In one of a series of lectures that he gives to not-yet-frum audiences, Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky tells a story that happened to him when he was giving a talk on intermarriage to those who needed to hear it. A little into the speech, a girl burst into tears and fled from the room. After concluding, Rabbi Orlofsky went to speak to the girl in order to find out what it was he said that upset her so.
“You see,” she told him, “having been raised in a traditional Jewish home, I knew I would never intermarry because my Judaism was very important to me. So, obviously, when I got engaged to a non-Jewish boy, I made up with him that he would convert to Judaism so that we shouldn’t have this problem. But after he started the process of his conversion, he told me that he couldn’t do it, but he would still want to marry me without converting.”
“What did you do?” asked Rabbi Orlofsky.
“I broke it off,” she said, tearfully.
Rabbi Orlofsky then asked her to explain why she did that, and she realizes that she couldn’t give a good explanation.Nothing about the way she practiced “Judaism” was contradictory to being married to a non-Jew, yet she still felt that she was unable to do it. She even told him that she would even be ready to give up her life to remain a Jew, despite having no real connection to Yiddishkeit. In his inimitable way, Rabbi Orlofsky says he could only respond to that with one word.
I remembered this story when a mini brouhaha erupted at the release of recorded comments made by DNC Chair and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Speaking to a group of her constituents at a Jewish Federation event, the congresswoman, who is Jewish, said, “We have the problem of assimilation. We have the problem of intermarriage. We have the problem that too many generations of Jews don’t realize the importance of our institutions strengthening our community—particularly with the rise of anti-Semitism and global intolerance.”
Nobody at the breakfast where she made these comments seemed to care too much about what she said. As a matter of fact, nobody cared until a month later, when audio was leaked to right-wing media, who pounced on it—primarily for other things she said about the mainstream media’s anti-Israel bias. Once they were at it, they bashed her for this as well, calling her a “marriage cop” and insinuating that this kind of talk makes her some sort of racist.
Wasserman Schultz quickly backtracked and insisted she in fact saw nothing wrong with intermarriage. Her quick change of heart can lead people to wonder if she ever meant it in the first place.
I think she did.
Her original comments, much like the girl in the story with Rabbi Orlofsky, were undoubtedly a product of what is commonly referred to as “the pinteleh Yid.” The Maharal (Be’er Hagolah, Drashah for Shabbos Shuvah) speaks about this idea of a spark of holiness that lies within every Jew, no matter how far away he or she is from Torah observance. This is true about many non-frum Jews, who recognize the dangers of assimilation, despite not having a strong bond with the Torah.
But this feeling she had, and probably still does, that there is something wrong with intermarriage, could not stand the scrutiny of reconsideration after she was attacked for it. We can only imagine the thoughts going through her head: “What, indeed, is wrong with intermarriage and assimilation?” And absent the ability to come up with a good answer, she, like many other non-frum Jews (as study after statistical study has sadly shown), can do nothing more than shrug and say, “I guess there really isn’t anything wrong.”
For too many “enlightened” and “progressive” Jews, how they define themselves as Jews is by their support for the State of Israel. Consider how many politicians there are who have no other connection to Judaism than a sincere concern for Israel’s security.
I remember reading, many years ago, a book written by an Israeli politician wherein he lamented this very fact. He wrote that, for most Jews who have no connection to Torah, there were primarily two reasons to remain unassimilated: anti-Semitism and Jewish culture.
As we all know, Hakadosh Baruch Hu put a safety mechanism into galus. If the Jewish nation thinks that we can get through it by assimilating—nihyeh ka’goyim—the umos ha’olam can be counted on to remind us who we are. (Before the Holocaust, countless Gedolim warned about this, including Harav Elchanan Wasserman, Hy”d, and the Meshech Chochmah, who pointed to Germany as the place from which the impending churban would emerge.)
But what of today, when people in the United States (and especially in positions of power) don’t feel like they have something to be afraid of?
As for culture, what is left of Jewish culture in modern day America for someone who doesn’t know of mitzvos and aveiros? I recently read an article written by a woman who was formerly a Conservative “rabbi” who wrote that, as a student at JTS, her goal was to “rewrite the rules on intermarriage,” because “who was I to tell a Jew whom they could or couldn’t marry?” With leaders who believe in nothing and to whom nothing is sacred, is there any wonder that last year’s Pew survey found that among non-Orthodox Jews the intermarriage rate is 71 percent?
So what is left? Identification with the state of Israel as a Jew. But as the State itself attacks Torah Judaism, and seeks to make more and more breaches in the walls that are what truly provides security for the Jewish people, is it any wonder that that is not enough?
And even if it were, for a woman like Mrs. Wasserman Schultz, who runs the DNC, and is facing a time when the president and the party she is heading seem less interested in the security of the State and its people than in years previous, it must be a difficult position to be in. On the one hand, she is the head of one of the two major political parties in the United States, and on the other hand is her entire Jewish identity, which may just be running counter to her entire career. Is it any surprise that she can’t quite figure out what is so bad about intermarriage and assimilation?
There really is only one thing that can be said.