Rabbi, I am not asking for a sermon—I get enough of them from my parents. I am asking for an explanation.
I am seriously dating a girl who is everything I ever dreamed of. She is smart, pretty, funny . . . definitely marriage material. But—you guessed it—she isn’t Jewish. My parents have refused to even meet her, and have told me that if we get married, they won’t come to the wedding. My grandmother is beside herself.
My question is: my parents aren’t religious; we never kept kosher or any of the festivals. There was nothing very Jewish about our home. Why all of a sudden are they so Jewish when it comes to whom I marry? Isn’t that totally hypocritical? When I ask them this, they just answer, “This is different,” but that makes no sense to me. Why is this different?
That is not just the question of the week; that’s the question of the generation. Why does intermarriage touch a nerve in so many people more than any other Jewish issue?
Your frustration is well-founded. It is unreasonable of your parents to expect Judaism to be important to you if it never seemed important to them. What’s more, they can’t explain to you why they feel the way they do. They probably can’t even explain it to themselves. But I have a theory.
There is a profound truth that somehow our parents learnt subconsciously from their parents, and that is: Jewishness is who you are, not what you do.
There is no such thing as one Jew who is more Jewish than another. Whether you practice Jewish customs or not, keep the festivals or not, live in Israel or not, eat chopped liver or not, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. Jewishness is an irreversible status that is not defined by how you live your life.
A Jew may be sitting in a church eating bacon on Yom Kippur dressed up as Santa Claus, but he’s still 100% Jewish. Is he a good Jew? A faithful Jew? A proud Jew? G‑d knows. But a Jew he remains. Because Jewishness isn’t something you do; it’s something you are. Nothing you do can affect who you are.
Nothing, that is, with one exception: whom you marry.
The person you marry becomes a part of who you are. Getting married is not a hobby or a career move; it is making someone else a part of your identity, and becoming a part of theirs. Your spouse fills a void in your very being, and you fill the void in them. So marriage, like Jewishness, is not something you do; it is something you are.
There is nothing wrong with non-Jews. But they aren’t Jewish. If you marry a non-Jew, you’re still 100% Jewish, but a part of you—your other half—is not. You can be happy together. You can be in love with each other. But there is a part of you that you will never share.
Maybe this is the challenge of our generation: to face the questions of what it means to be in love, what it means to marry, and what it means to be Jewish. And—unlike any generation before us—to come up with real answers.