I recently attended a youth Shabbaton where Rabbi Michael Skobac, the Director of Education and Counselling of Jews for Judaism, was a guest speaker. For about an hour, Rabbi Skobac compellingly discussed his personal evolution from that of a “free-loving secular hippie” to the highly-respected expert on Jewish unity and continuity that we see today. A man who has devoted his life’s work to strengthening and preserving Jewish identity.
In his former days as a self-proclaimed Jewish antisemite, Skobac was convinced that the notion of Jews exclusively marrying other Jews was inherently racist. Such a position may come across as distorted or absurd to many, but the question was in fact raised more than once: why isn’t marrying only Jewish racist?
The answer that instantly came to my mind was self-preservation. Let’s face it, we’re small in numbers. As a people, we’re not exactly fruitful and despite our exceptional cultural model, our overall ability to sustain our culture through population is generally poor. Here are some figures to help illustrate my point: the Jewish population in the United States in 1951 was about five million. As such, mathematically (according to the population growth rate following World War II), it’s estimated that its Jewish population today, more than 70 years later, should measure up to a little more than 30 million.
The Jewish population in the U.S. today? 5.3 million. The population has remained stagnant, which is surprising considering that we’re measuring a First World demographic. So, why is this happening? There are several likely factors but, above all, the primary cause is interfaith marriage. Our indifference to who we marry is leading us down the path of perpetual stagnation.
Now, I’m not issuing a decree that all Jews must marry other members of the Tribe (or else). But I am concerned that we are providing a space to individuals who are discrediting the Jewish religion by referring to one of our most sacred customs as “racist.” Individuals like Philip Weiss, for example, who writes in this New York Observer editorial that, “The rhetoric and practices surrounding opposition to intermarriage are often so discriminatory they seem to border on racism.”
As the followers of an ancient monotheistic religion, observant Jews in First World nations like Canada and the U.S. should not be subjected to accusations that their religion does not adhere to some modern form of social justice circa 2017. As Canadians and Americans, are we not entitled to the right to religious freedom? We should not be expected to blindly follow the ideals of contemporary "social justice warriors" who say that we should marry whoever we want rather than follow our religious customs – customs that we, as religious Jews, staunchly believe in and support.
According to Weiss’ rationale, any religiously observant person who follows the rules, customs, and traditions of their respective religion can be labelled a “racist” for wanting to abide said traditions – for example, the tradition of Jews marrying other Jews.
It’s true, the freedom to marry anyone you choose would definitely make things easier. But when have the ‘stiff-necked’ Jews ever taken the easy route? In its true essence, Judaism is a challenge. The vast majority of world Jewry lives among members of modern Western society, a society of multiple freedoms. And yet, an inherent Jewish responsibility forbids us to indiscriminately exercise most freedoms. For example, as an observant Jew (defined here as someone who makes a concerted effort to keep mitzvot), you can’t eat anything and everything you want. You can’t live anywhere you want. And, of course, you can’t marry anyone you want. You’re constantly exercising boundaries and limitations. You are doing right by your family, your forefathers, the traditions you’ve grown up with, and – of course – you are doing right by HaShem.
The truth is that if the rate of interfaith marriage increases, the Jewish people will face an existential crisis. One of our defining characteristics is our resiliency. Against overwhelming odds, Jews have managed to survive and sustain their identity and culture through an adherence to rules, and marrying Jewish is one of those rules. Who are we hurting by marrying our own? It’s what makes us who we are. It’s how we’ve survived.
What’s racist about that?
Rafael Moiseev is an Israeli-Canadian writer who studied psychology at York University and the Middle East Conflict and Judaism at Tel Aviv University. He received his MBA in Marketing from Norwich University.