In a recent speech to the Jewish Agency, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed challenges to the Jewish future and said, “The loss of identity through assimilation or through intermarriage or through both is the greatest toll-taker of Jewish numbers in the last half-century.”
Netanyahu is not the first and won’t be the last to use the words “intermarriage” and “assimilation” interchangeably. A Google search for “Jewish intermarriage and assimilation” produces more than 500,000 results.
The problem is that intermarriage is not synonymous with assimilation. More importantly, neither phenomenon is the real root cause for a loss of Jewish identity; for that, we must look to the religion itself. Therefore, every time a Jewish policy advocate or communal leader uses the phrase “intermarriage and assimilation” as cause rather than effect, we should call them out on what is at best inaccurate and at worst beating straw men.
If we define “assimilation” as absorption beyond recognition into the larger culture, it’s understandable why the idea would frighten a Jewish community that makes up only 2 percent of the U.S. population. And certainly there are many Americans whose only connection to Judaism is the knowledge that one of their grandparents was Jewish. But on the whole, “assimilation” is not what happened to American Jewry. “Integration” is what happened. We became fully American while remaining Jewishly identified. Turns out the Great Melting Pot was cooking up a gumbo, where the ingredients are still identifiable, rather than turning us all into a clear broth of Christians.
The suggestion that intermarriage also represents absorption beyond recognition into the larger culture is an affront to the literally hundreds of thousands of households where one parent happens to be Jewish that are currently raising Jewish children. If intermarriage means the same thing as assimilation, there wouldn’t be intermarried members of synagogues, children of intermarriage on Birthright Israel trips or intermarried leaders of Jewish communal organizations.
Some might argue that despite the remarkable gains made between the 1990 and 2001 National Jewish Population Surveys, in terms of intermarried households raising Jewish children (from 18 percent to 35 percent), intermarriage still represents a “net loss” for the Jewish people, and therefore it is fair to call it an “assimilationist trend.” But historically, that has not always been the case.
Our people began with just one guy, so obviously Abraham had to draw adherents from the larger society to his beliefs, starting with his wife. The Torah is filled with the intermarriages of our patriarchs, including our greatest leader, Moses. In the diaspora, as geneticists are now beginning to decode, intermarriage played a key role in explaining why Ashkenazi Jews look like Poles while Ethiopian Jews look like Ethiopians. And in modern times, local Jewish communities like Boston, where a majority of intermarried families raise their children as Jews, have experienced growth and not “toll-taking.”
Even if intermarriage in America has been an assimilationist trend in the past, it doesn’t mean it has to be in the future. That will depend on how our community welcomes in the intermarried. Continuing to group “intermarriage and assimilation” into a synonymous phrase pushes away the intermarried families already among us. Yet the phrase remains because it provides useful cover for the real threat to Jewish identity: that many aspects of Judaism itself do not work for most Jews.
It’s been 200 years since Jews have been given the option to walk away from an Orthodox understanding of the world, and while Orthodoxy works beautifully for many Jews, the vast majority of us have opted out of Orthodoxy. Most of us are still able to find the wisdom in our traditions, even spirituality, thanks to the non-Orthodox movements remaking Judaism in our own image and allowing (if not officially sanctioning) us to cherry-pick which mitzvot remain relevant to our lives. And yet at any given time, most Jews just aren’t doing Judaism.
Today, more Jews describe themselves as “secular” compared to “religious.” Since it’s not the religion that’s keeping most of us Jewish, we’ve invented other means of Jewish identification, some original like tikkun olam (repairing the world) and Jewish culture, others borrowed, like nationalism and ethnocentrism. The hot word lately is “peoplehood.” Offering many options into Jewish identification is exactly what’s needed, as long as we recognize the bottom-line result of our shift away from religiosity: that for most Jews who fall in love with non-Jews, if we do not believe God will smite us for intermarrying, none of the other Jewish identity constructs are strong enough to keep us from love.
Intermarried families recognize that a religious interpretation of Jewish law prohibits intermarriage “because God says so,” but they also know that when non-religious Jews exclude them from Jewish culture, nationalism or peoplehood — by for example suggesting that “intermarriage and assimilation” both mean an equal disappearance from the community — it stems from other fears, most of which have been proven baseless. If a net loss of Jewish identity continues, despite the broadening of how we define “Jewish identity,” it will be because we’ve failed to open the doors for all who would join us in the many ways of expressing that identity.n
Paul Golin is associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.joi.org).
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.