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  • The Conflict of Authenticities in Intermarriage and Conversion
  • Stuart Z. Charmé (bio)

Throughout the last century, communal and rabbinical leaders from all Jewish denominations and organizations have discussed and debated the “problem” of intermarriage. While intermarriage can, and should be, analyzed as an issue or phenomenon in its own right, it is also important to understand the ways in which it serves as a lightning rod or proxy for other major tensions in modern Jewish life. These include the conflicts between Orthodox and more liberal forms of Jewish observance and belief, relations between Jews and non-Jews, and questions about ethnicity and acculturation. Underlying all of these issues is a more fundamental dispute: the conflict between competing models of authenticity.

This essay analyzes some of the major differences that emerge in the way that authenticity has been conceptualized and defined in different contexts and groups. Rather than posit a radical incompatibility between a normative and essentialist approach to Jewish tradition and authenticity on the one hand, and a purely personal construction of Jewish authenticity based solely on individual choice on the other, this analysis suggests a more dynamic model of Jewish authenticity in which the tension between these two elements is negotiated and manifested through various forms of recognition. Authenticity in intermarriage is ultimately tied to ways in which recognition is either offered or withheld. As such, this process of recognition is tied up with shifting definitions of political power as well as religious and cultural authority within the Jewish people. What social philosophers have called “the politics of recognition” has called attention to the importance of recognition for the identities of individuals and groups who are seen as different or deviant from the normative or dominant constructions of individual, marital, and group identities.1

Boundaries and Religious Authenticity

The traditional religious approach to Jewish authenticity most often rests on an essentialist understanding of Judaism that serves to maintain strict boundaries not only between Jews and non-Jews, but also between those Jews [End Page 49] who are recognized as normative by a particular group and those who are not. The barriers to intermarriage erected by Orthodox Judaism, for example, rest on exclusive claims to religious legitimacy and authenticity that also establish boundaries between it and more liberal, pluralistic forms of Judaism. Orthodox beliefs and practices are regarded as authentic because they preserve what is considered the essential truth passed on from the founding ancestors and not subject to the corruption, distortion, and error of both “heretics” within its own tradition and adherents of other traditions.

A recent essay entitled “What is Wrong with Intermarriage?” on an ultra-Orthodox (Chabad) web site explains that being Jewish has far-reaching implications beyond any individual personal choice.

We are all the product of bygone generations; in the case of Jews, descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. …To be a Jew today is not an accident of birth but the sum total of over 3,300 years of ancestral self-sacrifice, of heroes who at times gave their very lives for their beliefs. … The indomitable Jewish spirit survived and clung to its traditions despite all odds. And now, the very latest link of that glorious tradition has the option of severing the chain in one fell swoop—or not!2

The language here invokes a dual sense of obligation to the past that consists of both a biological chain of generations going back to the Jewish patriarchs and a religious and cultural chain of tradition preserved by heroic sacrifice and perseverance. Summarizing the consensus of rabbinic authorities through the centuries, David Bleich concludes that intermarriage was prohibited even before the revelation of the Torah at Sinai: “From the early dawn of history, the people of Israel sought to preserve their ethnic purity and legislated against intermarriage.”3 Bleich emphasizes that the Jewish community has long considered intermarriage more than just a halakhic violation. Indeed, it constitutes the greatest threat and danger to the chain of generations and survival of the community.4 Accordingly, the metaphors about broken biological and cultural chains caused by intermarriage mean that the choice of a marital partner is not merely a private personal decision made between individuals. Rather...


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pp. 49-71
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