For all those who are deeply concerned about the alarmingly high rates of assimilation and intermarriage today, my only question is: Why? Why so much concern? Why would it bother us if we ceased to exist as a distinct Jewish nation? Why not just let Judaism die? Is this just some kind of game we're playing called "last religion on the planet wins"?
These are exactly the kinds of questions that Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz attempted to answer in his 1997 book, The Vanishing American Jew. Elliott Abrams is spot on in his critique of Dershowitz's book. He writes in The Weekly Standard:
"It was his effort to define how the American Jewish community should confront a terrible demographic problem: its steady diminution in size, due to low birth rates, high intermarriage rates, and secularization."
Strangely, the book is also a spirited defense of secular Judaism, for Dershowitz acknowledges that he is a Jew by emotion, ethnicity, education, upbringing ― but not by belief. He loves being Jewish ― from the Orthodox prayers and practices with which he was raised and educated, to the ethnic cuisine, to the stories and jokes. He is not, however, a religious man, and does not see God as central to Judaism.
But why should people not similarly raised and educated stay Jewish, unless they are Jews in the religious sense? Dershowitz has a razor-sharp mind and is a wonderful teacher; it is a mystery that he wrote a book that cannot answer that question.
The basic problem with the book ― and a problem that many Jews who are trying to solve the problem of intermarriage share ― is clear from a story Dershowitz tells on himself. He notes that he would not himself wish to marry a non-Jewish woman, yet cannot fully explain to his own children why they should not. (In fact, Dershowitz relates, one of his sons married a non-Jew.) His difficulties in thinking through the issue came to a head in a debate with the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, which Dershowitz ― a brilliant debater ― admits having lost:
"He asked me whether I wanted my children to marry Jews. Without hesitation, I said yes. Then he asked whether my desire was based on Halachah [Jewish law]. I said no. "Then," he insisted, pointing a finger at me, "you are nothing but a racist." I was taken aback by this strident accusation, but Kahane explained: "There are plenty of wonderful non-Jewish people who would make marvelous spouses for your children. Why are you excluding them all, unless you are obligated to exclude them by religious law? If you are merely expressing an ethnic preference for one of your own kind ― that is the essence of racism.
"If Kahane was unkind in using the term "racist," his basic point was right. What possible reason is there to remain Jewish [especially] if one lacks deep cultural and ethnic roots ― now very rare among American Jews ― unless one actually believes in Judaism as a religion?"
The Passion of the Jew
The reality is that we will never be successful at stopping intermarriages among young Jews today unless we can give them ― and ourselves ― a good reason why they shouldn't. Old arguments our parents used, such as, "Your grandparents were killed because they were Jewish and now you're marrying out?" or "We have been Jewish and married Jewish for thousands of years so who are you to break from that tradition?" ring hollow with the new generation of Jews who are almost completely disconnected from their heritage and religion. And if we can't come up with a compelling reason why they shouldn't marry the wonderful non-Jewish girl they met in university, we might very well come across as racists to them.
Non-Jews may see us an elitist club which only allows Jews.
Truth be told, it is not just our children who lose respect for us when we tell them not to intermarry for no good reason. The non-Jewish world loses respect as well. When we refuse to marry outside our faith for no good reason, the non-Jews can't help but see us as some type of elitist "club" where only Jews are allowed in.
On the other hand, if we are committed to the Jewish faith and passionate about our Torah and mitzvah observance, then the world can understand why we won't marry their daughters. After all, it's nothing personal ― we just need to share our married lives with those who share our passion for Judaism and its stated mission, which effectively rules out anyone who's not Jewish. But it doesn't reflect at all on the relative merit of Jews and non-Jews. As Rabbi Michael Skobac of Jews for Judaism once put it, "I wouldn't even marry a Jew who wasn't as passionate about her Judaism as I am!"
This last point is best illustrated through a fascinating passage in the Talmud (Megillah 13b) which reveals the "behind-the-scenes" conversation that took place between Prime Minister Haman and King Achashverosh (based on Esther 3:8), in which Haman convinced the king to allow him to exterminate the entire Jewish nation. Haman said to Achashverosh: "The Jews have been lax in their Torah observance… [and] they do not marry our daughters..."
