Earlier this week we published this piece on intermarriage by senior AUJS activist, Ashleigh Werner. At WUJS we recognise that there are a plurality of views on Judaism and one of the roles of the student blogs section of our website is to provide a platform for diverse voices within our community to share their thoughts, musings and big ideas. The piece following is a response to Ashleigh's article by a committee member of Glasgow Jewish Society, Marcell Horvarth.
I was listening to a song by Aharon Razel, and he had some words in there that I found to be pretty darn punk rock. The song went like this:
One time they asked Rav Shach why do [we] say “that you didn’t make me a Gentile,” and not “that you made me a Jew.” The Rav answered and said “God made it so you wouldn’t be a Gentile, and you should make it that you will be a Jew.”
Now I haven’t heard this story before, because the political reality that’s familiar to me is not Degel HaTorah but the sausage-munching primitiveness of Viktor Orban. Its message is both empowerment and scathing criticism, a double-edged sword if I ever saw one. The lines refer to the morning blessings, where one thanks God that he or she wasn’t made a Gentile. This particular prayer segment attracts considerable criticism, but precisely because it is such a seemingly offensive thing to say, this gem of liturgy also served as the basis for some beautiful ideas about what it means to be a Jew.
When the issue of intermarriage comes up, we really have to take Razel’s anecdote to the heart. The perpetuation of the Jewish people and religion is something in which we have to take a proactive role. It’s not enough to state this boldly, though. We should also take a quick look at our situation and elaborate on the main themes of the discussion.
In my home country of Hungary, we’ve had generations that grew up isolated from Judaism due to Hungarian anti-Semitism, Nazi massacres, and Communist persecution. There was and is a lot of intermarriage. Many Jewries from the countries of the former Soviet Union also contended with very similar issues. It is a major miracle that we now have young Jews that are retracing their families’ steps and rediscovering Jewish tradition. Many who are patrilineally Jewish are converting lest they be cheated out of their heritage by the cruel joker known as history.
This didn’t just happen. It came about due to the tireless efforts of people like Rav David Keleti, the head of Lativ Kolel in Budapest, who make immense personal and financial sacrifices to give a handful of students a quality Jewish education. These talmidim are learning Hebrew, connecting with Israel, going to yeshivas and seminaries, and some of them are even enlisting in the IDF. Figuratively speaking, we were going to tumble into the abyss if bearded men with odd accents didn’t grab us an inch before the cliff.
In the West, the picture is fairly different. It has been said that today all American Jews are Jews by choice. What this means is that for the first time in history one can decide the degree to which one will associate with Judaism without having to consider various political realities. To put it bluntly: you can be whatever you want, and you don’t have to be a Jew. For a short while, we didn’t have to consider what this meant in terms of numbers. Then the 2013 Pew survey on American Jewry was published. It spelled out that American Jews are losing their religion and culture. In effect, they, too, were thrown into the melting pot. For many of them, their Jewishness colors their American identity, and not the other way around. We see many of the same motifs in countries where Jewish reform movements are prominent.
In the Second World, we are kindling a tiny flame. In the First, we are trying to keep a dwindling fire going. In both of these contexts the promotion of Jewish marriage, a quintessential Jewish value, is of enormous importance. Marrying out is the common link between these two Jewish stories. It is also one of the major practical issues which divide Jewish denominations; the other being conversion, a process often linked to Jewish marriage.
So what’s the big deal with marrying Jewish? It’s simple. Jewish marriage is the one way to ensure the continuity of both Jewish religion and culture. It is the exclusive way to create a familial environment where Jewish customs can be observed in their totality in a kosher manner, period. It is the only way to make sure your children are halachically Jewish. It is also the best way to perpetuate Jewish culture by nurturing the Jewish identities of children. Statistically speaking, intermarriage has caused almost irreversible damage in all of these areas. Let’s not get into the numbers, but take my word that they are depressing (alternatively you can consult the Pew survey linked above, an article on a UK census here, or a piece on an EU poll here). The point is if you want to have a Jewish Diaspora in the not-so-distant future, intermarriage is a no-no.
Naturally, marrying out is just one segment of a larger picture. It is one symptom of Jews distancing themselves from their laws and traditions. The media often terms the halachic approach to Judaism as “Orthodox” or “ultra-Orthodox.” This terminology is detrimental. Today, it is entirely geared towards othering, while it conveniently helps to neglect a decidedly more robust debate about the intellectual consistency of our Judaism.
The issue ultimately comes down to a tug of war between Western universalism and Jewish particularism. More recent strains of Judaism are informed by the former, while traditional denominations are concerned with the latter. This in turn raises a monster of a question for reform movements: If modern Judaism is just another shade of Western thought, why be Jewish at all? If we are looking for Western values to uphold within Judaism and neglecting those ideas which, for whatever reason, make us uncomfortable, why not just throw the whole thing away and be Western liberals like everyone else? We could date and marry whomever and however we want, wouldn’t have the need to support Israel when it decides to level entire neighborhoods, could eat sinfully delicious pork ribs, have a light switch flipping party all throughout Shabbos, support gay marriage without reservations, skip the emotional agony caused by Holocaust education, et cetera. Or we could avoid this discussion in its entirety and point at “that loser with payos,” thumb our noses, and say: “Yeah, that guy is crazy.” Which is precisely what we’ve been doing.
When we reject our laws and tradition, these are the questions that should be on our minds. Without God, Judaism becomes a form of ethnocentrism; an ethnocentrism that is colorful and afforded some social tolerance due to feelings of guilt over the Holocaust, but an ethnocentrism nonetheless. And as we all know, ethnocentrism on its own is wrong. So it seems reasonable that intermarriage and its acceptance would be the next logical step. If we reject the Divine and subsequently wish to do away with the unwanted residue of ethnocentrism, that can be an intellectually consistent approach. But we should notcall it Judaism. It has nothing to do with Judaism.
That being said, Jewish student leaders should not be advocating for a return to Torah Judaism. That would be an overly ambitious request on my part, and it would alienate too many people. What we doneed to do is encourage a serious discussion about tradition. Seeing how we are at university, we should be able to use our extensive academic skill set to scrutinize, analyze, and learn our tradition. We shouldn’t be telling our fellow students how to observe their Judaism, but we should be telling them that they need to have an in-depth knowledge of it. They should know that quite frankly it’s embarrassing that they learn Ezra Pound, but they don’t know who Ibn Ezra is. And if at the end of our term in office they still don’t know, then shame on us.
We are not here to do kiruv. But we are here to provide a service to those individuals who voted for us because they thought we’d represent and engage them best. To say to these Jews that we don’t care about Judaism and Jewish continuity is an intellectual surrender and a cowardly betrayal. Make no mistake, when we say that intermarriage should be viewed in a favorable light and, what’s more, should be welcomed by observant communities, that’s what we are essentially doing.
Vegan societies are not run by butchers. Marxist societies are not run by venture capitalists. Chess societies are not run by people who’d rather play checkers.
We run Jewish societies. Make yourself into a Jew.
Marcell Horvath is the secretary of Glasgow University Jewish Society and a founding member of Glasgow University Friends of Israel. He currently studies law and has a degree in history from the University of Maryland.
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