Commentary Magazine


Intermarriage

To the Editor:

It was a fascinating experience reading Marshall Sklare’s “Intermarriage & Jewish Survival” [March]. Mr. Sklare . . . shaped the materials of my presentation before the 1969 biennial meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to serve his prejudice. . . . An interesting example of Mr. Sklare’s handling of the material to suit his purposes appears in a parenthesis which reads: “(As Rabbi Klausner put it: ‘Reform believes that from every tree you may eat’).” The obvious implication of this phrase is that, for me, Reform Judaism allows for anything and everything. The quotation should have read: “From all the trees in the garden [Eden] you may eat.” The addition of the words, “in the garden,” changes the image. It casts us into the dialogue between man (Adam and Eve) and God, an experience we cherish.

This biblical reference was intended for a purpose other than that implied by Mr. Sklare. It was offered as a criticism of those rabbis who had voted for the resolution on intermarriage, indicating to them that though the conference had not taken a position on any ritual or religious practice, thus allowing for an interpretation on the part of the rabbi, in the case of intermarriage, it did, by a majority vote, resolve to discourage rabbinical sanction of such marriages. Therefore, “Of all the trees you may eat except this one.”

Another interesting sequence in Mr. Sklare’s article occurs in his analysis of my attitude toward conversion. In a series of intriguing steps, he brings me into comradeship with the right-wing Orthodox rabbinical judges of the religious court of London. Let us see how he accomplishes this. First, he has me declare that “apparently” I regard “conversion as passe.” However, he credits me with making a distinction between “true” conversion and “conversion-for-marriage.” This, it turns out, is a sinister move on my part. True conversion, he has me argue, calls for such high standards as to make the conversion process difficult and discouraging. By making conversion a valid experience, Mr. Sklare contends, I would in effect destroy it, and thus allow intermarriage to take place without conversion. I wonder whether this sinister approach to the question of conversion can be extracted from the following:

To further elaborate on the ambivalence with which we approach the mixed marriage, I note that if a conversion takes place, rabbis will officiate at the marriage, saying it is no longer a mixed marriage. Would I be harsh if I suggested that this is an act of self-deception? Our rabbis know well that conversion is a deeply personal, evolving experience, embracing the totality of the human being. In the New York area, under the aegis of the New York Federation of Reform Temples, a program is in effect which offers a quickie conversion certificate at the conclusion of nine study sessions. Obviously, these few sessions of instruction will not suffice to redirect and refine the religious sensitivities of an individual. This program is, at best, symbolic. It does have worth. We are convinced that individuals should be -prepared for marriage. To this end, programs have been established by mental health organizations and also our own counseling service. Certainly the difference of faiths in a marriage should be discussed and decisions made for a unity of spirit within the home. The New York program serves this purpose. It does not change one in a manner which would justify our reclassification of the marriage from that of a mixed to an in-marriage.

In all his writings on the subject of intermarriage and Jewish survival, Mr. Sklare does not define the purpose of survival. He deals primarily with statistics and allows for no analysis of the objective of the religious experience.

I am not “for” or “against” intermarriage. I do not see myself as God’s policeman. In terms of my loyalties and commitments, urged by the tradition as I see and understand it, I deal with human situations as they grow out of cultural imperatives. Intermarriage was, is, and will be part of our social heritage. I choose to embrace rather than to reject the experience.

I would also like to note that I did not call upon the Central Conference of American Rabbis to join me in my approach nor do I ask the Beth Din of London to negate its Halacha. I offered that within the Reform tradition the dynamic of religious response to natural situations should be preserved.

Rabbi Abraham J. Klausner
Congregation Emanu-El
Yonkers, New York

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To the Editor:

Marshall Sklare’s discussion of community attitudes toward intermarriage is cogent, and I have no quarrel with it. It does, however, give rise to the unwarranted inference that American Jewry is imminently and massively threatened by intermarriage, and it may, therefore, lead to the same sort of panic which gripped much of the Jewish community back in 1963 and 1964 when new data concerning intermarriage were first reported. Readers unfamiliar with the methodological morass which students of intermarriage encounter are prone to conclude that if, as Sklare suggests, about one in four of all marriages involving at least one Jew involves only one Jew, some 25 per cent of all Jews will be “lost.” Such a statistic is quite disturbing to those committed to Jewish survival, and, therefore, it is important to note that even if the one-in-four figure for intermarriage is correct, we are still a long way from knowing what the actual loss to Jewry is. The incidence of intermarriage is only one of the components in determining actual loss.

