What “Intermarriage” Means

June will mark fifty years since the landmark Supreme Court decision, “Loving v. Virginia,” which legalized interracial marriage across the land. Until this ruling, interracial marriages were forbidden in many states. To mark this anniversary, Pew just released a new poll, entitled, auspiciously, “Intermarriage in the US 50 Years after “Loving v. Virginia.” The results are dramatic and eye-opening, though not entirely surprising, given shifting societal norms, especially among Millennials. In 2015, no fewer than seventeen percent of newlyweds were married to someone of a different ethnic or racial group, up from three percent in 1967.

See the complete Pew report on intermarriage.

Jews are not singled out in the survey, nor are other religious groups. But if Jewish views on interracial or inter-ethnic marriage were measured, no doubt the opposition would be very low, even among those who oppose interfaith marriage. After all, Jews come in all colors and ethnic backgrounds, and increasingly so. So “intermarriage,” as Pew defines it in this survey, is something that even traditional Jews can, would and perhaps should — welcome. It has nothing to do with interfaith marriage, which many Jews oppose.

But the term that is used, “intermarriage,” is the same as the one that Jews usually employ regarding interfaith marriage, which highlights why this subject has become so fraught with danger and confusion. What for some is a matter of religious conviction is for another, perhaps using a different shading of the term, a matter of discrimination and even racism.

There is no easy way to eliminate that confusion, because it has been internalized by many Jews. The opposition to all forms of prejudice cannot easily be gerrymandered to include some forms of perceived prejudice and not others, especially at a time when a dramatically growing percentage of people think that intermarriage (meaning interracial and inter-ethnic) is good for society. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders can promote endogamy (a word that only Jewish professionals use, meaning Jewish-Jewish marriage) until the kosher cows come home, but what most Jews will hear will be very different from what we are trying to communicate.

I personally celebrate what “Loving v. Virginia” has brought about, including its role as a precursor and precedent for the legalization of same sex marriage.

I also recognize that the proliferation of interfaith marriage is an inevitable byproduct of the successful integration of Jews into American society combined with the social forces confirmed by this Pew survey. There is also ample evidence that interfaith marriage is no longer the threat to the Jewish continuity that prior generations thought it to be.

While there are also solid arguments that can be made for encouraging Jews to seek other Jews, I prefer to avoid what has become a minefield of confused terminology. Instead, my focus has been to promote the value (and values) of growing Jewish families, and with it an authentic, vibrant Jewish community nurturing each of those families, no matter what the background of individuals within those families.

Jews have reached the post “gevalt” stage of our assimilation into the American mainstream. Rather than moaning about what we are losing, we need to capitalize on the new energy that diversity is bringing into American Jewry. I see examples of that all the time. Rather than railing against windmills, we need to turn, spread our wings, and let these winds of change take us to new and higher places.

As I remarked last fall in a High Holiday sermon about racism, we Jews can bridge the gaps between people, because of our unique position of having experienced prejudice from both sides of the divide. We can bring people together. We need to set an example of how to reach out to those who are different. We can’t allow wedges to divide groups today.

And we can’t allow confusion about terminology to cloud a message that is, in my mind, as essential to the furtherance of the Jewish mission as any demographic trend, a message central to our role as Jews in this dramatically changing world. We need to love what Loving did and, without losing our uniqueness, embrace the possibilities of a new era of radical inclusivity.