An Intermarried Perspective on The Jew Within by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen

January 2001

In spite of the evident hostility of Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen toward intermarriage, their important new book, The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America (Indiana University Press) provides a rationale and a roadmap for encouraging more Jewish involvement in interfaith families. The same factors the authors identify as shaping the Jewish lives of most contemporary American Jews — participation in family Jewish holiday observance and in synagogue worship with emphasis on more universal and less particularist themes — are applicable to interfaith families and could be promoted to foster their inclusion in Jewish life.

Cohen and Eisen undertook a study, consisting of nearly 50 in-depth interviews and 1005 mail-back surveys, to understand the meaning of Judaism and Jewishness to “moderately affiliated” babyboomer Jews — not the 20% “core group” or the 20% completely uninvolved, but the “average” synagogue (or other Jewish organization) member. Only a “handful” of the subjects were intermarried.

Their main conclusion is that Jewish meaning is found increasingly in the self and the family, and to a lesser extent in the synagogue, which is seen as an extension of family. This differs from the past when involvement in the public sphere of organizations, institutions, and causes such as the Holocaust, Israel, or Jewish philanthropy were dominant sources of Jewish meaning.

Cohen and Eisen find that the quest for Jewish meaning is very important to their subjects who have a strong desire to find direction and ultimate purpose, and wish to do so in Jewish ritual practices and religious communities. “Jewish tradition is a meaning-making and interpretive structure through which they seek coherence in their lives.” At the same time, contemporary Jews want to remain integrally involved in secular society. They are more universalist and moralist, and less particularist and ritualist; that is, they tend to see Judaism as emphasizing lessons shared by the larger society and ethical values, rather than emphasizing unique lessons with special preference for Jews, and customs and ceremonies peculiar to the religious system. The tensions between universalism and particularism continually play out in their lives.

Personal stories — the memories and experiences that mark the personal journeys shared by family members — “are basic to who American Jews are,” with a special fondness for grandparents. It is around Jewish holidays, “the master script of Jewish involvement,” with observance heavily focused on the home and family, that contemporary Jews “most often discover, construct, and insert Jewish meaning into” their everyday lives. Holiday observance draws families together and connects them to an ancient people, history, and tradition. But holiday observances that do not offer an experience of personal meaning, or that draw particularist lines with which they are uncomfortable, will be discarded.

The authors find that their subjects for the most part believe in God and are fondly attached to their synagogues, but don’t connect the two. The personal God described and invoked in the prayerbook — who hears prayer and intervenes in the world — is very different from the force or spirit in which they believe. They enjoy the synagogue for many other reasons — feelings of community, of being connected to tradition, the music, the rabbi’s teaching. The key again is finding personal meaning in the experience, and, the authors note, a not too particularist experience at that. Moderately affiliated Jews “have left aside or rejected those parts of Judaism that claim a special relation between God and the Jewish people.”

Cohen and Eisen describe three elements that constitute traditional Jewish tribalism: that Jews should be familiar with one another, should be responsible for one another, and have a higher opinion of Jews and a lesser opinion of non-Jews. They find that the moderately affiliated continue to think of their relationship to other Jews as a matter of belonging to a group that extends vertically through time and horizontally through space — a feeling of deep connection to previous and future generations, and to Jews all over the world. But, they are openly conflicted over the concept of Jewish chosenness; any anti-universalist notion that Jews are special or require exclusivity or separation from others is not favored.