Thus, for example, it is important to know a) the sex distribution of the intermarried, b) their conversion rate, and c) the degree to which even non-converts are likely to raise their children as Jews. We have scanty data on the last two of these, but it has long been established that roughly two thirds of all Jews who intermarry are male. This continuing circumstance radically affects the consequences of Jewish intermarriage, since, as Mr. Sklare points out, the issue is not really how many Jews intermarry, but how many potential Jewish families fail to come into being as a result of intermarriage. Thus, if we have five hundred Jewish males and five hundred Jewish females, a 25 per cent intermarriage rate could involve anything from a 4 per cent loss to a 25 per cent loss, depending entirely on the sex distribution of Jews who intermarry.

Where that distribution is about two-thirds male and one-third female, the maximum potential loss, even if none of the intermarried raises his children as Jews, is 18 per cent. Since large numbers do raise their children as Jews, the actual loss is still lower. In fact, on the basis of some data which recently became available, we may estimate that the actual loss to the Jewish community through intermarriage, taking into account conversion, the sex ratio, and efforts to rear children as Jews in intermarried families, is approximately 27 per cent of the rate of intermarriage. Accordingly, a 25 per cent rate results in less than a 7 per cent loss, which may be a cause for concern, but hardly for panic.

In brief, the rate of intermarriage describes the loss to Jewry only when all the intermarried Jews are of the same sex and none raises his children as Jews, conditions that are never encountered in the real world. Those interested in pursuing the matter may find a complete description of both the methodology and the new data in my article in a forthcoming issue of Jewish Social Studies.

Leonard J. Fein
Department of Political Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Marshall Sklare . . . exaggerates the issue of survival. First of all, we lack information on the gains to Judaism as a result of conversions that stem from intermarriage. To talk of intermarriage only in terms of losss is therefore a one-sided view of the issue.

Mr. Sklare refers to a 1965 survey of Boston that shows an overall intermarriage rate for Jews of 7 per cent. For younger couples, however, the rate is 20 per cent, and Mr. Sklare sees this as a reflection of a sharp trend toward increased intermarriage. He tells us “we can safely assume that the figure is now approaching one in four.” Perhaps, and perhaps not. The difference in the rates may be due in (small or large) part to the higher number of post-marriage and pre-survey conversions for the older couples, who have had more time to decide upon conversion.

When Mr. Sklare refers to a 20-per-cent rate, most readers will take it to mean that one Jew out of five is intermarrying. However, Mr. Sklare apparently means that one “Jewish” marriage out of five is a mixed marriage—in other words, out of ten individuals (five marriages) nine are Jewish, and only one of these nine is in a mixed marriage. This gives us a mixed marriage rate of one Jew out of nine, or about 11 per cent. The confusion between the two rates is common in much of the writing about mixed marriages, as I have pointed out several times (for example, see Marriage, Family, and Society, 1965).

In short, by omitting information about conversions and by confusing the different mixed-marriage rates, Mr. Sklare exaggerates the problem. Ignoring conversions, and using Mr. Sklare’s most extreme figure of “one in four” (which is one of seven individuals), we still find that 86 per cent of all Jews are marrying other Jews. Hardly an ominous figure, and hardly a question of Jewish survival.

Hyman Rodman
The Merrill-Palmer Institute
Detroit, Michigan

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To the Editor:

Mr. Sklare may be putting the cart before the horse. In my neighborhood in Westchester, intermarriage is a symptom of the desire to assimilate rather than the cause of assimilation. There are half a dozen mixed marriages with grown children in my neighborhood. All of them could have brought up their children as Jews. Only one chose to do so.

The world looked upon the others as Jewish families, since in every case the husband had a Jewish-sounding name. But he wanted to assimilate. In one family, the Christian mother suggested that their son go to Hebrew school and have a Bar-Mitzvah ceremony. The father forbade it. Obviously in need of religion, this boy has become a Hindu and has married in that faith. All of the other “mixed” children have married non-Jews except the girl who was brought up as a Jew. She married the son of an Orthodox rabbi.

But it is not only the partners in mixed marriages who want to assimilate. Not in my neighborhood. About half of the families in which both partners were born Jewish have not given their children a Jewish education. Some sent their children to the Ethical Culture school. The desire to assimilate was absorbed by these children from their parents. (Not every middle-class child is in rebellion against the values of his parents.) There has been at least one marriage in each of these families and all have been intermarriages. So far, there have been no intermarriages among those of my neighbors who gave their children a Jewish education, however minimal. It may not be limited Jewish education which inhibits intermarriage, but the knowledge that the family is Jewish and wishes to remain within the fold.