The commentaries point out an inconsistency in Haman's slander against the Jewish people. He begins by stating that the Jews are lax in observing the Torah and its commandments. But then he goes on to lament how the Jews refuse to marry out of their faith!
The commentaries explain that Haman was showing the king just how "racist" the Jewish people and its religion truly are. After all, it is one thing if they don't want to intermarry because the Torah so commands. But they are lax in their mitzvah observance (witness the way they showed up and partied at the king's wild 180-day banquet just like everyone else) and yet they still won't marry our daughters? This can only mean that they are a bunch of racists.
If we want to understand what will save the Jewish people today from self-destruction through assimilation and intermarriage, we have only to look at the Purim story and examine what the Jews back then had to do to save themselves from annihilation at the hands of the wicked Haman. After all, the Jewish world today finds itself in a similar situation as the Jews in Persia 2,300 years ago. We are lax in our observance and have lost our passion for our Judaism, just like Haman said about the Jews back then. And yet many of us are against intermarriage, sending a confusing message to our own children about what it means to be a Jew.
The critical thing that the Jewish people, led by Mordechai and Esther, did to guarantee their continuity and be saved from the threats of destruction, was to reinvigorate themselves with the joy and beauty of being a Jew. When Jews once again become passionate and excited about being Jews, their continuity is guaranteed.
The only way to destroy the Jews is if they've lost their passion about Judaism.
We see this in the Purim story (see Esther 6:13) when Haman returns home despondent and with his head covered in shame after having been forced to lead the Jew Mordechai on horseback through the main street of Shushan. He tells his wife Zeresh what happened to him, to which she responds, "If he [Mordechai] is from the seed of the Jews, you will not prevail against him." The commentaries ask how Zeresh could have questioned whether or not Mordechai was Jewish, when it was obvious to all that he was.
My grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Mordechai Baumol ob"m, explained the meaning of Zeresh's words: She was telling Haman that the only way to destroy the Jews ― or to get the Jews to destroy themselves ― is if they have lost their passion about their Judaism. When that happens, there is nothing to hold them back from intermarrying and assimilating themselves out of existence. If the only people who are still into Judaism are the octogenarians saying Kaddish in the synagogue while the youth are running away from their Judaism as fast as they can, there is no hope for them; and you, Haman, will prevail. But "if from the seed of the Jews" ― i.e. it is the young Jews who are once again getting excited about Judaism and what it means to be a Jew ― then you cannot beat them.
Getting Drunk on Purim
With this we can understand a very strange halachah mentioned in the Talmud and in the Code of Jewish Law relating to Purim. It states: A person is obligated to drink on Purim to the point that he can no longer discern between the accursed Haman and the blessed Mordechai. This halachah is very difficult to understand and many explanations have been offered as to why the Sages would ordain a mitzvah to drink to the point of near-drunkenness on Purim (see explanation on Aish.com).
In light of the above, I would like to suggest that the Sages wanted to remind us each year on Purim of the reason why we were saved and what it took then (and still takes now) to prevent us from being destroyed or destroying ourselves through assimilation.
As we learn from the Purim story, if we are to survive and thrive as a vibrant Jewish nation, it is simply not enough for us to be Jewish merely because of the "accursed Haman" ― i.e. our grandparents were killed by the Nazis because they were Jewish. Nor is it enough for us to marry Jewish merely because of the "blessed Mordechai" ― i.e. our grandparents, and their grandparents before them, were all proud Jews. These intellectual reasons for not marrying out of the Jewish faith just won't cut it ― not for the Jews back then and certainly not for the Jews of today.
The only way we can guarantee the continuity of our people is if we transcend the intellectual level and get down to the core of what it means to be a Jew and to feel that joy in our very bones. One day a year on the holiday of Purim, which celebrates the continuity of the Jewish people, the Sages ordained that we drink to the point where we can no longer articulate the reasons why we're still Jewish ― because those reasons aren't enough to keep us around anyway ― but instead get ourselves to the point where we feel the simcha of being Jewish in the very core of our being.
And if our kids see and feel that joy that we're feeling, not only on Purim but the rest of the year as well, we will have solved the problem of intermarriage forever. Guaranteed.