Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Endogamous Disagreements

A week ago, Annie wrote a post where she asked a question unbearably common in the Jewish world: Why is it that people who come from homes where two Jews inmarried don't feel that inmarrying is important? The post received a lot of coherent, thoughtful responses from across the board, but I did not respond, largely because Annie and I have had variations of this conversation and I didn't want to go over ground we had already tread (see: Respectful Disagreements). That said, I have spent the greater part of a week attempting to write a coherent, thoughtful responses and failing miserably. I will attempt, nonetheless, to address Annie's questions:

Why is it that people who come from homes where two Jews inmarried don't feel that inmarrying is important?

It's true that both of my parents are Jewish and that their marriage was not merely an act of endogamous fate, but in part because they both only dated Jews in college; therefore, I am a person who comes from a home where two Jews inmarried, yet I don't feel that inmarrying is important. I don't feign to speak for all people in this category, but I'll attempt to explain my reasoning, nonetheless. I don't think endogamy is an a priori good and I think the arguments on its behalf are marginally racist, at best. I understand the argument on behalf of marrying someone with similar values, etc, but I don't think that's what endogamy entails. In fact, I have repeatedly witnessed the end of relationships where the values and needs of both parties were met, neither were particularly religious or observant, but the Jewish party could not marry someone non-Jewish. In this instance, the focus on endogamy means artificially curtailing or constraining one's dating pool at the expense of someone who may suit one's values and needs, but happens not to be Jewish.

The next argument I encounter raises the question of Jewish babies. It is along the lines of, "God said we should have lots and lots of Jewish babies. You are far more likely to have Jewish babies, if you inmarry. Therefore, you should marry someone Jewish."

For a moment, if we put aside the "God said" aspect of the argument (a meaningless portion to the atheists and agnostics amongst us), what compels us to perpetuate Jewish peoplehood through procreation? There's no logic behind: have Jewish babies because you're supposed to. To what end? If you argue that Jews contribute something special to the world, an exceptionalist argument with which I am decidedly uncomfortable, then having Jewish babies (and to that end, marrying Jewish) can be rationalized; but just because the argument makes sense doesn't mean it's justified or right.

Beyond the question of whether we have a duty to procreate, does procreation offer a compelling argument for endogamy?

Endogamy may increase the likelihood of children with a strong Jewish identity, but it does not ensure it; nor does exogamy preclude it. If the issue is raising Jewish children, then the focus should be on raising Jewish children. And perhaps those Jewish children would benefit from content above and beyond: marry other Jews, especially since statistics tell us that the majority of Jewish children will come from interfaith households in the next generation. When we make the argument on behalf of endogamy, do we think of the many children in our midst who are the product of interfaith marriage and how destructive that narrative is to their sense of self and their attachment to this religion, this culture. Listening to the endless lectures on inmarrying, I always felt ambivalent at best and alienated at worst.

Let's reason, for a moment, that some people chose to marry for reasons other than procreation, that some people are not determined to choose their mates based on their ability to parent Jewish children. What argument, then, would compel them to marry Jewish? For that matter, if they are otherwise without Jewish content or Jewish connection, why would they marry Jewish? What's the purpose of endogamy without content? If you are a person who is intent to have a strictly observant Jewish home, based on certain rabbinic tenants, then it makes sense to marry Jewish. BUT it only makes sense, in that instance, to either marry someone with the same Jewish content (similar background, similar education, similar point of reference) OR someone willing to devote the time and energy to learning that Jewish content.

Ultimately, marrying Jewish for the sake of marrying Jewish and having babies that are labeled "Jewish" doesn't mean anything, unless there's positive Jewish content. To that end, it would make as much logical sense to marry a non-Jew willing to learn Jewish content than a Jew who's unwilling to engage. At which point, we return to the original argument, which is that you should marry someone with similar values to you, whose goals and needs meet your goals and needs.

So why don't I focus on endogamy? Why do I date non-Jews?

I don't see endogamy as a value that is in line with my values.

8 comments:

Annie said...

I'd like to point out that when you say "both people's needs are being met" if one of the needs is that a prospective partner be Jewish, then it isn't being met. Even if this seems arbitrary to you.

Also, you don't have Jewish babies because "G-d said" to, you do it because you feel that you have something that you'd like to be sure you pass on, or because you feel personally responsible for the continuation of the Jewish community.

DK said...

