It has been widely reported that since 1988 more than half the marriages involving American Jews have been to non-Jews. If this data is accurate, more Jews now marry non-Jews than fellow Jews. The figure over the past several years has been estimated at between 53 percent and 58 percent (though it may be somewhat less). What amazes me is not that 53 percent of Jews may be marrying non-Jews. In light of what I hear from my students, my children and the current and upcoming generations of marriage-age Jews, what amazes me is that 47 percent of Jews still marry other Jews.
After all, Jews comprise just slightly more than two percent of the U.S. population. Putting aside demography, propinquity, parental pressure and religious commitment, the chances of a Jew marrying another Jew are considerably lower that 47 percent. (Some suggest that the "natural odds" of a mixed marriage for members of an ethnic group so tiny as American Jews is 95 percent.) Nevertheless, the four factors of demography, propinquity, parental pressure and religious commitment, which have been responsible for maintaining the high degree of Jewish inmarriage, will continue to diminish in the near future, and certainly over the next several generations.
"Jewish neighborhoods" are becoming largely a thing of the past in many American cities, except for the Hasidic and Orthodox enclaves which are geographically bound by the walking distance to a synagogue. Propinquity among Jews is no longer found in college, professional school, or the work-place as much as it was in the days of religious exclusion, when ambitious Jews had to congregate in those few institutions that were open to them. And while it used to be virtually unthinkable for a Jew--even a secular Jew--to marry a non-Jew, today, such parental pressure (and the resulting guilt and inmarriage) is abating.
To top it all off, religious commitment to Jewish inmarriage is falling more quickly than Jewish inmarriage itself. Indeed, my discussions with young Jews convince me that with the exception of Orthodox Jews, an over-whelming majority of marriage-age Jews--even relatively committed Jews--do not express or believe in a religious commitment to marry fellow Jews. In fact, many regard it as wrong to take into account the religion of a prospective spouse.
When I spoke recently to a group of Jewish college students, all of whom were members of Jewish organizations on campus, I asked for a show of hands as to how many preferred to marry a fellow Jew. The students looked at each other awkwardly and about half the hands went up. I then asked those who had raised their hands how many would be prepared to tell their dormmates of their preference. A small number of hands were raised. In the language of the day, it is "politically incorrect" to insist on marrying a co-religionist. It is, however, perfectly correct to do so if it just happens that way. However, it will "just happen" that way with ever decreasing frequency.
With intermarriage, as with assimilation, it is not often the case that Jews convert to Christianity; they "convert" to mainstream Americanism, which is the American "religion" closest to Judaism. They see no reason not to follow their heart in marriage, their convenience in neighborhoods, their economic opportunities in jobs, their educational advantages in schools, their conscience in philosophy and their preferences in lifestyle. Most Jews who assimilate do not feel that they are giving up anything by abandoning a Jewishness they know little about.
We must recognize that many of the factors which have fueled the current assimilation and intermarriage are positive developments for individual Jews: acceptance, wealth, opportunity. Most Jews do not want to impede these developments. Indeed, they want to encourage them. For that reason, we must accept the reality that many Jews will continue to marry non-Jews, but we should not regard it as inevitable that these marriages will necessarily lead to total assimilation. We can take positive steps to stem that tide.
Judaism must become less tribal, less ethnocentric, less exclusive, less closed off, less defensive, less xenophobic, less clannish. We jokingly call ourselves "members of the tribe" (MOTs), as if to remind us of our tribal origins. But we are not a tribe, a clan, or even an ethnicity. Jews comprise many ethnicities, as a visit to Israel or even to [some] neighborhoods of Brooklyn should make plain. This persistent tribalism makes us less welcoming of Jewish converts than we ought to be.
Jews must adopt a different approach to the increasing reality of intermarriage. We must become much more welcoming of the non-Jewish spouse. Refusal to permit intermarriage has failed as a deterrent mechanism. We must try another way. If a non-Jew wants to marry a Jew and is prepared to have a rabbi participate in the ceremony, a rabbi should be willing to lend his or her Jewish participation to so important an event. In every way, Jews must become more welcoming of anyone who wants to be part of our heritage.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Frankfurter Professor of Law. This essay is adapted from his newest book, The Vanishing American Jew (Little Brown, 1997).