Author Archives: Valerie S. Thaler

Valerie S. Thaler

About Valerie S. Thaler

Valerie S. Thaler is a Ph.D. student in the Judaic Studies Program at Yale, where she concentrates on 20th-century American Jewish history. She is beginning dissertation research on American Jewish identity in the 1950s. An alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Valerie received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Jewish Education from Brandeis, and has her B.A. in American Studies from Yale.

American Jewish Life, 1980-2000

By the end of the 20th century, the vast majority of American Jews were fully integrated into American life and increasingly distant from their parents and grandparents’ experiences. During this time, American Jewry witnessed a significant degree of internal diversification. Blending the richness of their own tradition with the American virtues of freedom and pluralism, the community broadened the boundaries of Jewish observance, patterns of worship, and education.

By 1980, discrimination against American Jews in the professions was largely a thing of the past. Virtually no field was (or is) “closed” to Jews, officially or unofficially, including politics. There were more Jews in the House of Representatives and the Senate than ever before, in numbers far exceeding their proportion of the U.S. population. In the 2000 presidential election, Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, was the Democratic candidate for vice president.

american jewish lifeAmerican Jews’ social integration was no less remarkable. This achievement, however, was far more complicated. With assimilation into American society came higher rates of intermarriage. Recognizing the changing makeup of the American Jewish population, the Reform movement followed the lead of the Reconstructionist movement and passed its “Resolution on Patrilineal Descent” in 1983. (The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association was founded in 1974, and formally approved patrilineal descent in 1975.) The resolution ruled that the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is considered Jewish, as long as the child is being raised in the Jewish tradition. This ruling reversed a long-held tenet of Jewish law that relied upon matrilineal descent to determine a child’s Jewish status.

The controversy surrounding this decision became more intense with the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. The NJPS found that roughly half of the Jews married between 1985 and 1990 chose non-Jewish spouses. Jewish communal leaders had to confront the implications of this statistic: How were they to determine, or redetermine, the boundaries of the Jewish community? Were intermarried couples and their children welcome to join synagogues?

Jewish Attitudes Toward Proselytes

In the United States, there are about 185-200,000 individuals who have converted to Judaism, with approximately 3,600 people converting each year. "Introduction to Judaism" classes flourish around the United States in Reform and Conservative synagogues, and some congregations count large numbers of proselytes among their members. All of this data suggests that, today, much of the American Jewish community is particularly welcoming to Jews-by-choice.


This survey of the contemporary scene begs the question: How did Jews of other eras treat the new Jews within their midst? This article attempts to outline the conclusions scholars have reached on this sensitive subject.

Biblical Times

In the biblical era, the notion of a full religious conversion as we know it today did not yet exist. Joining the Israelite population meant following a specific set of communal practices without necessarily adopting Israelite ritual laws. Central to this process was a commitment to monotheism, the factor which most set pagans apart from Hebrews. Those Gentiles who were members of Israelite society were known as gerim (strangers or foreigners), and the Bible repeatedly emphasizes the obligation to welcome such people.

In addition, after the Sinaitic revelation, the prophets enjoined the Israelites to uphold Jewish ritual and moral teachings, and to expose the problems inherent in paganism. However, this message is not to be confused with actively seeking converts.

Jews have never believed that one had to be Jewish to achieve salvation. Jewish tradition holds that a special covenant between God and Noah established moral precepts for non-Jews (the Noahide Laws). If Gentiles observed these commandments (refraining from murder, theft, and idolatry, among others things), they would receive a portion in the World to Come. Jews in biblical times were open to prospective proselytes, but they did not see it as their mission to convert Gentiles.

The Second Temple Period

Between 323 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. (the year the Second Temple was destroyed), many individuals converted to Judaism. The vast majority of these proselytes made the decision to become Jewish on their own. Judaism’s belief in one God was particularly appealing, as was the tenor of the Hebrew liturgy. Still other proselytes fell in love with Jewish partners and wished to be of the same faith.

Interfaith Weddings

Although intermarriage was not common in the first half of the 20th century, since the 1960s the number of American Jews married to non-Jews has risen quite dramatically. According to the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, among the non-Orthodox, the intermarriage rate for couples is significant. Half of the non- Orthodox couples who were married between 2006 and 2011 are intermarried. What was once considered a traditional Jewish family–two Jewish parents and their children–is no longer the norm.

Citing statistics, though, provides little insight into the challenges interfaith couples confront as they navigate the terrain of Jewish life. The decision to marry may be the easiest step when set against the necessary choices that follow: the wedding ceremony, familial religious observances, relationships with in-laws, synagogue membership, and children’s religious affiliations.

Prior to the Wedding

Not surprisingly, many interfaith couples find it extremely difficult to discuss their religious differences in much depth, especially after they decide to tie the knot. They worry that what starts as a passionate debate may disintegrate into a heated argument that threatens their survival as a couple.

wedding ringsOne painful topic of discussion is the response of each partner’s parents and siblings. Even though both partners have accepted one another, gaining familial approval and tolerance can be an entirely separate matter. Many Jewish parents feel they have failed in some way if their child marries out of the religion–as if they have not done their part in ensuring Jewish survival. This can happen even in the least religious families, often surprising the Jewish partner, who did not fully appreciate his or her parents’ convictions.

Another concern is the religion of potential children: Should the children be Jewish or Christian, for instance, or some combination of the two? Which holidays will the family celebrate, and how can they avoid offending their respective families?

A third issue is very personal: Should one partner consider conversion to the other spouse’s religion? The question gets more complicated if neither partner is particularly religious but both feel a strong attachment to aspects of their own culture or heritage. Indeed, sometimes that connection becomes all the more tangible in light of the commitment to marry.

Updating the Traditional Jewish Wedding

The symbols of the Jewish wedding ceremony are familiar to many American Jews, regardless of their level of observance. The huppah (bridal canopy), ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), simple wedding band(s), and breaking of glass, among other things, distinguish a Jewish wedding from its non-Jewish counterpart. Add to these the presence of both parents in the processional, klezmer or other Jewish music, and lifting the bride and groom high in the air on chairs, and our sense of simcha (festive celebration) becomes even more tangible.

Less familiar to many Jews, however, are the many “updates” of traditional Jewish wedding rituals that have become increasingly popular among brides and grooms. An engaged Jewish couple has many options to choose from as they plan their ceremoketubahny, some of which would have been unheard of just 25 to 35 years ago.

At the core of these innovations is the advent of feminism, which has had a tremendous influence on Jewish lifecycle rituals. The wedding is no exception. The traditional notion of a groom “acquiring” his bride (in Hebrew, the kinyan) is particularly antithetical to the ideals of more liberal Jews, who champion an egalitarian mindset. As a result, the last generation of Jewish newlyweds has launched a re-visioning of certain symbols and rituals that reflect this contemporary perspective.

While Orthodox and other traditional Jews generally shun innovations in Jewish rituals, some modern wedding customs–such as adding a clause into the ketubah or adorning the huppah–are within the bounds of traditional Jewish law and are being adopted by many Orthodox couples as well. Other egalitarian innovations–such as transforming the ketubah into a statement of love and commitment–are not acceptable according to traditional Jewish law and would not be adopted by Orthodox couples.

Ketubah: Legal Document or Statement of Commitment?

A deeper consideration of acquisition is an appropriate place to start our survey of these innovations. The text of the traditional ketubah, which has stayed largely the same for centuries, is entirely legalistic. There is no mention of God, love, or romance. Signed by two witnesses, the contract verifies that the groom has acquired the bride and agrees to provide for her, and includes a lien to be paid by the groom in the case of a divorce. The bride accepts the arrangement.