Jesse Zel Lurie
Hadassah Magazine
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . The question of what is meant by “group survival” is a difficult one to answer, but clearly critical in terms of the implications it holds for the “intermarriage issue.” It seems to me that one can approach an answer to this question by distinguishing among at least three analytically independent dimensions of group survival: 1) physical survival; 2) social survival; and 3) cultural survival.

The majority of Mr. Sklare’s comments define survival from a physical standpoint: “On the group level, it [intermarriage] poses the obvious dangers of physical attrition.” Here there is no argument. If our concern is one of sheer numbers, then it follows by definition that an increasing rate of intermarriage (other things being equal) will endanger the survival of the group. . . .

By “social survival” I mean the day-to-day carrying out of practices and customs distinctive to a given group. The ritualistic observance of various holidays, rites de passage, language patterns, and the like would be characteristic of social survival. Though obviously tied to the question of “physical survival,” there is no necessary relationship between the two. Indeed, one of the ironies in the history of the Jewish people has been their tenacious ability to continue to practice “social survival” even in the face of physical extinction, and dispersal. It would be interesting to examine the degree of “social survival” of Judaism among mixed marriages. My suspicions are that it is higher than Mr. Sklare or others generally assume to be the case.

Finally we come to cultural survival. Here the concern is with the most general set of values and beliefs characteristic of a group. Though perhaps dependent on physical and social survival, these factors transcend group boundaries; nor is it wholly necessary for one to be a practitioner of the faith in order to incorporate the cultural values of the group. Quite the contrary, one could argue quite persuasively that the ritualistic performance of group “duties” often deters the inculcation of group values and beliefs.

The analysis of the impact of intermarriage on group survival, therefore, depends on one’s definition of survival or what aspects of it you are looking at. From the evidence which Mr. Sklare cites on the growing number of Jewish synagogues and community centers, and the renewed interest in Jewish studies on college campuses, it is reasonable to hypothesize that survival, and in all likelihood cultural survival, has increased, not decreased, in recent years. More importantly, this type of survival may be “because of,” not “in spite of,” the increasing rate of intermarriage. . . .

Alvin L. Jacobson
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

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To the Editor:

There is an insistent and illogical pessimism in Mr. Sklare’s writing on intermarriage which is difficult to understand, unless it is based on some undisclosed premise. It seems likely that his view of Judaism centers upon the maintenance of traditional taboos which are neither widely understood nor respected in modern America, or perhaps he views the Jewish people as an ethnic entity which necessarily suffers undesirable change through intermingling with other Americans.

The weakness of Mr. Sklare’s analysis is most striking when he writes that “all minorities in the United States . . . who care about group survival must conclude that intermarriage is a palpable threat.” He disregards a sound qualification by Werner J. Cahnman in the book to which he refers (Intermarriage and Jewish Life), where it is stated that the children of intermarriages “predominantly go to the higher status group.” Thus, a high-status minority gains through intermarriage. If Jewish status is rising, as both of Sklare’s articles indicate, how does he know we are not approaching the break-even point, after which intermarriage poses no demographic threat?

Howard F. Sachs
Kansas City, Missouri

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Mr. Sklare writes:

Abraham J. Klausner takes me to task for quoting him to the effect that “. . . from every tree you may eat,” whereas his text reads: “From all the trees in the garden you may eat.” If this is the extent of my defective memory of his presentation before the 1969 biennial meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, I plead guilty. Of course I understood his image—hence the shorthand. And I assumed that readers of COMMENTARY would also know that when a rabbi juxtaposes the words “eat” and “tree” the reference is to Genesis 2:16.

I realize that it is painful for a man of the ultra-Left to have his psychological and ideological similarities with the ultra-Right highlighted. But that such parallelisms exist should come as no shock to Rabbi Klausner, since I am sure that he is acquainted with the findings of social psychologists on this matter. Let him take comfort in the fact that the dayanim of London are surely as unhappy with their resemblance to him as he is with his resemblance to them.

Rabbi Klausner’s letter is an important document, for in its concluding paragraphs it presents a more succinct statement on the emerging ultra-Left position in Reform Judaism than he developed in Miami Beach. The crux of the Old Left position in Reform was its negative attitude toward Zionism. Judging from Rabbi Klausner’s letter, the crux of the new ultra-Left position is its negative attitude toward those who oppose intermarriage. Thus, according to him, intermarriage “was, is, and will be part of our social heritage.” Intermarriage, Rabbi Klausner seems to be saying, is an experience, a natural situation, which should be embraced lest one place himself outside of the cultural developments of our day. In sum, the Zionists have been replaced in New Left Reform thinking by those who oppose intermarriage.

