Spirit and Story
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reflections by CLAL faculty and associates on the contours of our contemporary spiritual
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Between Intermarriage and Conversion: Finding a Middle Way
By Rabbi Steve Greenberg
Despite our deeply ingrained binary conception of Jewish identity (i.e. that a person
is either a Jew or a non-Jew and that there is no category in between), perhaps it is time
to invent something new. The increasing
rate of intermarriage has become a cause celebre
generating many new efforts, none of which speaks to the new reality that Jews face as
fully integrated members of the societies in which they live.
whenever we Jews have been intimately involved in a non-Jewish society, we have
intermarried. We did it in Spain in the
Middle Ages and in Europe in the nineteenth century, and we are doing it now in America. The communitys preferred approach to date
has been to encourage the non-Jewish spouse to convert, but this approach is rather
problematic, as it tends to produce conversions of questionable sincerity. This leads me
to suggest another approach: why not invent a new category between Jew and gentile? In fact, over the course of Jewish history the
tradition has grappled with variants of this challenge and bequeaths to us a number of
ideas that we might profitably rehabilitate today. One
of the most interesting of these is the traditions idea of the ger toshav, or resident alien, who occupied this
in-between position in biblical times.
The ger toshav was not a convert. He was, according to the rabbis, a gentile who
lived among the Jewish people, happy to be part of the Jewish world and supportive of the
religious and social frames of Jewish life. He
could eat tref, but was not permitted to
publicly worship other gods, and if he was circumcised, he could even partake of the
Passover sacrifice. In antiquity, he
was the Jewish goy at the seder table.
He was a lover of the Jewish people, though not a Jew himself. In many intermarried homes today, this
characterization would aptly describe the feelings and commitments of the non-Jewish
When my cousin
Janet married a non-Jew, I did not attend the wedding.
At the time, I was studying to be a rabbi. I am a year older than Janet and we had
always been close, but after the wedding we didnt speak for years. Eventually, the shock wore off, they had children,
and everyone managed to deal with reality. In
fact, we all have come to love Janets mate, Bill.
He has effortlessly become a full-fledged member of the clan. Janet and Bill have raised their children Jewishly
with Janets hard work and Bills encouragement, and Bill is proud to be the
non-Jewish father of a Jewish family.
and Bill tied the knot, the Jewish communitys attitude toward intermarriage has
undergone a huge change. What was once taboo has become the norm. The AJCs 1999
Survey of American Opinion found that 62 percent of the respondents consider anti-Semitism
a greater threat to the Jewish people than intermarriage.
And though I
am saddened by the increased numbers of mixed kids growing up in intermarried
homes, I no longer can stomach the indignation that I once proudly held on the matter. All of us, including those of us in the Orthodox
community, must do more to address this issue than we have.
Bayme of the AJC recently criticized the Reform movements policy of outreach to the
intermarried, insisting that such programming undermines the communal resistance to mixed
marriages. Eric Yoffie has responded to him
that intermarriage is a consequence of modernity. The
only way to put the genie back in the bottle would be to return to the ghetto.
There is no
doubt that the contemporary cult of the self has had onerous effects upon all sorts of
cultural, moral and religious norms. Despite
whatever criticisms we might have of the contemporary zeitgeist of freedom and self-expression, there is
no going back to an age when personal desire was routinely subordinated to familial or
proposals to enrich Jewish experiences prior to marriage have much merit. The deeper and more intense an individuals
Jewish cultural, social and religious commitments are, the greater their desire to marry a
Jewish person is likely to be. Such
direct campaigns to combat intermarriage, like the Birthright Foundations project of
sending thousands of young adults to Israel, might slow down the trend, but they are
surely not going to turn it around.
focusing our attention on mixed marriages, why not attend instead to the problem of mixed
homes. Why not secure the Jewish home
by creating a contemporary ger toshav -- not a
convert to Judaism, but a gentile who actively chooses to live among Jews.
