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The Marriage Imbroglio

March 29, 2007 By:
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Just about fours years ago, Targum Press issued a book on intermarriage titled Why Marry Jewish? and I thought then, and for a long time afterward, that it couldn't be topped. Subtitled Surprising Reasons for Jews to Marry Jews, it was the work of Doron Kornbluth, who had already written a classic work called Jewish Matters: A Pocketbook of Knowledge and Inspiration, which was all that its subtitle promised -- and more.

Why Marry Jewish? turned out to be even more timely and important than its predecessor. The book was really aimed, I believe, at young readers in their late teens and early 20s, who might be on the brink of interdating or getting serious about a significant other. By his own admission, Kornbluth did "hundreds of hours" of research to disprove the belief that intermarried families live "happily ever after," and that, if the parents want it, the kids stay Jewish.

The book, which was just the right length for young readers, was packed with anecdotes culled especially from sessions held by marriage therapists who specialize in interfaith couples. I have likened these anecdotes -- many of them very dramatic and harshly truthful about the barriers to understanding that sometimes reveal themselves to interfaith couples only after they marry -- to a pail of cold water thrown into the reader's face.

And Kornbluth left no stone unturned. He made it clear that at 20, even 25, individuals are too young to make such major decisions about their lives because they haven't the mechanism to conceive of such barriers to their marital happiness. Young people tend to cling to the belief that love will conquer all -- or, a worse fallacy, that love can change a person's basic nature. These are assumptions fraught with danger. When children are added to relationships built along such fault lines, these dangers increase exponentially.

Why Marry Jewish? seemed to cover all the bases, an unbeatable treatise on a controversial topic. But having read Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her? -- just out by Targum -- I've realized that Kornbluth's book is the secular response to intermarriage. This new book, subtitled A Dialogue on Intermarriage, is the work of Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, son of local Rabbi Abraham Shemtov of the Lubavitch Center in Northeast Philadelphia, and provides the religious answers that Kornbluth rarely addressed. Neither book surpasses the other; rather, they are perfect complements to one another. (In fact, many of the issues broached in Why Marry Jewish? are touched on and restated in a religious context in Dear Rabbi.)

As the younger Rabbi Shemtov states in his preface, the key he provides to the issue of intermarriage "lies in understanding and explaining what tradition is and what it is not. I do not keep kosher or respect Shabbat because my parents do so or because my grandparents did so. I keep Shabbat and put on tefillin because G-d wants me to do so! Now, how do I know what G-d wants of me? That information came to me through the Jewish tradition, generation after generation, all the way back to Moses at Sinai." (And that information, of course, as he states in his text, can all be found in the Torah.)

In today's world, notes Shemtov, people often "confuse objective, intellectual issues with subjective emotional ones. Love is blind and blinds. People often reject certain values and behaviors not because they really consider them to be wrong, but the contrary: they consider them wrong because they don't like them and don't want them to be true."

These are some of the "issues and nuances" discussed in the two dialogues that are included in Shemtov's book. Why does the text take the form of dialogues? Shortly after the rabbi married in 1985, he was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Montevideo, Uruguay. He's still there, struggling with a difficult assignment. As he explains it, "Uruguay is a secular country with a proud, century-long secular tradition. The Jews of Uruguay have been brought up in that secular lifestyle. The Judaism they have experienced and been educated in is basically secular."

In addition, the rabbi was "drafted" into becoming part of what he calls "the innovative, groundbreaking" Web site called Askmoses.com, that had been founded and was run by Chabad of California. "I was privileged to be one of the pioneering team of rabbis and rebbetzins that manned the site 24/6, being available to any Jew who wanted to talk to a rabbi about anything. It is there that I honed my skills at online communication. It also helped me develop a sixth sense regarding the nature of the online query."

One day an e-mail arrived and caught the rabbi's attention by the nature of its structure and style. He pursued it, and thus began the first of the two dialogues in his book. Shemtov's correspondent is identified as "Juan Garcia," a 26-year-old Catholic in love with a Jewish woman, whose family refuses to meet him. Juan is baffled by this harsh display of intolerance, especially from members of a religion he'd imagined was based on tolerance. He wants the rabbi to explain.

When Shemtov is deep in his discussion with Juan, another e-mail arrives from someone the rabbi calls "Alejandra Dominguez." She is a 24-year-old Catholic living in Buenos Aires, deeply in love with a Jewish man named "Diego," who has ended their relationship because he realizes that Judaism has meant more to him than he imagined. He wants to create a Jewish home and raise Jewish children, and though Alejandra told him she would raise their children Jewishly, she knows deep in her heart that if she'd convert it wouldn't be out of conviction but simply to satisfy Diego. She's now seeking answers for why her former boyfriend could so easily walk away from someone who loved him so completely.

Many of the same issue are touched on in both dialogues, and though I found both compelling and highly readable, I think the points are made more clearly and strongly in the exchange with Alejandra because she, unlike Diego, understands the reasons that Shemtov provides while Juan fights against them or refuses to see that they may have validity.

Or perhaps it's just that the rabbi has gotten more proficient at explaining himself in the process of answering queries. Here is just a portion of one of his responses to Alejandra:

"You say, very correctly, that you did not want to go through a false conversion just in order to please someone. That wouldn't be coherent with your own true self.

"I find that statement to be very interesting. It means that you know that being Jewish is more than a lifestyle; it is a condition, a definition of what one is in essence. It therefore follows that if you are not Jewish, why fool yourself [with a senseless conversion]?

"I say that I find it interesting, because many people do not have it that clear and as a result ruin the lives of many. They think that by taking a course and paying a few pesos for someone to sign a 'membership certificate,' that's enough to make them Jewish, and in the case of a woman, enough to make her children Jewish. ...

"Many people [also] believe that by making it easier for the boyfriend or girlfriend to convert we are gaining two souls instead of losing them. This argument would make sense if becoming Jewish would be like joining a sports club, where the less requirements made, the more members sign up. If, however, we are talking about an 'essence,' then by lessening the requirements, we are not gaining anything; we are simply redefining and diluting the character and raison d'être of those that are already in (thereby doing them a great injustice) ...

"I would like to point out that interfaith marriage is wrong not only for the Jewish partner, but for the non-Jewish one as well.

"The Jew and the non-Jew have two completely different roles to play in the global scheme of Creation, and neither one of them can carry out his or her mission adequately with a marriage partner that does not share the same essential condition and role.

"They might be able to live with apparent harmony as long as they suppress their real differences. The day either one of them 'wakes up' and wants to express their true identity, it becomes intolerable (for both of them)."

Rabbi Shemtov's honesty may not make him many friends in today's highly secularized world, but his clearheaded explanations can hardly be refuted. This landmark book is rounded off by the inclusion of an essay he wrote on intermarriage, and actual responses to the dialogues with Juan and Alejandra after they were posted on Chabad.org. All of this material is of the utmost importance in clarifying for young Jews that the decision they make about who they will marry is one that will affect their entire lives -- to say nothing of the future of the Jewish people.

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