Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Congregation Bnai Yeshurun
Teaneck, New Jersey
and assimilation are the twin tragedies that are devastating American Jewry
today, and both have caused our numbers and level of commitment to plummet. There
are violations of Torah law - a detail of the system - that reflect a personal
shortcoming, and others that threaten the viability of the system itself.
Intermarriage is in the latter category; it is more than just a serious
violation of Torah law; it endangers the entire enterprise of the Jewish
We have always suffered from Jews voluntarily abandoning their Jewish identity; indeed, such spiritual “casualties” have historically outnumbered our losses sustained through persecutions and massacres. It makes little difference whether a soldier is killed in battle or abandons the battlefield. In either context, he is lost to the struggle. The notion that a Jew can marry out and still remain an integral part of the Jewish people persists in Jewish life, despite the inherent contradiction. And the notion, further, that the sin of intermarriage is mitigated by a commitment “to raise the children as Jewish” is belied by experience and common sense. I myself was involved in a case where a child of intermarriage - “raised as a Jew” - himself intermarried, simply following the lead of his parents. The faithfulness of such a Jew is almost always quite tenuous and marginal.
What has brought us to this state, and what can be done to correct it? Certainly, American society has been uniquely hospitable both to the observance of Torah law - and to its rejection. The superficiality of much of Jewish life here - an emphasis on culture, ceremonies and forms, rather than on substance, ideas and religious commitment - has smoothed the way to the painless intermarriage process of today. In America today, Jewish identity is perceived as an ethnic affiliation, not a religious one. Since most Jews wear their Jewishness (if they do at all) as an ethnic badge - and not as obliging any religious commitment - they naturally gravitate to intermarriage as do most Americans in a multi-ethnic society. Indeed, for most Jews, intermarriage today is no longer even an act of rebellion against G-d, Torah or parents. It is simply a function of being an American.
But intermarriage is a disaster for those Jews who perceive their Jewishness not as an ethnic identity, but as a religious/national identity - for those Jews, whose lives are bounded by Torah, who perceive themselves as serving G-d in every aspect of their lives. Therefore, the major problem facing American Jews is that most no longer see the Torah or Mitzvos as the root of our identity. Torah has been “replaced” by competing visions of what it means to be a Jew - philanthropy, support for Israel, liberal politics, Holocaust commemoration, fear of Jew-hatred, etc. But all those interests are ethnic, not religion-based, and so they have spearheaded and facilitated the decline in attachment to what it uniquely Jewish: our covenant with G-d, the bond of Torah and Mitzvos, and especially the primacy of Torah study.
Intermarriage is the red line that no Jew should cross - not by marrying out, nor by attending or in any way participating in such an event. How can one attend, and wish the couple “Mazal Tov”? And for what, joining in the destruction of the Jewish people? We are all hurt when Klal Yisrael is in a free fall, our numbers dwindle to record low levels, and Jewish ignorance soars to record heights. The greatest enemies of American Jews today are apathy and indifference, not Arabs, Moslems, Christians or neo-Nazis with spray paint. For sure, we cannot impose commitment and responsibility on those who are unaffiliated and uninterested in Judaism. But we can and should always project the beauty of the Torah life, so those with open minds can look at us and perhaps realize “how fortunate is our lot, and how pleasant is our destiny”. We can redeem souls on an individual basis, one by one. It is not enough to denounce intermarriage; it is the obligation of every Jew to present the Torah and its ideas and values in a way that will win the hearts and minds of our brothers and sisters who have been raised without it - all to strengthen our people and glorify G-d’s name.