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Wed, 04/30/2014 - 12:34pm -- Rabbi Jennifer Jaech


As I wrote previously, the Torah does not prohibit intermarriage categorically.   The Torah’s writers were concerned primarily with the potential consequence of intermarriage with certain peoples:  namely, the worship of foreign gods. The Torah includes stories of Moses and Joseph who married non-Israelite women.   It is likely that these stories were created at a time when the Israelites felt secure in their identity as a people.

In the 6th century BCE, the Babylonian exile shattered that sense of security.   The invading Babylonian armies destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, and sent the leadership into exile. When the Persians subsequently conquered the land, they allowed the exiled leaders to return to Judea.  These leaders of our people had to rebuild the Temple and, at the same time, had to rebuild our unity and identity as a nation.    

Some of the leadership saw intermarriage as incompatible with their efforts to rebuild national identity.  The book of Ezra contains a passage in which the officials approach Ezra, the recognized interpreter of the Torah, to report about the activities of the people who had remained in Judea during the exile:  The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations….for they have taken their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy seed has become intermingled with the peoples of the lands.”   The leaders propose a radical solution:  So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and those who have been born to them…”[1] In other words, according to this account, men of Israel who had married “foreign women” were to divorce their wives and send their children away, lest the “holy seed” of Israel become diluted.

It is against this background that the Book of Ruth was created.  Although the story is set much earlier,[2]  scholars conclude that it was written after the Babylonian exile, at the same time as the book of Ezra.  

The Book of Ruth tells the story of a Moabite woman who marries an Israelite man in the land of Moab.   After her husband dies, Ruth expresses love for her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi and travels with her back to Canaan.  There she marries another Israelite man, a relative of her deceased husband.   The villagers who witness their betrothal  bless Ruth in the following words: May the Eternal make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel!...And may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah.[3]  Ruth bears Boaz a son, and the story ends with a genealogical note that identifies Ruth's son as the grandfather of King David. 

This is clearly a positive story about an intermarriage, most likely written to counter the position taken  in the book of Ezra, namely that foreign women dilute the "holy seed" of Israel.  How could we possibly disparage a Moabite woman worthy to be an ancestor of King David?  Furthermore, the blessing that the villagers offer Ruth provides a glimpse into the agenda of the writers.   Why does the blessing invoke Rachel and Leah, and also Tamar?   According to the Torah, Tamar had a sexual relationship with her father-in-law, Judah, a relationship outlawed by Leviticus 18.  Tamar did this in order to keep the line of Judah from extinction.  This same chapter in Leviticus also forbids a man from marrying two sisters, as Jacob did with Leah and Rachel.  Some scholars suggest that the author of Ruth may have been making the point that "building up the house of Israel" should be our primary concern, and that this goal can be achieved even through relationships that are not accepted by all as valid. 

From the Middle Ages to Modernity

We do not have evidence of a significant number of intermarriages during the time of the early rabbis and throughout the Middle Ages.  Jews lived as a distinct minority, with few opportunities for social intercourse in the broader gentile world.   In that world, your political identity was corporate.  Whether you were Jewish or gentile, you were not viewed as an individual.  Jews were governed as members of the larger Jewish communities in which they lived.  There was no such thing as individual citizenship.  As a result, the community controlled the behavior of its individual members.

Jewish law only recognizes marriage as taking place between two Jews.  With no "civil marriage" available, if a Jew and a gentile wished to wed under Jewish law, the gentile would have to convert to Judaism. This would not be considered an intermarriage. 

All this changed with political emancipation in the 18th/19th centuries.  A Jew could now be a citizen of a state. The United States was created with this model.   Jews who came to America had political freedom as citizens of the United States; their Jewish identity was largely relegated to the private, religious realm. 

American Jews made the most of their freedom in this new land, and intermarriage became a concern for some Jewish leaders early on.  In 1785, leaders of Congregation Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia wrote to Rabbi Saul Halevi Loewenstamm, Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Amsterdam:

In this country…everyone does as he pleases.  Most deplorably, many of our people – including some Kohanim (those descended from the priests) – marry gentile women.  They consult so-called ‘scholars,’ thoroughly corrupt individuals, who flagrantly profane the name of Heaven and who contrive erroneous legalistic loopholes…Yet the Kahal (community) has no authority to restrain or punish anyone, except for the nominal penalty of denying them synagogue honors, or of withholding from them sacred rites.  However, these vicious people completely disregard such measures and continue to attend our synagogue, because under the laws of our country it is impossible to enjoin them from so doing.[4]

Jonathan Sarna notes, "Throughout much of the American Jewish community, romantic love rather than religion or ethnicity has become the prime determinant of whom to marry; the same as among Americans generally.  Opposition to intermarriage, once normative in American Jewish life, is fast becoming exceptional."     Or, as Rabbi Rick Jacobs said, "In North America today, being 'against' intermarriage is like being 'against' gravity; you can say it all you want, but it's a fact of life."  

A Personal Note

If intermarriage is a fact of life, how should those of us who are concerned about Jewish continuity respond?  It is impossible for me to answer this question without telling my own story.

I am here today because of an intermarriage.   As a college student I became involved with a Jewish man named Bob.  At that time I had very little knowledge of Judaism, although I had always felt a strong affinity for Jewish people and Jewish culture.  I had virtually no interest in religion, having rejected the religion of my upbringing years earlier.

When we began discussing marriage, Bob said that it was important to him to raise Jewish children.  I asked him what it meant to be Jewish; Bob's response was that to be Jewish meant to fight for the oppressed and for social justice.  I said that if that's what being Jewish meant, it was okay with me to raise children with a Jewish identity.  It was in keeping my commitment to raise our son as Jew that I discovered (to my great surprise) that I felt at home among the Jewish people.

If Bob hadn't asked me to raise our son as a Jew, we would have raised our son with no religious tradition.    But having Jewish children was important to Bob, and that is what made the difference.

We have nothing to fear from intermarriage if young Jewish adults care about having Jewish children.  If our children are raised with a sense that Judaism has relevance in today's world, and that being a part of a Jewish community has value, then they will choose mates who support establishing a Jewish home, whether these mates are Jewish or not.  

Instead of focusing concern about Jewish continuity on stopping intermarriage, we need to focus our attention on fostering Jewish life that represents a pathway to a meaningful life, nurturing commitment to Jewish identity in our children, and supporting intermarried families who desire to raise Jewish children.    I truly believe that this is where our collective efforts can meet with success. 


[1] See Ezra 9: 1-3 and 10: 1-4

[2] prior to the establishment of the monarchy in ancient Israel

[3] Ruth 4: 11-12

[4] From Jonathan Sarna's American Judaism


Submitted by Stephen Butterfass (not verified) on
There have been recent DNA studies indicating that women of Ashkenaz ancestry seem to lack the same Semitic gene common to Ashkenaz men. This suggests the strong possibility that Jewish men, perhaps merchant traders, took non-jewish partners and/or wives as they settled in Europe prior to what we know as the Middle Ages and that these women are also our ancestors, and part of our gene pool halacha or not.


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