Jewish Intermarriage: Change, Challenge, and Transformation

September 9, 2013
Photo by Jean Viele

In a  Jerusalem Post article, Harold Berman discussed how the Jewish community increasingly is viewing intermarriage as a reality with which it must come to terms.

Photo by flickr user leafloff

Photo by flickr user leafloff

While at one time the posture of the community was to absolutely forbid intermarriage, and later, to stigmatize intermarriage and to restrict the communal status and participation of even the Jewish partners in such unions, the most recent move among Jewish institutions is to welcome the intermarried.


Berman asks whether this is enough, and answers with a resounding “No.”

 [Although] we obsess about being welcoming . . .[and] trip over ourselves to be inclusive this in itself is not enough. . . . The question should not be, ‘How can we be more welcoming,’ but rather how to help the intermarried discover the transformative power of Jewish life.  . . . Welcoming, without more, is simply a technique to get people in the door. But Jewish transformation goes to the heart of our passion and purpose as a people. Helping intermarried families feel comfortable may encourage them to enter our doors. But it won’t help them grow. And it may not even convince them to stay.

His recipe for transformation involves a combination of exposing the intermarried to the most gifted teachers in the community, and introducing them to the profound riches of Jewish sources. He insists it is not enough to entertain. It is not enough to include. It is mot enough to welcome people. What gets them growing and keeps them coming is truly transformative experiences.   Rather than being preoccupied with questions as to what an intermarried person may or may not halachically do, for example, Berman says we should instead be asking and answering, “How do we show this family the greatest depth possible? How do we demonstrate what Judaism has to say about the issues we all face? How do we model a caring community based on Jewish values? How do we get our most inspiring teachers in front of them?”

Berman says that this lack of transformative substance leads to discouraging statistics about the levels of observance and participation typical of those intermarrieds the synagogue seeks to assimilate. He suggests those statistics “do not paint a pretty picture.”

Berman’s critique is daunting. It is also inconvenient. But after my own decades of experience in congregational leadership, I have to say that Berman is right on target. But his conclusions do not go far enough, because what he says also applies to how Jewish institutions attract or fail to attract Jewish families even apart from intermarriage. The issues he raises serve as both indictment and instruction for any community of faith in the wider Jewish community as well as in the fledgling Messianic Jewish community which remains in a formative condition.

To the wider Jewish community, to the Messianic Jewish Community, and indeed to church communities as well, Berman places some key questions before us that demand unflinching self-scrutiny. Among them are these:

  1. How well are we doing in attracting and holding our target audience?
  2. How well are we doing in developing and featuring well informed inspirational teachers who have both the depth and style to win the attention and loyalty of our target audience[s]?
  3. To what degree have we substituted shtick for substance, and indeed, have we learned to disparage intellectual, cultural and spiritual substance due to our own limitations and that of our community?
  4. What aspects of our community life and thought truly deserve the label “transformational?”
  5. Do our communities and leaders in fact hold forth a credible vision and expectation for transformational living and experience?
  6. In this regard, to what degree do we overpromise? To what degree do we underpromise?  Indeed, what can we rightly promise people who walk through our doors?  And are these promises suited to our target audience?

I have long noted that when Yeshua believers tell their story, they tend to fall into predictable patterns.  One pattern is the “I was raised in a Jewish home, but never got anything out of it, until later in life when I came across Yeshua, and now I feel more Jewish than ever.” People who employ this template always fail to note the likelihood that the reason they or their family got so little out of their Jewish experience is that they underinvested in it. Although common fifty years ago, fortunately one almost never hears this diatribe anymore. This tired old template deserves to be put into a box and sold cheaply at your next garage sale.

Another template one often encounters is one which focuses on how and why one began to investigate the evidences for Yeshua faith, how the texts and facts began to have a logical coherence which after a while could no longer be denied. The problem with this approach is that it omits something which many Yeshua believers will freely admit was present in their own experience, but is absent from the way they tell their story either to others or to themselves.  This missing element is the element of encounter.

It is certainly true in my case, and in the cases of so many others I know, that when one revisits memories of how one came to Yeshua-faith, there is this element of encounter, this sense, and often this experience, of encountering something other which is compelling, powerful, transformational, and central to moving onward in an authentic life with God.  After all, our tradition calls us to “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all our soul, and with all your mind.” Anything that compellingly draws us in that direction should not be ignored.

Here at Interfaithfulness, we believe that relationship with God is intrinsically transformational. Part of that transformation involves developing a deep, wide, warm, and relational engagement with all of scripture. This should not be understood to be a merely intellectual or cultural pursuit. Rather, encountering scripture in this fashion, especially in company with others involved in the pursuit, is itself intensely transformational. This is why we are investing ourselves in developing our program The Jewish Advantage, which aims to establish small communities of people engaged in this pursuit. And of course, through our Spiritual C.O.R.E. Coaching and Interfaithfulness Coaching we also examine components and context for a transformational spirituality.

And apart from such transformation, why bother attending a congregation?  Why bother with spirituality at all? Why imagine we are able or entitled to attract, win, and hold the loyalty of the people we want to reach?  Why waste their time with mediocrity and shtick, when we are called to cultivate and offer so much more?

Good questions. But how will we answer them?



The above referenced article is Harold Berman, “Intermarriage,” 08/19/2013,Jerusalem Post.[ Breaking New]s.

4 comments on “Jewish Intermarriage: Change, Challenge, and Transformation”

  1. "This missing element is the element of encounter." Rabbi Dauermann, this is such a provocative statement, one so true that it prompts me to recall my first encounter with G-d..a life changing encounter that opened the door wide in my search for wisdom and G-ds blessings. Thank you so much ...

    1. And thank you for your response, Pat. I will have more to say on this subject. Most people describe coming to Yeshua faith by a sales model: at some point they were convinced and made the purchase. So it is that people will ask us "Who persuaded you to do this thing?" In point of fact though, coming to believe in Yeshua is more like falling in love with someone whom your family says is bad for you. Your response would be, "If you only knew him like I do, you wouldn't say that!" This falling in love metaphor I find much more helpful than the making the sale metaphor.

      Thanks again!

    1. Yep, Russ. But I've been saying this for many years. People just haven't been listening! And I do believe it captures something of the social and relational reality we and others experience. IT certainly beats the the "sign on the dotted line" metaphor!

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