As American society evolves, so too does life in the Jewish society.
In the first years of my rabbinate, in the early 1970s, congregants could not imagine women and men taking on equal roles in many aspects of Jewish life. It was uncommon then for a woman to serve as a synagogue officer, let alone be elected as president. If a congregation permitted a girl to celebrate her bat mitzvah, the ceremony was relegated to the Friday night service, whereas the boy celebrated his bar mitzvah during the main Shabbat service on Saturday morning.
Unlike men, who were permitted to lead as much of the service as they were capable of doing, women were restricted in their participation. And certainly women could not serve as rabbis or cantors.
Today, in the liberal religious Jewish streams, the distinctions between the roles and rites of men and women females have all but vanished in most communities.
In the 1970s, when congregants came to me as their rabbi and confided to me that their child was marrying a non-Jew, it was with a sense of embarrassment. They would not think of asking if I would officiate at the wedding. It was expected that I would not approve of intermarriage and that I would teach inmarriage as a value to the not-yet-married. A decade later, people became more accustomed to intermarriage, but because it was still the exception rather than acceptable, Jewish institutions usually did not confront the issue of how to respond to intermarriage or the intermarried.
Synagogues in the more liberal religious movements today, for the most part, are welcoming to intermarried Jews and their spouses. Indeed, many congregations have instituted creative and constructive initiatives that help both spouses feel more comfortable within the Jewish community. In some cases, synagogue bylaws have been modified to provide certain rights and privileges to the non-Jewish spouse. There are congregations that have created ritual roles for the non-Jew. Synagogues and their umbrella organizations have established human resources and various guides to help congregations enable a mixed-religion couple to feel at home. Foundations have been generously funding initiatives to help congregations provide effective outreach to families with two religions. Interaction with the intermarried has become a priority.
It is clear that the growing number of intermarried Jews is a part of a natural evolution in a liberal society. Many of the barriers to intermarriage have been lowered or even removed. While accepting this new reality, it has become vital to acknowledge the mitzvah of endogamy (inmarriage) and to promote it as the prime Jewish value that it is. We dare not ignore the import of inmarriage to the future of the Jewish community.
Shabbat is a mitzvah that is ignored by a large segment of Jews — yet rabbis teach the importance of Shabbat and strive to motivate Jews to incorporate it into their lives. Even though they assume that most Jews will ignore their message, they teach it with the hope that their words will influence some Jews to observe Shabbat. Kashrut also is a mitzvah that many Jews ignore — yet teachers impart to their students the meaning and importance of the dietary laws. Although there is awareness that most of the listeners will not heed the message, the value of kashrut is taught, because their teachers are aware that only by teaching its practice and values is there potential to inspire Jews to accept the mitzvah. We accept the realities in the Jewish community while not forsaking our obligation to teach, motivate, and inspire.
It is in this spirit that I want to suggest that it is time to refocus our attention to the mitzvah of endogamy as a counterbalance to welcoming intermarried Jews. Like the mitzvot of Shabbat and kashrut, the mitzvah of endogamy generally is ignored. We hesitate to teach the mitzvah of inmarriage, assuming that many listeners will not heed our words. But unless teachers and parents convey the message that inmarriage is an important mitzvah, how will Jews learn to value it in their lives?
I believe that bold and assertive action is called for. We must acknowledge that our timidity in passionately teaching the value of endogamy as parallel to welcoming intermarried families has removed inmarriage from the agenda. Our reluctance to openly prioritize endogamy simultaneously with acknowledging that some Jews will marry non-Jewish spouses has resulted in individuals making choices without a conscious appreciation of the value of inmarriage.
Now is the time to embark on an effort to encourage Jews to marry Jews for the sake of the Jewish lives that we hope they will live, and the Jewish children whom we hope they will create. To ensure Jewish continuity, we must boldly assert that endogamy is a mitzvah.
Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein is the executive vice president/CEO emeritus of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.