In the book’s conclusion, the authors state that they have tried to be descriptive, using criteria that emerged from their interviews, instead of prescriptive, applying normative criteria reflective of established tradition. However, their negative attitudes toward intermarriage are expressed often. For example, in a remarkable minimizing of the power of love, they write: “[E]ven Jews with serious concern to marry a Jew often find themselves in relationships and marriage with non-Jewish partners. Apparently their attractive features, at least for the time, outweighed the shortcomings of their ‘non-Jewishness.'” (117)

The authors are plainly disapproving of their subjects’ attitudes toward intermarriage. They quote a number of their subjects as stating that it matters more to them that their children continue to live as Jews and raise Jewish children, than that they marry Jews. Although other interpretations are clearly possible, Cohen and Eisen snidely characterize that view as showing that commitment to Jewish continuity “is not at the top of most respondents’ personal Jewish agendas.” (124)

Strikingly, several of the subjects quoted for this view were themselves intermarried and had raised Jewish children — and at some point their spouses had even converted to Judaism. For example, Molly, “among the more observant” of the subjects, whose spouse converted after 16 years of marriage, told the authors that before the conversion, “it was still a Jewish household;” but the authors disdainfully suggest that Molly “does not recognize that the depth of one’s life in any respect, and certainly with regard to religion, varies dramatically with the commitment of one’s partner.” (133) About another intermarried subject, Edward, whose wife agreed before the marriage to raise the children Jewish and who later converted, the authors say, “Apparently Edward made no connection at the time [of the wedding] between his wife’s religious identity and her role in shaping the Jewish character of the home.” (131) Similarly, they say that Karen, another intermarried subject, whose husband agreed before the marriage that the children could be raised as Jews, was ready to forego “the Jewish continuity secured by building a home in partnership with a Jewish husband.” (131) The authors’ obviously criticize these subjects for intermarrying in the first place, and their characterization of intermarried Jews who specifically acted to raise Jewish children as not having Jewish continuity at the top of their agenda, is patently biased and unfair.

Cohen and Eisen express disbelief that intermarried parents can create Jewish households and raise Jewish children. They come close to saying that it takes two Jewish parents to do that. The authors are undeniably correct when they point out that all the social scientific data shows that the chances of living Jewishly and raising children as Jews are much lessened in an intermarriage. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. They describe one subject, who did not have “strong antipathy to intermarriage,” as “far from alone in his belief that Jewish commitment and intermarriage can, theoretically, co-exist.” (132) (emphasis added) The authors appear to be unable to acknowledge that in reality, significant numbers of intermarried parents do in fact create Jewish homes and raise Jewish children.

The authors describe in-marriage as a traditional Jewish norm and intermarriage as a “deeply held ancient prohibition.” But given the common occurrence and acceptance of intermarriage, it isn’t helpful for communal leaders to think in those terms any longer. Fixating on theory and statistics instead of acting to encourage the maximum number of individual cases of Jewish commitment within intermarriage is far more productive, and the authors’ own work suggests the most effective ways to do just that.

A starting point is recognition of the attitude that Jewishness is unalienable, an absolute that can’t be increased or lessened by in-marriage or intermarriage. (185) The subjects are “confident of [their] unalterable Jewish identity by reason of birth to at least one Jewish parent.” (184) “The children of an intermarriage will automatically be Jewish for the same reason, as will their children.” (23) Another starting point is recognition that interdating and intermarriage often provoke heightened Jewish involvement by the Jewish partner. (57, 116) Thus in every intermarried couple there is potentially a partner who is confident of Jewish identity and susceptible to increased attachment. A third starting point is recognition that, just as in in-married couples where couples “more often bridged their disparities in Jewish involvement by moving closer to the wishes of the more Jewishly involved spouse,” (62) there is the potential for the non-Jewish spouse in an intermarriage to move closer to the position of a Jewishly-involved Jewish spouse. Finally, there is no reason to think that intermarried people are any less interested in finding direction and purpose in their lives; the key question is whether they can be encouraged to do so within a Jewish context (as Molly, Edward, Karen and their spouses did).

The authors’ main recommendation for fostering Jewish involvement is to maintain “the positive influence of families,” with communal funding to provide “the spaces and resources outside the home that make possible the activities in the home” — primarily the holiday observances “which American Jews find so meaningful.” (205) This is exactly where the opportunity to foster the Jewish involvement of intermarried people lies — in their families and holiday observances. Jewish holidays can be shared by, and a source of personal meaning for, non-Jewish spouses, and can connect them to Jewish tradition. This will be more likely to occur if universal themes are emphasized and particularist, excluding approaches are minimized. Over time, these Jewish holiday observances can become the family tradition of interfaith families.

