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Irwin H. Fishbein, Rabbi, D.Min
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Before summarizing the available data on mixed marriage, two preliminary observations may be helpful. While this Conference has maintained a careful distinction between mixed marriage as a marriage between a Jew and a non-converted non-Jew and intermarriage as a marriage between a Jew and a converted non-Jew, the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably and frequently without definition. To add to the confusion, if conversion takes place prior to marriage, most studies do not differentiate this from the homogeneous marriage. This means that we may be underestimating the number of Jews who are marrying non-Jews -- but we may also be overestimating the number of intermarried families who are raising their children as non-Jews.

Then, there are two different statistical rates of intermarriage, and which rate is being used is not always defined. One rate concerns itself with the per cent of mixed marriages, the other with the per cent of individuals who are intermarrying. The per cent of mixed marriages is always the higher rate. For example, if out of every five marriages two are mixed marriages and three are homogeneous, two rates are possible. We can say that forty per cent of the marriages are mixed, or we can say that four Jews out of sixteen intermarry, in which case the rate would be twenty-five per cent.

While the percentiles just quoted were used to illustrate how different rates of intermarriage are arrived at, they may well be close to the actual intermarriage rate today. In fact, we do not know what that rate is today. And I emphasize today because the incidence of mixed marriage, which had been gradually increasing since World War II, has markedly increased during the past five years, even during the past two years. While the intermarriage rate has been set as low as five per cent for an urban Eastern homogenous Jewish community and as high as sixty-seven per cent for isolated, rural mid-Western communities, both of these figures are over ten years old. With both Catholics and Protestants, the intermarriage rate is one out of every two individuals. The Jewish rate is admittedly less, but how much less we can only surmise. At this stage it would be safe to say that the Jewish rate is between one out of five and one out of three.

Just as we do not know the actual rate of intermarriage, we do not know what per cent of children are lost to Judaism. Rosenthal's analysis of the Iowa Statistics in 1957 showed a seventy-five per cent loss, while Henry Cohen's more recent study suggests a loss of only eleven per cent. Admittedly, neither sampling can be considered representative -- but the two sets of statistics do suggest the wide variation possible. It should be noted that Cohen's low loss ratio is for couples who were committed to raise their children as Jews prior to marriage and who wanted to be married by a rabbi. Cohen further maintains that the decision of the rabbi to officiate without requiring conversion has a positive effect upon the decision of the couple to raise the children as Jews. The intermarrying couple offers the rabbi a unique opportunity to mediate whatever rebellion the intermarriage represents and to restore family ties.

There is general consensus that the increasing rate of intermarriage derives from certain characteristics of our society: the mobility of the family and the individual, the dissolution of the extended family and the concomitant isolation of the nuclear family, the fact that most Jews live away from home when mate choices are made, the breakdown of discrimination barriers, the general indifference to the theological implications of religion and the minutiae of religious observance, the increasing freedom of the woman, the greater liberalism of Americans in general, and the greater acceptability of Jews as marriage partners. These and many other factors, too numerous to delineate, have all contributed to the rising incidence of mixed marriage. As our society becomes more egalitarian, as greater acculturation occurs, the incidence of mixed marriage will continue to increase.

A 1971 survey by the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling indicates that younger rabbis do not officiate at mixed marriages more frequently than older colleagues. There is clearly no trend based upon age toward greater incidence of officiation. There is, however, discernible movement on the part of many colleagues toward a more flexible position, which usually requires Jewish commitment but not conversion.

The psychodynamics of intermarriage has been the subject of a number of studies. What follows is a summary of the more significant findings in the literature, together with my own observations from working with over five hundred intermarrying couples in the past three years. Many of these couples were interviewed only one or two times in premarital conferences; other were seen for marriage counseling and psychotherapy over an extended period of time. The findings should be regarded as hypotheses to stimulate further studies and to guide us in dealing with intermarried couples or those who are about to intermarry.

It is now quite apparent that no one pattern of variables can adequately describe all those who intermarry. There are no stereotypes into which all who intermarry can be fitted. Some general observations can, however, be made. Many Jews who intermarry are re-acting to the emotional intensity of a family system which did not permit them freedom to develop their own identity. By choosing a mate who is significantly different, they push away from the family unit and are thus able to establish independence and attain a sense of self. For some of this category, intermarriage may well be necessary in order to live a normal life.

Some who intermarry push gently against the family structure. These usually select a mate who is willing to convert to Judaism or, at the very least, to raise the children as Jews. Others, who need greater distance, may re-act so vehemently that family ties are severed.

Some intermarry in spite of strong attachment to Judaism, and others because of a weakening of Jewish identity or because traditional Jewish values no longer have meaning to them. Significant in many intermarriages is the existence of tenuous ties to the extended family when very young. This would suggest that grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins may be more important for Jewish survival than almost anything else. It should be noted that the absence of the extended family would tend to heighten the emotional intensity of the nuclear family.

While there is contradictory evidence about difficulties arising from intermarriage, most studies indicate that the difficulties are not rooted in religion per se but in the evolving psychodynamics of the marital and family relationship. An intermarried couple may sometimes reveal a religious conflict as a presenting problem, but there is no evidence that the religious difference constitutes a significant factor either in the divorce of intermarried couples or in the rearing of children.

Perhaps the most cogent observation that can be made is that what is happening today in the field of intermarriage is significantly different from what happened just a few years ago -- and that the accumulated date of the past, while still woefully inadequate, may also be totally irrelevant. Let me illustrate. For many years we have assumed on the basis of many studies that more Jewish males than females marry non-Jews. This hypothesis can no longer be justified. In a survey released by the Rabbinic Center on July 1st, over four hundred mixed marriages over a period of ten years were analyzed. For the years 1962-1966, the male-female ratio is three to one. For the years 1967-1969, the male-female ratio is nine to eight. Significantly, for the years 1970-1971, the ratio is two males for every three females. What is true of the male-female ratio is, I would submit, also true for the entire intermarriage situation. The accepted hypotheses of yesterday may reflect attitudes and conditions that no longer apply.

Throughout this paper I have scrupulously avoided the use of the term "marrying out of the faith." The fact is that many Jews who intermarry are not really marrying "out." Rather, the non-Jewish partner is marrying "in." It is important to recognize this simple truth and to admit that some intermarriages promise more for Judaism than some marriages in which both partners are Jewish. Hopefully, we shall find a way to maximize the Jewish potential of a mixed marriage and thereby strengthen our historic tradition.

1 Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal, Spring 1973, pp. 31-5.

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A private, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting research on intermarriage, counseling intermarried couples and serving as a mental health facility for area residents. 

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Last modified: November 3, 2009