The Problem: Token Conversions for Interfaithless Marriages

Assimilation has created a profound disconnect between Jews and their religion that deeply disturbs the author and impels him to experiment with new solutions.

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While commentators on the American scene have been lamenting the decline in Jewish population for over a decade, Rabbi Schulweis claims that they regularly misidentify the culprit as intermarriage. The result, he claims, has been a misdirection of communal resources against intermarriage rather than targeting assimilation, the root cause. In this article, he sets out the problem, and in its sequel he proposes one possible solution. Reprinted with permission from the Summer, 1999, issue of Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life & Thought, published by the American Jewish Congress.

While rhetorically we admit that intermarriage is a symptom not a cause, our institutional projects commit a fallacy of misplaced concreteness: De facto, we treat the symptom as a cause. That inversion misdirects our struggle against the erosion of assimilation.

The symptoms are external; the causes are internal, within. The internal problems of interfaith marriages call for a double-pronged inreach-outreach program. That approach must precede, not only chronologically but spiritually, the situation presented as interfaith marriage.

I write from the perspective of a congregational rabbi who has felt compelled to initiate and implement a pluralistic outreach-inreach program for unchurched gentiles and unsynagogued Jews who are joined by affiliated synagogue mentors, all of whom attend lectures and seminars. The mentors have pledged to open their doors and lives to the seekers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. I will shortly explain my motivation and method but I would like first to confess my frustration with the conventional ways I have followed in dealing with the phenomenon of intermarriage.

An Interfaithless Couple

Jeff's mother calls me with a not-untypical request. Her Jeff has met Kathy who is "a lovely lady but a Catholic." Jeff's parents are members of my congregation. They are 9-1-1 Jews, who mainly call on the synagogue in emergencies. "Would I officiate at Jeff's wedding?"

For the sake of his parents, Jeff has come to see me. All Jeff wants is that I perform the marriage. From the initial conversations with both Jeff and Kathy it is clear that all they require from me is the performance of an interfaithless union. Their religious antecedents seem much the same. They are secular, privatistic, not particularly religious.

Jeff is part of our national statistics. According to the National Population Study of 1990, 1.2 million native-born Jews, when asked with what religion they identified, answered "None." Jeff is de facto a none-Jew, as Kathy is a none-Christian.

And who am I to them? In their eyes I am a facilitator, a customs-and-ceremony officiant, an accessory to a wedding event, placed high on the list along with the caterer, florist, and band leader. They prefer the benefits of clergy without the complication of conversion. Conversion is an instrumental matter, a temporary inconvenience, a means necessary for them to overcome the obstacle to matrimony, Still, Kathy is compliant, willing to undergo a ceremonial conversion because it will please Jeff and his parents.

But I've had experience with other Kathys before. I ask Jeff to leave us alone in the study. In pursuing the conversation with her it is evident that there is more to Kathy than she presents. Jeff, of course, has never talked to her about the possibility of conversion to Judaism. In this he is a dedicated libertarian. He would not coerce her. Nor would I. But in the course of our conversation it is evident that Kathy is a searching spiritual person who has done a good deal of investigation of other religions from New Age religions to Zen Buddhism, but curiously not of Judaism itself. She is attracted to Jews and to Judaism and is aware of the warmth of the Jewish home, the absence of dogma, the emphasis on family and on education. Has she thought of conversion to Judaism?

She has been convinced that Judaism is not for outsiders. She knows this because she has been told by many Jews, secular and religious, that you have to be born into Judaism, and that conversion is not the traditional way to Judaism. She echoes what I have heard from Jews and non-Jews alike and in fairly vulgar terms. She repeats the joke she was told by one of Jeff's friends. "What is the difference between a virgin and a shiksa [a derogatory term for a non-Jewish woman]? The answer: a shiksa remains a shiksa." The point is that a shiksa is incontrovertibly unconvertible. Being Jewish comes with the chicken soup. You cannot become a Jew by immersing yourself in a mikveh [ritual bath]. "Blood is thicker than water." I am embarrassed by this racism but no longer surprised.

When we speak further about Jewish values, Kathy is seriously taken with the possibilities of conversion. But when Jeff returns to the study, he is strangely upset with me. He had sought only a rabbinic presence, my ecclesiastical cloth to cover the embarrassment of his parents. He had certainly not expected talk about a series of classes of conversion, lectures, a beit din [Jewish court] tribunal, and a mikveh immersion, which would complicate their schedule. In all of this Kathy remained compliant and silent. After all, Jeff is the born-Jew.

When they left I felt disturbed. It was not only that I felt myself being used by Jeff and his parents, but that I was caught in a web of symptoms. Was I treating the symptoms as if they were causes? The wrong questions were being asked and the wrong answers were given. The conversion was an afterthought. The ceremony was wagging the faith; the rite overwhelmed the passage.

Moreover, the problem was with Jeff, not with Kathy. Who was the cause and who was the symptom? It was a mis-meeting. Jeff had to be spoken to differently and Jeff's parents, too. There are buried questions that had to be raised. Why is my token presence so important? What has Judaism, the covenant to do with this contact? And how have I dealt with Kathy and how did she feel? Was she a commodity, an "it" used to pacify his parents' need for Jewish respectability? Did I regard Kathy as a surrogate for the holocaustal hemorrhaging of my people, a replacement for our low fertility rates?

I sought a different opportunity to speak with them, to unlock their questions, to transmit something of the wisdom and pertinence of Jewish faith and practice. I needed to reach out to them both. If becoming Jewish is a sacred process, it cannot be confined to discussion of a celebratory event. It's not the wedding, it's the covenantal commitment to Judaism that is at stake.

I recognize that there are many Kathys out there who are reading books on religion and attending lectures in ashrams and not for the purpose of matrimony. Why is the synagogue so closed to them, why is the perception so deep and pervasive that being Jewish is a matter of birth, not becoming? I was left with many questions.

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Rabbi Harold Schulweis

Harold Schulweis is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He is the founder of Jewish Foundation for Rescuers and the author of For Those Who Can't Believe.