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Chayei Sarah 5768 — Intermarriage and Israel

At bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies, one not infrequently hears someone charge the young person with a statement like "you are now taking your place in a chain that extends back through the generations to Abraham…" 

That picture of the chain going back over 3,000 years is so well used as to be a cliche; but even cliches often spring forth from something that is true, perhaps even profound.  It IS a chain that extends back through the generations for thousands of years, and that’s pretty cool. It did not happen by accident.  As I pointed in my d’var Torah on this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, two years ago, the first Jew to be concerned about transmitting his Jewish heritage to the next generation was the first Jew (you can read it here ).

Attitudes toward transmitting our Jewish heritage in general, and toward intermarriage in particular are very different here in Israel.  I didn’t realize how different until a few weeks ago I got into a conversation with some people, and launched into one of "set pieces" on how there is a lack of freedom of religion here in Israel because I, a Conservative rabbi, can’t officiate at weddings, etc.  I allowed as to how the government should allow for civil marriage, etc.  (Here in Israel, all weddings take place under the rubric of one religion or another, and Jewish weddings are all under the very tight control of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate).  The person I was talking to said "so you’re not opposed to intermarriage?"

I was caught short.  I had said no such thing; but the person I was chatting with pointed out that under the current situation, intermarriage is, in essence, illegal in Israel.  It is impossible to do an intermarriage in this country.  Yes, an interfaith couple can go to Cyprus, get married, and when they come home the government of Israel will recognize their marriage as legal — but they cannot legally perform the ceremony here.

This is a perfect example of the challenges Israel faces in being both a democratic and a Jewish country.  It’s totally logical that in a Jewish country, the rabbis would decide who can get married; but it’s not very democratic, and it’s certainly not democratic if people don’t even get to choose their own rabbi.

So yes, I am in favor of "legalizing intermarriage."  If you read my d’var from 5766, you’ll see I certainly do not encourage intermarriage — yet at the same time, I think it’s ridiculous that it should be against civil law.  There should be no compulsion in matters of faith.  It’s not only interfaith families who are effected by the laws here — a kohen cannot marry a divorced woman for example.  Is it really the business of the government to make that decision for people?

There are those who believe the answer to assimilation is to make it illegal; and in countries other than Israel where you can’t make it illegal, it should be treated so severely that intermarried families are shunned by synagogues and families.

That’s not the answer.  The answer is the opposite — instead of trying to force young people to bend to our will (a lot of good that will do — intermarriage may be illegal, but Cyprus is only a $100 airplane ticket away), we need to take a positive approach.  Another one of those cliches that spring forth from the truth — you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.

In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham’s servant Eliezer succeeds in his mission, and brings home a wife for Isaac — a wife chosen for her kindness.  Kindness, not compulsion; kindness, not threats, that’s the way to insure transmitting our heritage to future generations.  And in the process, it keeps the heritage one worth transmitting!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rab Baruch

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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