Despite our deeply ingrained either-or conception of Jewish identity--that a person is either a Jew or a non-Jew--perhaps it is time to consider the possibility of an in-between sort of Jewishness. The increasing rateof intermarriage has become a cause celebre generating many new efforts, none of which speaks to the new reality that Jews face as fully integratedmembers of the societies in which they live.
Historically, whenever Jews have been intimately involved in a non-Jewish society, we have intermarried. We did it in Spain in the Middle Ages and in Europe in the 19th century, and we are doing it now in America. The community's preferred approach to date has been to encourage the non-Jewish spouse to convert, but this approach is rather problematic, as it tends to produce conversions of questionable sincerity.
This leads me to suggest an idea worth some communal consideration. Perhaps we ought to invent, or better, revive a form of identity that liesbetween Jew and gentile. In fact, over the course of Jewish history, the tradition has grappled with variants of this challenge and bequeaths to us ideas we might rehabilitate today. One of the most interesting of theseis the idea of the ger toshav, or the resident alien, who occupied thisin-between position in biblical times.
The ger toshav was not a convert. He was, according to the rabbis, a gentile who lived among the Jewish people, happy to be part of the Jewish world and supportive of the religious and social frameworks of Jewish life. He could eat tref (nonkosher) but was not permitted to publicly worshipother gods, and if he was circumcised, he could partake of the Passover sacrifice. He was a lover of the Jewish people, though not a Jew himself. In many intermarried homes today, this characterization would aptly describe the feelings and commitments of the non-Jewish spouse.
When my cousin Janet married a non-Jew, I did not attend the wedding. Eventually, the shock wore off, they had children, and everyone managed to deal with reality. In fact, we all have come to love Janet's mate, Bill. Janet and Bill have raised their children Jewishly, with Janet's hard work and Bill's encouragement, and Bill is proud to be the non-Jewish father of aJewish family.
And though I am saddened by the increased numbers of "mixed" kids growing up in intermarried homes, I no longer can stomach the indignation that I once proudly held on the matter. All of us, including those of us in the Orthodox community, must do more to address this issue than we have.
Recent proposals to enrich Jewish experiences before marriage have much merit. The deeper and more intense an individual's Jewish cultural, social, and religious commitments are, the greater the desire to marry a Jewish person is likely to be. Such direct campaigns to combatintermarriage, like the Birthright Foundation's project of sending thousands of young adults to Israel, might slow down the trend, but they are surely not going to turn it around.
So, instead of focusing all our attention on mixed marriages, why not securethe Jewish home by creating a contemporary ger toshav--not a convert to Judaism but a gentile who actively chooses to live among Jews.
This approach would emphasize the positive values of Jewish culture and tradition, and the joys of living in a Jewish home, without insistingupon conversion.
Rabbis would then be able to offer to non-Jews wishing to marry a Jewish spouse the opportunity to become, not converts, but committed fans of the Jewish people. Some rabbis will be opposed to a less-than-complete avenue into Jewish life--the offering of an "easier" path that might makeconversion seemless attractive. However, ger toshav might be a first step as well. WhileOrthodox authoritieswould probably not wish to offer the status of ger toshav in advance, afteran intermarriagethe availability of the category would serve well to welcome such Jewishfamiliesback into the fold by giving the non-Jewish partner a place of involvementand recognition.