"Endogamy may increase the likelihood of children with a strong Jewish identity, but it does not ensure it; nor does exogamy preclude it"

Isn't it always about odds? There are few certainties in this world.

"There's no logic behind: have Jewish babies because you're supposed to. To what end? "

It's often justified by a fear of further reduction of our paucity of numbers.

"Let's reason, for a moment, that some people chose to marry for reasons other than procreation, that some people are not determined to choose their mates based on their ability to parent Jewish children. What argument, then, would compel them to marry Jewish?"

Much less compelling -- no doubt.

"To that end, it would make as much logical sense to marry a non-Jew willing to learn Jewish content than a Jew who's unwilling to engage."

Not really. Most children of intermarriage -- no matter how pro-Jewish the non-Jewish parent, do not see personal intermarriage as a problem. Not that it is necessarily a problem, but over time, the dominant culture (and religion) will win in a familial line where there is intermarriage.

That may not be a terrible thing, but that is what one is facing -- long-term--with acceptance of intermarriage.

Smeliana said...

My mom always told me that I'd be disowned if I intermarried. I internalized this fairly easily -- it's not like I had any non-Jewish friends as a kid anyway.

Once I got to college, I had some smart friends, The Rooster and Floozy among them, who said, "Wait. Wait. WHAT?! Isn't that a tad...you know...RACIST?" I didn't know how to respond at first; I'd never been called a racist (It's harder if you don't know anyone of a different race.) and was forced to come up with a non-racist justification.

Luckily (at least for the strength of my argument), I am undeniably Jewishly involved and soon realized that I didn't just need a Jew, I needed a Nice Jewish Boy whose NJB-dom corresponded well with mine. As such I feel like a nice, non-racist only dating liberal, crunchy, egal, rabbi-type NJBs.

Isn't that a happy story?

Anonymous said...

Neither of the first two comments really address the heart of Harley's post.

If you are a Jewish person whose faith is so important to you that you want your life partner to also be Jewish, then you probably suffer from some sort of delusion (i.e. believing that the first five books of the Torah are the word of God, or some such nonsense). However, if you just think the continuation of the Jewish people is important, the next question is: Why? Why is the continuation of the Jewish people important? To believe that the preservation of the Jewish people is important, you need to believe that there is something about Jewishness that other cultures don't have (and can't have) that is worth preserving; and, if you don't think that the Jewish religion is the One True Faith, then I feel to see how you aren't being racist.

Yo, Yenta said...

Hmm, Harley, I like your points and I understand where you're coming from. I grew up Reform in Arizona, which is to say I have a strong cultural identity and a marginal Jewish education (though better than most outside the Orthodox and Conservative realms, thanks to camp) and my husband grew up very much the same in Georgia. We fell in love organically and magically, though I have to say I don't know if the chemistry would have been there if he wasn't Jewish. I've been examining this for sometime, and I surely wanted to be able to raise Jewish children in an uncomplicated environment (though of course, life is forever complicated.)

I don't know if it makes me racist, or preferential to my own kind or what, but even being raised as a secular Jew I couldn't have imagined marrying "out". Even though I ended up marrying the first Jewish guy I ever dated.

Anonymous said...

best for our gene pool if we all find non-Jews, get them to convert and then have lots of babies and raise them all Jewish. Better athletes, more blonds, not so much intestinal/bowel disorders. . . .

Annie said...

Anon- or, conversely, look to the non-Ashkenazi Jews who do not carry tesachs, or similar diseases, and tend to be in better shape (due to better diet). Can't help you with the blondes, although, for the record, my boyfriend is blonde, and Jewish. So is my mom.

Anonymous said...

@Smeliana,
Nope, just racist.

The whole concept of endogamy is inherently racist. It suggests, as mentioned by another commenter, that we jews have something to preserve and to do so, mustn't intermarry. But what exactly is it that needs preserving, so much so that it blurs our perception and influences something as important as the selection of a life partner? Is it increased risk of genetically inherited disease? That, I could do without.

Take all the arguments in support of endogamy, change the year to 1930, and the names to german ones. We sound like Aryan zealots striving for racial purity.

Why limit our choice of partner based on archaic and tribal ideologies? What would be so wrong with marrying a non-Jew? Are we really so vain as to believe that we are better than non-Jews and risk tarnishing our gene pool with intermarriage? We stand to learn a lot through intermarriage, tolerance being a key factor.