Similarly, there is an opportunity to foster the Jewish involvement of intermarried people in the synagogue. As the authors note, in a context of declining ethnicity, the religious sphere can be seen as more acceptable than an ethnic conception of being Jewish. (189) Intermarried non-Jews can find what moderately affiliated Jews find in the synagogue — spiritual experience; peace, reflection, and family; community; learning; and even connection to Jewish tradition. Again, this will be more likely to occur if universal themes are emphasized. Just as the authors found, for example, that “the particularist opening of the Aleinu prayer . . . which praises God ‘who has not made us like the nations of the earth,’ does not resonate at all for our interviewees” (162), it would be even more off-putting to intermarried non-Jews seeking spiritual satisfaction in a Jewish worship service. They, like the authors’ subjects, would “prefer the prayer’s universalist conclusion, which looks forward to the day when God will be ruler of all the earth.” (162)

In sum, the community could choose to capitalize on the abiding strength of feelings of Jewish identity, the potential for heightened Jewish involvement by the Jewish partner and for movement toward that position by the non-Jewish partner, and their common quest for meaning and purpose. Like the moderately affiliated Jews who are engaged in continually changing personal journeys, interfaith families can move toward increased Jewish involvement. The personal stories that are so important to people — for example the stories of Molly, Edward, and Karen and their spouses who converted long after marriage — could be shared as exemplary lessons for others (instead of the objects of criticism they are to Cohen and Eisen). The community could foster Jewish holiday participation by interfaith families and inclusion of non-Jewish spouses in the synagogue, with emphasis on universalist themes. After all, like the moderately affiliated, if the intermarried find their participation to be obstructed, and if they do not find personal meaning in an observance, they will discard it.

The essential condition that underlies all of the analysis in The Jew Within is the fact that “life in an open society means that group boundaries are weakened and transgressed.” Cohen and Eisen’s moderately affiliated Jews walk a tightrope between viewing ethnic distinctiveness favorably while not wanting to be special, exclusive, or separate from others. This condition is magnified by intermarriage since “group identity cannot but weaken when Jews increasingly find themselves on both sides of ethnic boundaries.” Paradoxically, fostering inclusion of interfaith families by emphasizing universal themes in holiday observances and worship services will contribute to the maintenance of Jewish distinctiveness as effectively as can be done in the modern American context.

Arnold Eisen’s Reply: A Reply to Ed Case’s Review of The Jew Within
January 2001

Steven M. Cohen and I want to thank Edmund Case for bringing our new book, The Jew Within, to the attention of the readers of His summary of our findings and conclusions is careful and almost always accurate. He is also correct in his perception that Steve and I harbor “hostility toward intermarriage”–if by that shorthand phrase he means that we believe, as we do, that Jewish communal institutions should not encourage intermarriage, and that –while according a full welcome to all the members of interfaith families–those institutions should work toward the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse and children. That hostility, however, does not extend in the least to the members of interfaith families. Case’s comment that we “snidely characterize” the views of some of the individuals we interviewed, or that we “disdainfully suggest” something concerning one interviewee in particular, a woman who happens to be one of the individuals in the book from whom I learned the most, is thus way off the mark. I write this reply because I believe more is at stake here than imputation to us by Case of an attitude of disdain toward intermarried couples that we absolutely do not hold. I am afraid the matter speaks to the way the entire issue gets discussed all too often in the Jewish community.

Simply put, we have enormous respect for the people we interviewed, and were repeatedly impressed by their articulate and thoughtful comments. We do not always agree with them, as we do not always agree with one another, with our spouses, or with our friends. We at times criticize their attitudes or behaviors, again as we at times criticize those close to us. And–having the benefit of hearing tapes of remarks that those we interviewed heard only once, when they made the remarks, and reading transcripts of their comments over and over again–we see some things in our interviewees which they may not have realized about themselves. To say that person X does not recognize factor Y at work in his or her life, or that person A does not hold commitment B, is not to show these people any lack of respect –unless Case believes that to hold our position on intermarriage is automatically to disdain and disrespect all those who are intermarried, a contention which we totally reject.

