Michael Chabon Didn’t Go Too Far

Noted author Michael Chabon spoke at the graduation of the Hebrew Union College Los Angeles campus on May 14. The JTA story is titled “Michael Chabon attacks Jewish inmarriage and Israel’s occupation in speech to new rabbis.” Ben Sales writes that Chabon “delivered a diatribe against Jewish inmarriage” and says he “once wanted his children to marry Jews, but now opposes the idea of Jewish endogamy.” He quotes Chabon as saying that “Endogamous marriage is a ghetto of two” and that intermarriage is “the source of all human greatness.” (Chabon actually said that “miscegenation” – the mixing of racial groups – is the source of all human greatness.)

I am probably as liberal as they come about Jews and intermarriage, but I’ve never said that inmarriage is a bad thing. If that is what Chabon said, I think he’s wrong. But I don’t think that’s what he said.

Sales quotes Chabon as saying “Any religion that relies on compulsory endogamy to survive has, in my view, ceased to make the case for its continued validity in the everyday lives of human beings.” I think it’s clear that what Chabon rejects is compulsion as to marriage partners. He doesn’t tell Jews they shouldn’t marry Jews. That would be just as compulsory, and just as misguided, as telling Jews they shouldn’t intermarry.

Chabon did say that he abhors homogeneity, insularity, and exclusion, and favors hybrids, complexity and diversity. But he explains the reason for his preferences is that division and boundaries ultimately can lead to the feeling that “we are not those people over there.” His real issue is that religious traditions have justified or prettified the dirty work of denying humans their humanity.

What he actually says about his hopes for his children are that they marry into the tribe that prizes skepticism, learning, inquiry and openness to new ideas, and enshrines equality before the law and human rights – and he says a fair number of the members of that tribe are likely to be Jews. He says that Judaism has reinvented itself over history by being mutable and flexible, and that could and must happen again.

The key adaptation, Chabon says, is to move outward, opening hearts and minds to those on the other side. In his charge to the HUC graduates, he urges them to knock down walls, find room in the Jewish community for all who want to share in our traditions, expand the protective circle of Jewish teachings around the “other,” and, yes, seize the opportunity to enrich the Jewish cultural genome by the changes that result from increased diversity – i.e., interfaith marriage.

I’d like to think that Michael Chabon is an advocate of the radical inclusion that is the subject of the book I am writing and expect to have published in the spring of 2019. My central thesis is that Jews and Jewish leaders and organizations need to adopt radically inclusive attitudes – treating interfaith couples as equal to Jewish-Jewish couples, and partners from different faith traditions as equal to Jews – and the radically inclusive policies that follow from those attitudes, supporting full and equal participation in Jewish life and community. Radical inclusion is the opposite of the compulsory endogamy Chabon rejects, and opens up to the “other” Jewish practices that offer ongoing validity for their lives.

A video of the speech is available in the JTA story. I encourage you to listen for yourself.