Racism, Schmacism: Opposing Intermarriage

Is it racist for Jews to oppose intermarriage? In his current New York Observer column, Philip Weiss says it is. Weiss (who is married to a non-Jew) thinks that the cold shoulder some Jews give Jews who marry non-Jews is just as bad as the ban against interracial dating recently rescinded by Bob Jones University. If Al Gore picked Orthodox Jew Sen. Joseph Lieberman (who would presumably oppose intermarriage for his own children) to be his running mate, says Weiss, then Gore would be vulnerable to the same sort of attack that was made on George W. Bush after he spoke at Bob Jones University.

Weiss’ analogy is flawed in the following four ways:

1. Judaism is, among other things, a religion. The Jewish objection to intermarriage is (in part) identical to the Catholic, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, etc., objection to intermarriage. If you recognize the right of these religions to exist, then you have to acknowledge the validity of their distress at intermarriage and their attempts to limit it: Intermarriage disrupts the continuity of their customs and beliefs. People who intermarry are less likely to lead an observant life themselves, and to bring up their children to be religious, than those who marry within their own faith. Judaism, with its socially isolating rules about food and the Sabbath, is particularly susceptible to attrition through intermarriage. Even the most religious Jews drop their opposition to a so-called “mixed marriage” when the non-Jewish partner converts.

The edict at Bob Jones, on the other hand, was aimed at the preservation of a race. A white person was not allowed to date a black person. There was no conversion option. It didn’t matter whether both were Baptists or one was Bahai and one was Hindu.

2. To be fair to Weiss, while Judaism may be a religion, it’s also an ethnicity, though such a broadly defined one that the notion of a “Jewish people” is more of a myth than a reality–after 2,000 years of Diaspora there are Indian Jews, Chinese Jews, and Ethiopian Jews. (One thing Judaism clearly isn’t is a race.) Some Jews oppose intermarriage more out of a sense of tribal loyalty than out of love for their religion. Yet even that chauvinistic position, though possibly less valid than the objection to intermarriage on religious grounds, is more valid than Bob Jones University’s ban on interracial dating. Racism looks outward with horror. Its efforts are directed at preventing possible infection by the other. Racists frown on what they view as miscegenation because they hate blacks, Indians, Jews, the Irish, and so on.  Tribalism, by contrast, looks inward with worried concern. The primary concern of Jews, as with other ethnic minorities, is maintaining the survival of their own group, not keeping out others. The proof of this is the existence and common use of conversion rituals.

In some ways, racism and tribalism have the same practical affect on intermarriage: They put obstacles in its path, and they impose a penalty on those who do it anyway. The formal distinction between racism and tribalism may be limited in this regard. But if you wish to make moral comparisons between the two forms of discrimination, motivations must be factored in.

3. Some forms of ethnic chauvinism bear larger historical burdens than others. It would be nice if we lived in a world in which all formally identical acts of discrimination carried the same social weight. But we don’t. After 400 years of slavery, say, or the Holocaust, it is more reprehensible to get upset if your child marries a black or Jewish person (barring a legitimate religious objection) than it is for black and Jewish parents to frown upon their children marrying outside their respective groups, if that’s the only reason the parents object.

4. “Frowning” is an important term here. It’s indisputable that some Jews greet the non-Jewish spouses of fellow Jews with less than warmth and cordiality.  Jews have been known to mutter behind the backs even of converts. This is deplorable, but there’s a big difference between private acts of chauvinism and institutional discrimination, which is what was practiced at Bob Jones before it lifted the ban on interracial dating.

And yet–as Weiss points out–Judaism does countenance formal discrimination against the intermarried. Jews married to non-Jews may not be ordained as Conservative or Orthodox rabbis. They can’t hold certain executive positions at Conservative or Orthodox synagogues. The children of non-Jewish mothers are barred from some aspects of religious education. (Conservative and Orthodox Judaism are matrilineal; for complicated reasons having to do with the conditions of life in medieval Jewish ghettoes, these Jews consider religious identity to be passed along through the mother, so all children of Jewish mothers are technically Jewish.)

It’s important to note, however, that these rules pertain to life in the religious, not the social or civic, realm and are part of a large package of ritual observances required of rabbis and board members, at least at Conservative and Orthodox synagogues. For instance, they’re also supposed to keep kosher and observe the Sabbath–and marrying outside the faith is at least as egregious a violation of Jewish law as eating ham or driving on Saturday. As for the children of non-Jewish mothers, as non-Jews they are forbidden to enroll in some religious schools because of a rule that says non-Jews can’t have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, which is the goal of most secondary Jewish education. In those cases, all that’s required for them to register is to convert.

From a religious perspective, it’s illogical for an intermarried Jew to protest that he or she can’t hold this or that position at a synagogue or seminary or even a religious Jewish summer camp. Two basic principles of religious life are 1) that there are rules and 2) that they must be followed. These principles also apply in just about every organized area of secular life: If you don’t like one of the rules, you’re allowed to petition to have it changed, but you’re not allowed to break it individually without penalty. A National League baseball team can’t use a designated hitter, for example. So to condemn Jewish organizations for not allowing people to violate a law they don’t like is to hold them to a standard we don’t apply to any other institution.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.