The basis for our position is well stated by Case himself, namely that “all the social scientific data shows that the chances of living Jewishly and raising children as Jews are much lessened in an intermarriage.” Of course, as Case observes, this does not mean that the latter never happens. All of us probably have personal experience of intermarried couples who are “living Jewishly” and “raising children as Jews.” We have no “disbelief” on this matter. Quite the opposite. But one does not want to base communal policy on what a minority manages to achieve against the odds, and against the inherited norms of the Jewish tradition, which have served the Jewish people well for two millennia. More important, one wants to improve those odds, to revitalize that tradition, by working to increase the percentage of intermarried families who do live substantially Jewish lives and raise Jewish children. We can accomplish this in part, as Case suggests, by welcoming intermarried families, providing special programming as needed, offering experiences of learning and of ritual, of prayer and of fellowship, which are so deep and beautiful and satisfying that both adult partners want more of this for themselves, and want desperately to pass it on to their children. But we also accomplish this end by encouraging conversion.

I believe that we can say simultaneously to both spouses in intermarried families: we are glad you are both here with us, we hope you will help us build our communities and enrich our tradition; we think Judaism has important things to say to Jews and non-Jews alike, and we know we have much to learn from you as from all the members of our community, Jews and non-Jews alike. But we also hope that you can understand our desire that Jewish homes now as in the past inculcate one religious tradition and not two; that Jewish spouses now as in the past go deeply into life over the years side by side with a person committed to doing so in the same tradition; that Jewish children have the advantage of two Jewish role models, if two parents are present, rather than one; that we not have to sacrifice the wonderfully “particular” in our tradition to the no less profound “universal.”

This is not to pass judgment on the value of individual lives, or families, or marriages. Regrettably, Jews sometimes do that, and Jews married to non-Jews, insulted more than once, often hear such criticism even when it is not intended. Our interviewees told us with virtual unanimity that the thing they like least about Jews and Judaism is being told by other Jews that they are not real Jews, or good Jews. We share their concern. We pass no such judgment on individual marriages or lives. Our intent is to support a particular policy on the part of Jewish communal institutions– not to make the intermarried among our sample or our communities into “objects of criticism,” as Case charges. Indeed, as the study makes clear, Jews who are married to Jews also likely married without thinking very deeply about what sort of Jewish home they wanted to provide for one another and their children. They too must negotiate over Jewish issues as they arise, discovering as they go that they cared about things of which they were not aware. They must choose as they go between personal inclinations and communal obligations (or between personal obligations and communal inclinations!), or between differing inclinations and differing senses of obligation. We are not living in a time or place where the “Jewish” in a self lines up neatly on one side of a line, and the “American” or “modern” or “feminine” on the other. The “good” is also not all on one side; the “Jewish” is open to multiple interpretations. Our selves are multiple, and often fragmented. Our choices are complicated, our loyalties manifold.

All the more reason that we discuss these difficult matters with one another honestly and seriously, the better to build the strong communities, and provide the profound experiences of tradition, which alone will attract Jews (and their non-Jewish partners) to Judaism. We hope The Jew Within will help its readers to do so, perhaps because they will read what “Gil” or “Tony” or “Molly” has to say about God, or about the choice between public school and Jewish school, or about the meaning of Israel or the Holocaust or Passover, and will say “That’s what I think, too,” or “I never thought about it that way before” or “this is outrageous.” Steve and I had all of those reactions at various point, and many fruitful discussions and debates as a result. We wish the same for our readers.

Thank you for visiting. This site archives my writing prior to November 15, 2018, including content footnoted in Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future. To access my newer writing, please visit the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism.