MARRYING "IN," NOT
Irwin H. Fishbein, Rabbi, D.Min
(Want to save this article to your hard drive? Download now)
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
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,