Intermarriage is shrinking the Jewish community. Every survey and sign over the past several decades has told the same story: we are shrinking through addition. Jews are intermarrying at huge rates for a simple yet devastating reason—they do not see Judaism as their all-encompassing way of life. Intermarriage is a symptom of religious apathy, or at least insufficient devotion. Judaism should inspire but sadly has failed to capture the Jewish imagination. Contemporary Jews ask “what does Judaism do for me?” and consistently fail to find an adequate answer.
The question itself is misguided. If the Creator gives you a mission, you do not ponder whether to fulfill it based on its benefit to you. In that sense, intermarriage is a sin and therefore wrong. Some op-ed writers today try to find a positive spin on intermarriage. Aside from ignoring statistics that leading sociologists keep highlighting about the low Jewish engagement of intermarried families, it also ignores what the Torah has to say about it.
However, even though the question about what we get from observing the Torah is misguided, it may still bear important fruit. Is there a difference between an individual who practices Judaism and the same person would he choose not to? The mistake in that question is the word “practice” because the ancient religion is much more. If Judaism is only about do’s and don’ts, then it only visibly benefits someone who enjoys the actions it commands and is happy to observe some restraint.
This is no small matter. Religious practice—personal devotion, joint family activity, and community building—should bring joy to life. And specific personal limits build character. However, people desire freedom and naturally rebel against restrictions. The joy of religion will not bind most people to the Torah. You can educate someone to understand religious practices but not to love them. That is a matter of personal taste. But Judaism is more than just rituals, as important as they are.
Judaism is a comprehensive worldview based on religious practices and teachings. It offers specific values and approaches that help us make sense of the world. It teaches us what is right and wrong, how to set our priorities, how to make sense of the complexities of the world.
This poses a challenge. When we look at the world, do we ask what Judaism teaches us to think about it? When a baseball team wins the World Series, it may not be good or bad for the Jews, but what does it say to us about team spirit, good and bad competitiveness, talent and hard work, making optimal use of our non-working hours, and much more? We can and should look at everything in the world through a worldview that emerges from Jewish texts and traditions.
But this is too simplistic a formula. Realistically, we all imbibe from the spirit of our times. We adopt many values from culture, and wisely so because there is much wisdom among the nations. How do we maintain a uniquely Jewish outlook, base our worldviews on the Torah’s teachings, while still accepting the best ideas proposed by man?
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l (Leaves of Faith, vol. 2 pp. 305-306) provides an important condition: “It is perfectly legitimate for individuals profoundly committed to Torah to employ categories from their ambient intellectual culture in dealing with major religious issues and to integrate aspects of that culture into their thought and experience, so long as they always keep in mind that these elements have originated outside their Torah ambit.” Both useful forms of speech and perspectives that originate in the secular world constitute “categories.” We can look at life from different perspectives and use helpful terminology to describe what we see. But more than that, we can adopt outside values (“aspects”). However, we must clearly distinguish between values that emerge from the Torah and from secular culture. The greatest mankind accomplishes is still distinct from the divinely taught Torah.
Note also that Rav Lichtenstein speaks of “individuals profoundly committed to Torah.” This leads into two warnings he expresses regarding adopting external ideas. First, if you study a specific subject in depth and assimilate into your thought the many brilliant ideas of scholars throughout history, you run the risk of journeying far from Torah in small steps.
Additionally, we have to consider proportions. How much of our worldview emerges from Torah and how much from secular sources? Torah must be our core. Rav Lichtenstein notes that this is not merely a matter of quantity but also of quality: “The identical modern component assumes very different meaning when transposed from the world of a profoundly traditional thinker, for whom it may be singular, to that of a reforming modernist.”
Torah must be our source of inspiration and clarity, the lenses through which we see the world. All wisdom is wonderful as an addition to a Torah perspective, not as a replacement. What does Judaism do for us? It opens up the world, teaches us wrong from right, gives us a scale with which to weigh the experiences of our lives and times.
Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com. Raised in Teaneck, he is a graduate of Solomon Schechter, Frisch, and Yeshiva University.
By Rabbi Gil Student