When an Orthodox Jew marries “out”

Everyone knows that intermarriage has been a subject of grave concern in the Jewish community for decades.

The Reform Jewish world has worked hard to reach out to intermarried families and bring them into the fold. The Conservative world has been increasingly focused on outreach — and the gentle encouraging of non-Jewish spouses to consider conversion.

You would think that intermarriage would not be a big issue in the modern Orthodox world. But when an Orthodox Jew does marry “out,” how should his or her community react?

The Jewish Week’s always astute editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt has a “column”:http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/newscontent.php3?artid=14347 on this very subject in the new issue.

It was provoked by a long essay in last week’s NYT Magazine by Harvard Law prof Noah Feldman, who complained about his treatment from the modern Orthodox world after marrying a Korean-American woman. In particular, he claimed that his Yeshiva high school now acts as if he doesn’t exist.

Feldman’s essay is only available to subscribers.

But Rosenblatt’s column about how the modern Orthodox world should react to Jews who intermarry is quite interesting.

He says:

What Feldman’s essay points up is that intermarriage is the irreconcilable issue for those who argue that American and Jewish values are compatible. “We’ve sold a lot of Jews a bill of goods when we’ve told them there are no contradictions between being a good Jew and an American,� noted Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “In America you are taught you can marry anyone you fall in love with, but Judaism argues that we are a minority culture and will only survive if Jews marry other Jews.�

Sarna chairs an American Jewish Committee task force on attitudes toward non-Jews in the community, and asserts that with an estimated 1.7 million non-Jews living in Jewish households — to put it another way, about 23 percent of those living in Jewish households are not Jewish — this is “a very important debate� for the community to engage in.

Citing the “magnitude� of the issue and the “bitterness that drips out� of Feldman’s essay, Sarna suggests that perhaps it is time for the community to reconsider ways to draw people in rather than ignore or shun them, especially when there are indications that many non-Jews are supportive of raising their children as Jews.

Others would argue that the community already has tilted so far toward outreach and acceptance of non-Jews that there is little incentive left for them to convert to Judaism.

What Noah Feldman has done, consciously or not, is raise some important issues, less about his old yeshiva and Modern Orthodoxy per se than about dealing with Jews who do not see marrying out as leaving the fold.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.