Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
QUESTION: What's the big deal about marrying "in the faith" with Jews? Furthermore, why does being born into a particular faith impose a duty to preserve the faith and traditions of the religion in which a person is raised? I've known Jews I could love without caring about their religion or ethnicity. Within the Jewish community, is there not a sort of rejection of everyone who's not Jewish that runs perfectly in tandem with the demand that Jews themselves not be rejected? I don't get it.
-- F., Beaufort, North Carolina
ANSWER: Intermarriage is, indeed, a huge deal in the Jewish community, but not for the reasons you might think.
Judaism accepts all other religions. The Talmud, in tractate Sanhedrin 59a, states: "A gentile who studies Torah is akin to a High Priest." Rabbis of the formative period of Judaism in the first two centuries of the Common Era even taught that the Torah contains certain Laws of Noah that contain the basic moral code applicable to non-Jews that qualifies them, like Jews, to inherit the precious beauty of eternal life for the soul with God. Judaism is completely committed to the spiritual equality of all people made in the image of God.
In Judaism, there's nothing even remotely like the Christian teaching that "The only way to the Father is through me." (John 14:6). I hope that addresses your theological concerns.
The concern about intermarriage is sociological, not theological. The issue of intermarriage is really the most visible manifestation of the concern that the Jewish people might not continue to exist. Low birthrate among Jews (except for the orthodox); assimilation into secular culture; lack of synagogue membership or the practice of Jewish rituals in the home; the Holocaust, which saw the murder of a third of the Jewish people during World War II; and, yes, intermarriage, have led to a demographic catastrophe in the Jewish world.
Roughly 15 million to 18 million Jews were alive in the world in 1933, when the world's population was about 2 billion. Today, roughly the same number of Jews are alive as at the end of World War II, which was about 12 million. But the world's population is now about 7 billion! So, not only has the Jewish population not increased in the past 70 years, but the percentage of Jews in the world has dropped precipitously to under 1 percent as the world population has more than tripled. By contrast, about a third of the population here on Earth is Christian, and about a quarter is Muslim.
The intermarriage statistics are also concerning. According to the 2013 Pew Survey of U.S. Jews, which updated the National Jewish Population Survey of 2001, the overall intermarriage rate is 58 percent, but among non-orthodox Jews the percentage of intermarriages is up to 71 percent (up from 6 percent in the 1960s, 17 percent in 1970 and 43 percent in 1990). Only 45 percent of these families are raising Jewish children (as opposed to 96 percent of all-Jewish families). Less than 10 percent of the grandchildren of intermarriages are being raised as Jews.
Therefore, what looks to you like xenophobia and Jewish prejudice is, in fact, a deep terror in the hearts of every Jewish person aware of these numbers that Jews are not long for this world. The tragic irony does not escape me that a 4,000-year-old religion and people that survived exile and persecution might not be able to survive tolerance and freedom. God promised Abraham, the first Jewish person, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the shores of the sea (Gen 15:5). The way things look now, it's a very small beach with very little sand, and I can't see the stars through my tears.