impolite and impersonal.  In order to live as free human beings, we must learn to savor the blood of existence in all its metallic pungency.

4. Speaking Clearly

In this spirit, how should a human being living in the 21 century treat Orthodox Judaism’s condemnation of Feldman’s intermarriage, and intermarriage in general?  What words could convey a more honest and unsparing message to Rabbi Carmy and Rabbi Lamm?  In this regard, most non-orthodox Jews tend to resort to polite platitudes and euphemisms, gently nudging fundamentalist dogma out of their lives, while they eschew direct confrontations and explicit rebuttals.

In part, the reticence reflects the nebulous contours of the adversary.  Non-orthodox participants in the intermarriage mess feel disoriented by the tough task of rejecting a position obscured by doubts, equivocation and competing camps within Orthodox Judaism.  How do we rebut a diffuse and shifting position?  How can we reason with a tradition that speaks to us with love, right after it speaks to us with contempt?

Yeshiva University, for example, certainly remains the standard-bearer for Modern Orthodoxy, but that tagline does little to conceal the nuclear contradictions embedded in the institution’s soul and name.  The school is not a monolith either in its commitment to tradition or to modernity or in its methods for reconciling these forces.  Alongside progressive minds uneasy with the influence of religious dogma, YU faculty includes prominent rabbis who, despite their education at Sorbonne, feel far more comfortable with a page of Talmud than with the ideas of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.  With these super-charged polarities, YU itself seems a product of an intermarriage of sorts — the marriage of reason and revelation, knowledge and hope, waking consciousness and dream.

Despite these tense juxtapositions, Orthodox Judaism seldom hesitates to articulate, often with belligerent clarity, its consensus on intermarriage.   In their responses to Feldman, rabbis Carmy and Lamm tried hard to balance their scorn with a show of sympathy as they picked apart Feldman’s article.  Both their essays boiled down to a simple argument: If you intermarry, they say, you’ll be ostracized.  You know the deal.  You know Judaism’s position.  Why would your community’s reaction surprise you?

This argument is as solid as it is irrelevant.  It is solid because Orthodox Judaism has long conflated intermarriage with death, a symbolism formerly enacted in the practice of sitting shiva for a Jew who marries out.  In his response to Feldman, Rabbi Lamm even mentions this histrionic ritual without any compunction.  In fact, he writes about it almost wistfully, the way Marcus Aurelius — in the movie Gladiator — reminisces about the lost glory of Rome.  That’s the emotional backdrop that fuels Judaism’s aversion to marriage outside the tribe.  Knowing this, Feldman should have expected nothing different, the argument goes.

True, in some ways.  But the argument falls flat because it doesn’t matter at all that Orthodox Judaism’s view of intermarriage remains predictably and consistently contemptuous.  Ardent and unrepentant recidivism does not excuse wrongdoing.  Similarly, it doesn’t matter that Freud was absolutely right when he wrote in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) that “A religion, even if it calls itself a religion of love, must be hard and unloving to those who do not belong to it.”  If you set aside all the lip service and the smarmy pageantry of inter-faith dialog, Freud’s damning prognosis stands uncontroverted, as it will surely remain.

But none of this matters, because divisive illusions cannot seek redemption in their own consistency.  They have to recover from a more basic flaw – that is, their disconnection from logic and love, truth and beauty.  They have to recover from their fundamental inhumanity.

In the name of ensuring the survival of the Jewish people, Orthodox Judaism vilifies and ostracizes Jews who seek marital bliss with partners from outside their tribe.  Superficially, Judaism’s defensive posture seems understandable until you consider this question: Is it the purpose of every Jew to ensure the survival of Judaism and Jewishness, or is it the purpose of Judaism and Jewishness to ensure the well-being of every Jew?

This question stuck with me from one of the classes I took nearly two decades ago at Yeshiva College.  Whether or not the orthodox establishment likes this, all citizens in this free society answer such questions independently.  They decide how much, if anything at all, they want to sacrifice for the survival of their people’s traditions.  They decide which of these traditions, if any, are worthy of survival despite their obsolescence. Free-thinking people decide for themselves if they want to turn away from love, happiness and simple daily pleasures in order to serve as foot soldiers in a struggle they don’t even embrace.  For a growing number of Jews, Modern Orthodoxy’s ontological fear-mongering carries little weight.  Increasingly, people simply want to live their lives based on their own judgments and priorities – and based on the ways of conversing with infinity that they discover and consecrate for themselves.

Societies work best when they serve their people, not when they compel people to serve the very dogma that denigrates the dignity of human life.  The inversion of this truth creates monster states and monster religions.  It creates a Judaism, for example, that tells gay Jews and heterosexual undergraduates that they’ll be accepted as long as they disown their sexuality.  The same Judaism promises acceptance to all Jews but only if they agree not to follow their own Bliss, in their love or their work.  This is a perverse offer, bursting with chutzpah, leaving us no other option than to follow Abraham’s example in Lech Lecha.  Follow your Bliss!

In Conclusion

Our world is already sufficiently imperfect to make us question the logic of propping up the edifice of orthodox thought that has caused and continues nurture some of the world’s most tragic imperfections.  Obsolete ideas typically do not go quiet into that good night.  They continue to struggle for survival long after they have outlived their usefulness.  In this struggle, they expect and often receive support from the very people whose lives they diminish.  But inevitably, nature takes its course.

Certainly, it’s unnerving to observe the pain of a dying idea as it writhes in anguish.  We naturally wonder how we can ease the suffering.  So we deny the reality of what we see.  We disown our knowledge of the obvious inevitability.  We do know that this idea will die, as all things die.  But we should not let this death diminish our hope for living.

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