Intermarriage: Jewish Attitudes

A recent survey finds that a growing number of American Jews accept intermarriage.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

In September 2000, vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman came under fire from many Jewish organizations for telling a radio talk show host that there is no Jewish prohibition against intermarriage. 

But according to a survey released in October 2000, Lieberman's comments reflect the beliefs of the majority of American Jews. In short, according to the survey, "the Jewish taboo on mixed marriage has clearly collapsed."

More than half of American Jews disagree with the statement, "It would pain me if my child married a gentile," and 50 percent agree that "it is racist to oppose Jewish‑gentile marriages," according to the American Jewish Committee's 2000 Survey of American Jewish Opinion. It was the first time the annual phone survey of 1,010 Jews--which tracks Jewish attitudes about Israel, anti‑Semitism and political issues--asked for attitudes about intermarriage.

attitudes towards intermarriageFindings on Israel and political matters were consistent with recent years—showing strong attachments to Israel, concern about anti-semitism and generally liberal political views, with 75 percent reporting they planned to vote for Al Gore for president.

On intermarriage, 78 percent of respondents said they favor rabbinic officiation at Jewish‑gentile marriages "in some form and under some circumstances," while only 15 percent are opposed to this. But the majority of American rabbis do not officiate at intermarriages: Conservative and Orthodox rabbis are forbidden to do so, while an estimated half of Reform rabbis refuse to officiate [A majority of Reconstructionist rabbis do not officiate at intermarriages. A significant minority will do so as the sole officiant under certain circumstances; their professional association prohibits co-officiation with clergy from other faiths].

Only the Orthodox, among the various groupings of American Jews in the survey, maintain strong opposition to mixed marriage--and they do so by a large majority. 84 percent of the Orthodox Jews surveyed said they would be pained if their child intermarried, compared to 57 percent of Conservative Jews, 27 percent of Reform Jews and 19 percent of those who said they are "just Jewish." (The denominations are self‑identified and do not [necessarily] mean the respondents are actually affiliated with synagogues belonging to that movement.)

In 1990, shock waves rippled through the American Jewish world when the National Jewish Population Survey reported that 52 percent of Jews who had married between 1985 and 1990 had wed non‑Jews. That number was disputed as too high by some sociologists, but most agreed that intermarriage rates are still significant.

David Singer, who as the American Jewish Committee's director of research oversees the annual survey, called the [2000] findings "very, very dramatic.”

“This is the 'amcha'  speaking, and what we hear is rather eye-opening,” he said, using the Hebrew expression for the grass roots. “This constitutes a tremendous challenge to people and groups that want to maintain opposition to mixed marriage.”

The American Jewish Committee has issued statements opposing intermarriage.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein, who has written several books for the Conservative movement on how to respond to intermarriage, said he is disturbed, but not surprised, by the survey's findings. But he noted that statistics on intermarriage can be misleading because there are such sharply divergent attitudes in the Jewish community. Unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, of which there are a growing number, are far less likely to oppose intermarriage, he said.

That obscures, he said, the fact that the majority of synagogue-affiliated Jews--particularly Conservative and Orthodox ones--remain opposed to intermarriage, even if they would not disown their children for marrying gentiles.

"On something in which there's such a split between demographic sectors of the population, one overall number is not helpful," said Silverstein. But on the basis of the survey findings, he predicted his Reform rabbi colleagues will face increasing pressures to officiate at intermarriages of their congregants. Already, a number of Reform rabbis say it is difficult to find a pulpit job if one is unwilling to perform a wedding for a Jew and non‑Jew.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said the survey illustrates the need for the Jewish community to welcome intermarried families, something his movement does.

"We can't pretend there's a reality different from what it is," said Yoffie, adding: "In the unique climate of this wonderful, diverse, democratic, open culture of ours, there's going to be intermarriage." But he said the survey should not be read as a sign that the American Jewish community is just assimilating. While there may be widespread acceptance of intermarriage, there is "also a revival of religious life at every level," Yoffie pointed out.

Kenneth Hain, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of Orthodox rabbis, said he is "saddened," but not surprised, by the survey. "From an Orthodox perspective, it really does affirm our resolve to try to do more to make Jewish tradition meaningful to people," he said.

The finding reaffirms the need for more Jewish education, said Hain. "To appeal to Jews on ethnic grounds, or simply sentimental grounds, or even family attachment grounds" not to marry gentiles is "generally to no avail."

Ed Case, the publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, an Internet magazine, or Webzine, serving approximately 12,000 readers, said he is pleased to learn of the widespread acceptance among Jews of the intermarried.

“One of the things our readers say that puts them off is that they have had hostile, unwelcoming reactions from individual Jews or Jewish organizations,” said Case. He said he hopes the survey encourages Jewish organizations to be more inclusive of intermarried Jews.

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Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is a reporter with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), the Global News Service of the Jewish People.