From time to
time, interfaith couples planning to marry ask me to discuss their options. They do so not because the non-Jewish partner is
ready to begin conversion, but because they want to begin the exploration of their options
by consulting with an Orthodox rabbi. What
I have discovered in these conversations is that I have very little to offer such couples.
traditional Jewish community forces the non-Jewish spouse to consider an all or nothing
bargain -- either full-fledged Jewish identity by conversion, or rejection. An alternative approach that would emphasize
the positive value of Jewish culture and
tradition, and the joys of living in a Jewish home without insisting upon conversion has,
until now, not been imaginable. What if we
were to create such an approach that would in effect look upon non-Jewish spouses as
potential gerei toshav? Rabbis would then be able to offer to
non-Jews wishing to marry a Jewish spouse the opportunity to become not converts, but
committed fans of the Jewish people.
approach to have a chance of becoming widely accepted in the Orthodox world, potential gerei
toshav would have to learn about Judaism in a course specifically designed for this
purpose along with their prospective spouse. They
would have to be prepared to raise Jewish children and to help create a Jewish home. Children growing up in such a home would know that
they have two parents, one Jewish and one not, but that they are full-fledged Jews and not
half-Jews. In situations where the woman was
the non-Jewish partner, the children could be converted in early childhood by a proper bet din, thereby insuring that they are treated as
Jews within the larger Jewish community.
conversion on people doesnt work for many reasons.
People often have good reasons for not wanting to convert. For some, the weakness of their religious
convictions regarding their own faith makes them feel inauthentic about adopting another
faith. Such folks dont feel strongly
enough about religion to pledge their faith in good conscience. Conversely, others may feel powerfully drawn to
Jews and Judaism, but feel unable to abandon the faith of their childhood. They may not be prepared to cause the familial
upset and disappointment that their conversion would produce for those they love. Still others, while they may be ready to marry a
Jew and raise Jewish children, find themselves in possession of Christian faith that they
simply cannot deny or give up. Adoption of
the ger toshav status would provide a means of
sustaining their own faith while still being wonderful parents to Jewish kids.
of a Jew and a ger toshav would not be
legitimate under existing halachic frameworks. However, my own work in finding solutions to gay
and lesbian marriage has shed light on this issue for me.
In thinking about non-normative marriage partners, I have decided that
kiddushin, the traditional ritual for the
Jewish wedding, simply doesnt apply to gay couples.
What does make sense for such couples is a religiously meaningful commitment
ceremony. In this case as well, the
traditional ritual would not well serve a mixed couple.
New rituals for such marriages, rituals that partake of Jewish resources and
speak honestly about what is actually happening, are needed. Exactly what such marriages could mean for
the Jewish community, how they ought to be formally enjoined, or how they should be
terminated when they end are all questions that call for the exercise of cultural
makes it clear that the traditional marital ritual was an innovation when it began. Until then, a man took a woman into his tent, and
when they came out they were married. If
the present form of kiddushin was once an
invention, then innovation itself is not the problem.
If Abraham had
two wives and Jacob had four, doing things just like our forebears is also not the issue. If the Talmudic sage Rav would call out on his
travels, Who will marry me for the day? in order to provide a day
wife for himself, it must be clear that marriage and family-making are always a part
of the larger cultures in which they reside. It
is time that we provide a place for the non-Jew in our families in much the same way that
the ger toshav, or alien resident, was given a
place in ancient Judea.
The more we
Jews are empowered as a people culturally, materially and politically, the more non-Jews
will be drawn to us. Uriah, Bathshebas
husband and a trusted commander in Davids army, was a Hittite. Though he was a
non-Jew, he was an insider in ancient Judea, with his home opposite the palace of the
king. His name Uriah means God is my light and apparently was his
not by accident. He was so morally upright
that, despite Davids urgings that he go and sleep with his wife Bathsheba so as to
obscure the fact that she was pregnant by King David, Uriah refused to sleep in the
comfort of his bed while his men were in the battlefield.
Perhaps instead of a new Jewish name which converts receive, a ger toshav should adopt a new middle name, that of
In my own opinion, it is better when two Jews marry and produce
children who carry on the covenant of Israel as knowledgeable and proud Jews. But for the great non-Jewish souls who find
themselves, like Uriah, drawn to the Jewish people and ready to stand up and even fight
with us in our battles, we must find a way to formally recognize them. It is a sign of our success that we ought to
celebrate rather than to mourn.
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