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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.  

Historically, 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 community’s 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 tradition’s 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 spouse.

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 didn’t 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 Janet’s mate, Bill.   He has effortlessly become a full-fledged member of the clan.  Janet and Bill have raised their children Jewishly with Janet’s hard work and Bill’s encouragement, and Bill is proud to be the non-Jewish father of a Jewish family.  

Since Janet and Bill tied the knot, the Jewish community’s attitude toward intermarriage has undergone a huge change. What was once taboo has become the norm. The AJC’s 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.       

Steven Bayme of the AJC recently criticized the Reform movement’s 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 communal norms.  

Recent proposals to enrich Jewish experiences prior to marriage have much merit.  The deeper and more intense an individual’s 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 Foundation’s project of sending thousands of young adults to Israel, might slow down the trend, but they are surely not going to turn it around.    

Instead of 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.   

The 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. 

For this 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.     

Forcing conversion on people doesn’t 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 don’t 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. 

The marriage 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 doesn’t 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 creativity.    

Maimonides 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, Bathsheba’s husband and a trusted commander in David’s 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 David’s 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 Uriah.    

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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