As a product of interfaith marriage, I am well aware of the advantages and disadvantages of such a union. There are some generalizations about why intermarriage is good or bad, but, for the most part, these marriages are subject to the same individualities of every other marriage, and could easily go well or go poorly, based solely on the human beings involved, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion. Today, intermarriage is certainly easier than it was one hundred or even fifty years ago, but that is not to say that intermarriage itself was a worse idea back then. It is simply that society as a whole has become more accepting and laws regarding intermarriage have changed. The marriages themselves have not.
When my parents got married in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled that no states were allowed to have racially based marriage laws, and none had ever really had religion based marriage laws (since most weddings take place in a religious context, I suppose the state assumed the religions would govern that themselves). Although some people in the country continued to hold old fashioned ideas about segregation and keeping to endogamy, more people were realizing that who married who really didn’t matter. Between 1970 and 1979, the percentage of Jews marrying outside the faith jumped from 13% to 28%. Although that made my father still a part of a minority, it was a quickly growing minority, alongside a growing minority of Americans as a whole marrying outside their cultures of origin, as the percentage of interracial marriages in America in that time frame also doubled. They married at a peak in pluralist rhetoric and desegregation efforts, making their relationship surprisingly uncontroversial.
However, resistance against interfaith couples persisted, and continues to persist today, at least within the religious communities. Although trends show that interfaith marriages are becoming more common at a much faster rate than interracial and interethnic marriage, strides toward complete equality and a post-racial society have made speaking out against interracial marriage completely unacceptable, whereas those who oppose interfaith marriages still seem very comfortable doing so. Jewish institutions worry about the future of the Jewish people if we continue to intermarry and neglect to teach our children properly about their Judaism. This is not without basis. Interfaith couples do have their work cut out for them in terms of raising children. Only about one-third of children born into interfaith marriages are raised Jewish.
Children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, such as myself, must be converted to be considered wholly Jewish, in addition to being part of the one-third raised with Jewish values and education. Although the Reconstructionist movement adopted a policy of accepting children of patrilineal descent into their Jewish communities in 1968, and the Reform movement followed suit in a much better-known resolution in 1983, the children born and raised in these movements may still grow up and one day find that their years of Hebrew school, Jewish camps, and internalized identity mean nothing to Jews from more traditional backgrounds. These grown children of interfaith couples may still find doors closed to them unless they are willing to “convert,” which undermines their Jewish upbringing, and the commitment their non-Jewish mothers made to raising Jewish children. It is a clear disadvantage to such interfaith families.
Even children of Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers, whose status as Jews is not questioned in the same way as patrilineal Jews, may still find difficulties in connecting to Judaism and Jewish culture, knowing that there is more to their heritage. It is up to the parents and the Jewish community to be embracing and educational, to help the children of interfaith marriages feel wholly Jewish. Otherwise, we do indeed risk erasing our own heritage and tradition, as some vocal opponents to intermarriage suggest, more effectively than the anti-Semites who tried to wipe us out violently.
Keren McGinity’s book, Still Jewish, shows that there certainly are couples out there who are up for the challenge. In it, she shares the data and anecdotal evidence of 46 Jewish women who chose to intermarry, and most of them found that their intermarriages brought greatness into their lives. Many of them were secularized Jews, without strong commitments to everyday Jewish practices, until they married Gentiles, and suddenly felt the urge to work harder to preserve their identities and heritages within the intermarriage. For the most part, their husbands were incredibly supportive of this. The marriages that did fail did so because of irreconcilable differences in political worldviews, or due to infidelity, rarely because of anything relating to the fact of intermarriage. These women were able to raise their children Jewish, and some were even surprised to find that their children had even stronger Jewish identities and richer Jewish educations than they themselves had ever had.
Although the book only discussed the women who marry out, as a child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, and as a student rabbi of a Reform congregation with a high population of interfaith families, I have seen that the women who marry in have it in them to raise great Jewish children as well. I mention the women who marry in rather than the Jewish men who married out, because when it comes to the home religion and child-rearing, all the gender equality we’ve established to date hasn’t managed to shift this still very feminine domain. When it comes time to choose the family religion for an interfaith family, often, the wife’s decision is canon. Although the Reform movement made its decision seven years after my parents’ marriage, it is a good thing they still managed to declare the children of Jewish fathers acceptable to their Hebrew schools before my parents had children. Otherwise, I might be arguing for interfaith marriages from a Unitarian Universalist perspective right now, because my father sure wasn’t going to try to take us to the mikveh. The decision came from my mother, so they needed a community that would accept her and who we were because of her.
When it comes to interfaith marriages, there are some added difficulties in child-rearing, and choosing a family religion to teach the children. But for intermarriage as a whole, the largest disadvantage comes from those within society who still hold old-fashioned prejudices and want to impose them upon those couples and families. The marriages themselves are subject to all the same advantages and disadvantages of all marriage: love and acceptance, differing worldviews and growing apart, honesty and loyalty, distrust and infidelity. These are not reasons to avoid intermarriage specifically, and they are not reasons to judge or try to stop others from intermarrying. My parents come from two different religions, and different ethnicities, but they have maintained a healthy marriage for 37 years (this August), and raised two healthy well-adjusted Jewish children, now grown and contributing to society, including specifically Jewish society. Anyone who thinks intermarriage cannot be sustainable need only look at our family to know that it can be, and then to butt out. We did just fine, and so can the future intermarried families.