Leonard J. Fein has not read my article with care. My objective was not to examine the “actual loss” from intermarriage, and thus I studiously avoided stating anything explicit on this matter. The subject, incidentally, is of greater complexity than he suggests, as has been discovered by those sociologists who have been devoting themselves assiduously over many years to investigating the less complicated subject of the “actual loss” from the intermarriage of American Catholics. Not only is our data about the “actual loss” from Jewish-Gentile intermarriage very meager, but it cannot as yet be properly evaluated. Thus, a definitive statement would involve comparing the loss from inmarriage—after all, there are endogamous couples who assimilate, or fail to transmit Jewish identity to their children.

As should have been evident to Mr. Fein, my brief statistical comments at the beginning of the article were only for the purpose of establishing the fact that the intermarriage rate is increasing rapidly. That accomplished, I proceeded to the objective of my inquiry: to analyze the Jewish response to this increase. In so doing, I focused upon the most acculturated elements in the Jewish community—those who experience the increase more sharply than other Jews. I attempted to show how they, as well as the rabbis who minister to them, are responding to this situation. And I indicated that, in my view, the pattern of accommodation which is emerging “has implications which strike at the very nature of Jewish identity in the modern world.”

Hyman Rodman is also more interested in the statistical situation than in the content of my article. But his letter is an interesting document nevertheless, for in its complacency it shows how a sophisticated mind seeks to deny the obvious fact that intermarriage is on the increase and that this trend has ominous implications for Jewish survival.

Mr. Rodman thus finds it difficult to accept the import of the findings of the Boston study, where it was shown that when the husband is fifty-one or over the incidence of intermarriage is only 3 per cent, but when the husband is thirty or younger the rate reaches 20 per cent. He suggests that this may not necessarily mean a rising intermarriage rate, it may only indicate that older couples have had “more time to decide upon conversion.” All that Rodman had to do to test his hypothesis was to pick up the telephone and check with a few rabbis in Detroit. They would have told him that the Gentile women they convert who are engaged or married to Jews are predominantly, if not overwhelmingly, engaged or married to men in the younger age brackets.

Howard F. Sachs correctly suggests that the higher the status of a minority group the greater the likelihood that the group will be able to retain those who intermarry. But like so many other statements in social science this one has a caveat attached—“all other things being equal.” They seldom are. Furthermore, how high is Jewish status, and how much higher can it rise? My answer is that it is not as high as Mr. Sachs seems to infer. And there is a ceiling above which it cannot rise, given America’s continuity with its Christian past.

It might be well for Mr. Sachs, and other respondents who are critical of what he terms my “insistent and illogical pessimism,” to study the ratio of the Jewish to the total American population. This ratio is now at its lowest point since the days of Jewish mass immigration. According to the American Jewish Year Book, in 1917 the Jews were 3.28 per cent of the population and by 1937 they had reached 3.70 per cent. But by 1967 they constituted only 2.92 per cent of America’s population.

Whatever the analytic validity of Alvin F. Jacobson’s distinctions among the “physical,” “social,” and “cultural,” in actuality these dimensions are strongly interrelated. But it is clear that in developing these distinctions, Jacobson’s purpose was not to advance sociological understanding but to make a case for intermarriage: “one could argue quite persuasively that . . . ritualistic performance [i.e. ‘social survival’] . . . often deters the inculcation of group values [i.e. ‘cultural survival’].” Surely he is aware that James Yaffe devoted himself barely three years ago to making the very same case in The American Jews. Yaffe’s language is less elegant than Jacobson’s, but it has the advantage of directness:

But what are these children [the offspring of intermarried couples] being lost to, really? The forms and institutions of Judaism certainly; they don’t learn the blessings, go to Sunday School, accompany their parents to a synagogue. But they definitely aren’t being lost to those universal ethical values which the forms and institutions are supposed to preserve. The children of mixed marriages . . . receive from their parents all those attitudes which we think of as belonging to the Judaic tradition. These parents have the same devotion to education, the same close family ties, the same standards of morality, the same belief in charity, the same liberal views in politics, that the Jewish community has. In every respect—except the formal and religious one—they are bringing up their children as Jews.

It is a hallmark of the contemporary American Jewish community that assimilationists insist upon designating themselves as survivalists.

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