Intermarriage in the Bible and Rabbinic Tradition

In April and May 2018, Rabbi Ethan Tucker, President and Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar, delivered an important series of three lectures on Intermarriage: Choices and Consequences. (Hadar is “a leader in the field of Jewish education and community building, engaging diverse populations in serious Jewish learning with curiosity, creativity and conviction.”)

If you are seriously interested in learning how intermarriage is discussed in the Bible and in halacha, or Jewish law, I strongly recommend that you take the time to listen to the lectures and review the source sheets that accompany them. If your time is limited, and/or you are most interested in the current practical consequences of the analysis, I recommend that you listen to the lectures in reverse order, starting with the third.

Rabbi Tucker explores what the Torah and halacha, Jewish law, say about intermarriage. Deuteronomy 7:1-4, which some cite as a blanket prohibition, actually forbids intermarriage with seven named tribes in the land of Canaan that the Israelites were about to enter, and further says that those who intermarry will become idolaters, worshipping other Gods. The text raises the question whether the reason for the prohibition is to maintain the Jewishly distinctive ethnic group in the local area, or to prevent idolatry – a question discussed extensively in in the Talmud and medieval commentaries.

Rabbi Tucker articulates the possibility that intermarriage with someone who is not from the named tribes and who is not an idolater might be permissible. The prohibition would be historically contextualized to another time and place. If contemporary Gentiles (the term he uses) are not idolaters, nor agents likely to lead Jews astray, but rather potential powerful allies of Judaism as a system of living who can protect the historically fragile Jewish people and even spread Torah more widely in the world – then potentially intermarriage would not be inconsistent with the halachic tradition.

Rabbi Tucker is quick to add that while this argument can be made, it is tenuous. He says the important question is not whether halacha can embrace something, but why it should or shouldn’t. He considers several models under which intermarriage might be embraced, ultimately concluding, as I understand it, that it should not be.

First, Rabbi Tucker says that tradition insists on predictable and sustainable rules of descent, which he says were patrilineal in the Biblical period and matrilineal in the rabbinic period. I understand him to be saying that if the Jewishness of the children of intermarriage followed the matrilineal rule, then it might be embraced. But he says he never met an advocate of embracing intermarriage who did not also advocate for “ambilineality,” which he says is a standard for Jewishness that is not meaningful and cannot be squared with Biblical or rabbinic thinking about descent.

I hadn’t heard the term “ambilineal” before; I understand it to describe the Reform and Reconstructionist approach that children who are raised as Jews are Jewish whether their mother or father (or both, for that matter) are Jewish. I don’t understand why an ambilineal approach is not meaningful, especially where descent has been patrilineal at times and matrilineal at times.

Rabbi Tucker says a second way to embrace intermarriage is to see it as serving a mission to spread the Torah to the entire world. Rabbi Tucker seems to equate spreading the Torah in this regard as making the mitzvot obligatory on more people – he says the mitzvot could be “a life manual for everyone.” Since in the traditional view, mitzvot are obligatory only on Jews, spreading mitzvot would mean converting Gentiles; and that, Rabbi Tucker says, is inconsistent with tradition, which holds that righteous Gentiles share in the world to come without embracing Judaism, meaning that there is no impetus to convert people to Judaism.

Rabbi Tucker says a third way to embrace intermarriage would be to define Jewishness by religious practice, not ethnic/familial background. In support of this view, Rabbi Tucker cites pieces of rabbinic tradition that suggest that one who does not observe Shabbat is not a Jew. But he rejects this argument because there is no stomach for policing communal boundaries around religious practice.

In a liberal Jewish view, however, spreading the Torah to the world would not mean making the mitzvot obligatory through conversion, and defining Jewishness by religious practice would not involve policing compliance. What if intermarriage leads more unconverted people from different faith backgrounds to live more Jewishly – regarding mitzvot as aspirational, making informed choices about which to consider obligatory on themselves, and engaging in more Jewish rituals and practices – would that be sufficient for the tradition to embrace intermarriage?

In an aside, Rabbi Tucker includes a startling text: I Corinthians 7, in which Paul says that believers married to unbelievers should not divorce them, because the unbeliever partners are sanctified through the believer partners, and their children are holy. Rabbi Tucker explains that Paul was concerned with building a church, not maintaining an ethnic group, and his universal and missionizing approach influenced his view of intermarriage. To him, the believing partner would carry the day and influence the unbeliever towards belief.

Rabbi Tucker says that the discussion about intermarriage is a proxy for a discussion about what Judaism is and ought to be. In the book I am writing and expect to have published in the spring of 2019, I emphasize a distinction between being Jewish and doing Jewish that is critically important in engaging interfaith families Jewishly. I argue that it is more important for a partner from a different faith tradition to do Jewish than to be Jewish, and that that focus will lead to more interfaith families engaging Jewishly, and more people identifying more Jewishly – halachically or otherwise.

Rabbi Tucker draws the same distinction, more elegantly. He says the debate is whether Judaism is a covenant that flows through the blood and genes of the Jewish people that calls and contains us, or a deep reservoir of practices we can call on for meaning. He distinguishes between covenantalists – to whom Judaism is what you inescapably are, and civilizationalists, to whom Judaism is an incredible resource, to be shared as generously and with as few boundaries as possible. He says covenantalists can’t embrace intermarriage, while civilizationalists would be insane or bigoted not to.

Rabbi Tucker acknowledges that most American Jews favor a voluntaristic Judaism, open to all, not claiming superiority to other traditions. They think that building up more Judaism and inviting people to be part of it will do better than maintaining boundaries and keeping definitions clear. They eschew objective essence as a category for defining a Jew, and resist standards on lineage, belief and practice. Rabbi Tucker says this view is viable and might perpetuate Judaism’s texts and values, but is a radical departure with rabbinic understanding of a covenant between God and an eternal, separate, distinctive Jewish people.

But in reviewing relevant sources, Rabbi Tucker includes Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 36a: “You do not decree a decree on the community unless most of the community can uphold it.” He refers to this as “the nuclear option” about any rabbinic decree – a ruling that cannot command adherence ought no longer be enforced. The prohibition against intermarriage at this point is not being upheld by most of the community.

Rabbi Tucker is not optimistic that the traditional covenantalists and the liberal civilizationalists will be able to work together. I think that the liberal community already respects the traditional community, so whether the two can work together depends on whether the traditional community will accept and respect the liberal approach, or reject and disdain it. Where halachic status matters – for example, if a traditional Jew wants to marry a patrilineal Jew – that concern can be addressed through conversion.

Rabbi Tucker’s closing goal as I understand it is to hold to the Torah vision of building models of community that will make the promise that we will be an eternal people a reality. As a civilizationalist who respects the covenantalist position, I would amend that goal by referring to the promise that we will be an eternal people and Judaism an eternal resource. Liberal Judaism’s adoption of a radically inclusive approach, and traditional Judaism’s respect for that approach, is key to building the model of community that will realize that goal. I greatly appreciate that Rabbi Tucker addresses intermarriage with a realistic and respectful tone.