A few years ago, I had an article published in the United Synagogue Review about lessons on intermarriage, mostly derived from this week's Torah reading, Chayei Sarah. Click here to read the article.
What we see in this week's parsha is the great concern Abraham has over who his son Isaac will marry — his insistence on the right sort of girl, no Canaanite idol worshipers need apply. Ever since Jews have mostly been marrying other Jews. Conversion was easy back in the early days — come into the family tent, and you're Jewish. Nowadays we make it much harder to become Jewish.
But conversion and intermarriage are sort of two sides of one coin. Why do we worry about intermarriage at all?
Presumably because we want to insure continuity, and to spread our message about God to the rest of the world. We need a certain "critical mass" if we are to be able to do that.
The Jewish approach has traditionally been to try and maintain our numbers by preventing people from leaving. Growth happens mostly from having more than the replacement number of children, and keeping those children "within the fold" through endogamy (in-marriage).
If intermarriage increases — and you have people "going out the back door" — the only way to maintain your numbers is to increase conversions — have more people "coming in the front door."
To become a Jew, you typically have to study with a rabbi for six months, read half a dozen books, submit to examination by a rabbinical court, immerse in a ritual bath, and if you're a male make a more tangible statement of your commitment (circumicison, or drawing a ritual drop of blood for those already circumcised). And for Orthdox or Conservative conversions, commit to following a whole bunch of rules, some of which are fairly arcane.
To become a Muslim all you have to do is recite the Shahada with conviction: “I testify that there is no true god (deity) but God (Allah), and that Muhammad is a Messenger (Prophet) of God.” That's it.
The difference probably explains why there are 13 million Jews in the world and 1 billion Muslims.
Maybe we should not make it so difficult to become Jewish…