Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Intermarriage, Jews Marrying Out, Not Always a Happy Ending

While I was reading Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope by Harold Berman and Gayle Redlingshafer Berman, I had to keep reminding myself that although I know quite a few couples with similar stories, the percentage of intermarried couples who fully embrace Torah Judaism is negligible.

Harold and Gayle Berman have put together a wonderful book about their relationship and certainly a surprise for them  discovery and adoption of a Torah observant Jewish life.  It's written as a series of letter to each other, and I strongly appreciate the decision to give each of them a different font.  That makes it much easier to keep track of who has written what, even though their voices and stories are quite different.

It's important to read their book as a book by intelligent, sincere people who due to a principled intellectual and spiritual curiosity found themselves both embracing Judaism. 
It truly was love at first sight – even though Gayle was the Minister of Music in a Texas mega-church and Harold was a secular Jew from New York. Fate brought them together. But destiny had something else in mind. From the Bible Belt to northernmost Russia to the heart of the Jewish world, Doublelife is really about the journey within, to discover who we are and who we are meant to be. [Read More]

I think it's dangerous for troubled, concerned parents and relatives of Jews marrying non-Jews to get too much comfort from the Berman's story.  In the vast majority of cases, Judaism is lost to the children and grandchildren etc. of intermarried couples, even when the descendants are Jewish by Jewish Law.

I don't see their bringing up the Purim story of Esther as historic justification for intermarriage.
The Book of Esther is a book of secrets.
Esther is also a book of interfaith marriage, one of the secrets the story’s heroine keeps even from her husband. Esther, the Jew, marries the Gentile King Ahasuerus, putting her in the ideal position to save her people from the wicked Haman. Some have interpreted the story as a Biblical endorsement, offering ancient proof that two faiths within one marriage not only works, but can be a positive societal force. (preview)

I studied Megillat Esther at Matan with Atara Snowbell for an entire school year, and at no point did we come to that conclusion.  Queen Esther is revered by Bible scholars for her sacrifice, giving up a normal Jewish Life for the sake of the Jewish People living in the Persian Empire.  Her children did not live as Jews, and King Achashverosh certainly didn't convert to Judaism.

This criticism doesn't mean that I don't find the book well-written and compelling.  I just find their reassurances that intermarriage may not be the end of Jewish life to be misleading. I certainly enjoyed reading Doublelife and do recommend it, but please don't think that there is anything typical about the Bermans.  They are two extraordinary people who tell their story beautifully.  I wish there were more people like them.


goyisherebbe said...

There are a lot of stories which are compelling as stories while being totally at odds with the Torah agenda. Try _Girl Meets God_ by Lauren F. Winner. Child of intermarriage between Reform Jewish father and fallen-away Christian mother in the American South. At first the story is great. She gets really into everything Jewish as a teenager, goes to Columbia, converts halachically during freshman year, is active in the frum minyan on campus. Then she has a dream which she interprets as being about Jesus. Then follows a process in which she ends up becoming a Christian. An awesome and awful theological cognitive dissonance.

Harold Berman said...

I appreciated your thoughtful and positive review of our book, Doublelife. One point of clarification: We did not intend the Esther story to be any kind of justification for intermarriage. As the passage you quoted from our book says, "Some" have interpreted the book of Esther as a Biblical endorsement (i.e. those who support intermarriage) - the passage goes on to say that to do that misses the point. In several places in "Doublelife," we give both our own opinions of what happens in many intermarriages and real life examples we have encountered of intermarriages that are problematic. And although our (former) intermarriage very definitely had a happy ending, we spent considerable time in the book detailing our struggles - although there likely are more intermarrieds out there who could successfully take this journey given the motivation, they are as you said a drop in the bucket - and more to the point - it's a long and arduous journey. When we speak publicly about our journey, we emphasize that this is not an endorsement of intermarriage and that our route is surely not the easiest way to create a Jewish family. Rather, it can, we hope, provide people with inspiration for living a Jewish life.

In "goyishrebbe's" comment here, he compares our book with "Girl Meets God." I'm assuming that means he has not yet read "Doublelife." The purpose of our book is the opposite of "Girl Meets God," which was about a Jew who becomes a Christian. Our story is about a journey away from both secular Judaism and Christianity in order to embrace a fully Jewish life.

Batya said...

goyish, I've dealt with quite a number of gerei tzedek. Nothing can be predicted. I think you should read Doublelife.

sdfs, thanks so much for commenting.
As a BT I especially relate to your spiritual journey. Changing your lives so drastically as adults must have been so difficult. I think that the format of the book, a dialogue of letters was an excellent choice.

Harold Berman said...

Thanks so much, Batya! (And I'm not sure why I'm coming up as "sdfs" in the comment).

Harold Berman

Batya said...

Harold, thank you and your wife for telling your story.

Jennifer in MamaLand said...

I've read Girl Meets God, and would love to read the Bermans' story as well. Winner is a compelling writer and indeed a professional theologian, but her writing always makes me sad nonetheless.

(for what it's worth, it was very clear to me that goyisherebbe was holding up the Winner book as the opposite type of story to the Bermans'; I'm not exactly sure why it's relevant... I'm sure Christian apologetic literature is bristling with conversion stories.)

As for the Bermans, I agree that their story isn't typical, and we'll probably see fewer stories like these as more and more north american congregations accept intermarried couples (and their children) with open arms.

As I've said before, both of my sisters and I seem to have been programmed to davka NOT date Jews. I never did, and one of my sisters still never has. Even immersed in Yiddishkeit and raising 2 kids frum, I still managed to rebel and find a goy to date.

B"H, he ultimately converted (ironically, spurred in part by good advice from a Reform rabbi) but I am well aware that my story, too, is not typical and there are no good answers in sight even from those of us who have "been there done that."

Doublelife said...

FYI - for anyone considering getting a copy of "Doublelife" - it just went on sale on Amazon. They are currently selling it for $8.56 (vs. regularly $12.99 - a 34% discount). It is also available on Kindle.


Batya said...

Jennifer, for sure your story must be a good one.
Doublelife thanks for the information.