The Pew Research Center’s results are in and they confirm what American Jews have been suspecting for some time now: Intermarriage is up and religious affiliation is down. And everyone who cares about Judaism is wondering what, if anything, can or should be done about these phenomena.
The dam in our family looks like it is about to break — we’ve got boys of marriageable age at risk for having gentile children, while our girls are at risk for having children whose Judaism will be in accordance with Jewish law, but not much else.
And many people in the Jewish world are apparently fine with all this. I have heard people say that “this is part of the plan” and that intermarriage is a good thing that “dispels stereotypes and ignorance.” Isn’t that what the American melting pot is supposed to do? Why do I care what another Jew does as long as he or she is happy?
This is where it gets tricky. Some non-Orthodox Jews care because of our cherished history and uncertain future. They will try almost anything to keep their fellow Jews in the tribe — free camps, free synagogue membership, free trips to Israel, free books from the Jewish library, even accepting intermarriage itself — but it apparently isn’t working too well.
I am not the first to observe that the problem today is that the gentiles are nice. To refuse to marry one out of some tribal loyalty smacks of a bigotry that is downright offensive to many American Jews. And the fact that there appears to be little that can be done about intermarriage makes it even harder to condemn it.
There is one answer, of course, says the Pew study, but almost everyone acknowledges that it’s not realistic or even advisable, and that is to become Orthodox. No, these Jews say, it is better to risk melting away than be part of those, you fill in the blanks — narrow-minded, backward-thinking, anti-woman, members of the tribe, etc.
I must admit it. Once upon a time, I also thought Orthodox Jews were all of those things. My hunch was that they didn’t really want to be Orthodox any more than I did, but they were just too scared to change. I didn’t know an aleph from a beit and that was fine with me;— I still felt very Jewish.
Then, 26 years ago, my husband and I encountered Chabad and came face to face with our destiny: we became ba’alei teshuvah, returnees to Torah observance. The Judaism we experienced and came to embrace was liberating and uplifting, joyful and empowering, compelling and meaningful. My life is not about religion as much as it is about G-d and spirituality. My husband, thank G-d, has achieved his goal, too. He was willing to make this seismic lifestyle shift just because he wanted to have Jewish grandchildren.
We Orthodox Jews — I hate the word but that’s what Pew calls us folks who believe that every word of the written and oral Torah comes from an eternal covenant with a true and living G-d — have apparently failed you. We haven’t embraced you tightly enough or long enough, or maybe not at all. And, after all, we’re human too, and not everything we do is so godly, which only pushes you further away.
It is no accident that the results of the Pew survey were released during the week of Parshat Noach, detailing Noach’s attempt to save others of his generation from the flood. G-d told Noach to warn others of the impending destruction, which he dutifully did, but he did not go beyond simple obedience. Our sages say that G-d wants us to go beyond our obligation to help another Jew, any Jew, because — and this is where it gets really tricky — all Jews truly are part of each other and part of that living G-d.
Hard to believe, isn’t it? It’s even hard for Orthodox Jews, and that’s because this godly reality isn’t manifest in the world yet. Did I say “yet?” The good news — no, the amazing news — is that the same Torah that forbids intermarriage assures us that the Moshiach (Messiah), will come and completely redeem not just the Jewish people but the whole world. No more war, no more sickness, no more evil, no more confusion — just goodness and godliness eternally.
In 1989, I was personally assured by the Lubavitcher Rebbe that Moshiach is ready to come “today … or maybe tomorrow,” and I look forward to asking Moshiach, why it took so long. But that will probably not be my first question. In fact, I am told that I won’t have any questions at all. It will be the sweetest “Aha!” moment imaginable, the happiest happily ever after ending to the greatest love story ever told — the one between G-d and the Jewish people —and everything, everything will make sense once and for all.
Moshiach’s arrival may be imminent, but it is not imminent enough for my extended family, or anyone else whose link in the chain is about to break. It can’t be that Moshiach is waiting for everyone to become Orthodox (I prefer “Torah-observant” if we have to use labels), but maybe the Pew study can arouse each of us to do something more, something better, something truly Jewish (maybe pray?) to bring Moshiach, now.
(Lieba Rudolph lives in Squirrel Hill. Her column is the first in a recurring series of op-eds giving personal takes on the Pew survey and its impact on American Jews. If you have your own take on the Pew survey you wish to share, contact Lee Chottiner at firstname.lastname@example.org.)