Va-et’chanan (I pleaded)

Va-et'chananDeuteronomy 3:23 to 7:11

Intermarriage involving Jews and those of other faiths has been a subject of discussion for many generations … maybe since the days that the first Hebrews married.

Moses presents his advice toward the end of this week’s parsha.

“When the Eternal your God brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and [God] dislodges many nations before you… and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction… You shall not intermarry with them; do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for you sons. For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and the Eternal’s anger will blaze forth against you, promptly wiping you out.” (Deut. 7:1-4)

The instructions from Moses were directed at a people about to enter the Promised Land. It is included in a section dealing with idolatry because Moses sees intermarriage as leading to idolatry … He thinks that the children of these marriages may turn away from God towards the gods of the non-Israelite parent.

During all the years in the wilderness, the problem of intermarriage didn’t exist because the Israelites had limited contact with people of other faiths. But now, the people will be mixing with existing populations. This advice was needed because the number of number of Israelites was relatively limited and intermarriage could present a real problem. In the text following the above quote from Moses he tells the people that they must eliminate any contact that could cause the people to turn against God. They must “tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred posts, and consign their images to the fire” (Deut. 7:5)

Over the years this protection against marriage outside the faith became a part of Jewish thought..

But now, when looking at these words in the context of modern times, we must also look at the institution of marriage itself and how it has changed. At the time when the Torah was codified marriage was mainly arranged by the parents. Marriage was essentially the barter of daughters by their fathers for the most advantageous outcome. Moses was telling the Israelites not to “trade” their daughters or take to take the daughters of a gentile families. Moses feared that any child of such a union will be tempted to worship other gods.

The law of matrilineal descent grew out of this concept…. The Torah text warns against “giving your daughters to their sons” or “taking their daughters for your sons.” Over the years the interpretation of the Torah became more concerned with the child of a Jewish daughter and her gentile husband and less concerned with the child of the Jewish son and his gentile daughter because … in order to be considered Jewish a child had to be born to a Jewish mother. In the terms of Torah, this matrilineal descent dates back to Abraham where God insisted that the covenant pass to Sarah’s son … not the first born son of Hagar. Then, Abraham sends his servant to obtain a wife for his son from his birth family…. Later, Rebekah expresses unhappiness when Esau marries foreign women. However, Moses and Joseph both marry outside the faith. Plaut points out in Torah, A Modern Commentary (p.1214) that after the exiles return from Babylon (about 400 BCE) marriages outside the faith were deemed socially and politically unacceptable. This thinking lasted well into the twentieth century. This matrilineal concept was given added strength because it was believed that the soul of a person resided in one’s blood. And, it is the mother’s blood that a child receives before birth… not the fathers.

However, in a world where men have control, it was difficult for them to accept the idea that they had no control over the child’s identity. For this reason, there has been a strong argument for patrilineal descent since the beginning of rabbinic times.

In 1983 the Reform Movement passed a unilateral decision recognizing patrilineal descent. Now the Reform Movement recognizes children born of a Jewish father and a gentile mother as Jewish as long as the children are raised in the Jewish tradition….Any family desiring to be considered Jewish can be, as long as one parent is Jewish. At that time Rabbi Alexander Schindler, UAHC president, stated the following regarding the change: “We are opposed to intermarriage, but we cannot reject the intermarried.” The Reform movement focused on encouraging intermarried families to adopt the Jewish traditions and raise their children as Jews. However, this ruling has caused many unfortunate complications, as the other branches continue to adhere to the tradition of matrilineal descent and do not recognize these children as Jewish.

Some of the concerns posed by Moses regarding intermarriage still exist today. The Reform Movement acted to welcome mixed faith families. Hopefully, through this action the number of active Jewish families will increase. This can also be viewed as another change in Jewish tradition that responds to the changes in our contemporary world … another example of the ever changing, living Torah.

Earl Sabes

Sources: Judith S. Antonelli, In the Image Of God – A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, pp. 413-15

W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah – A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, pp. 1204, 1214

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

World Of Judaica
Learn Hebrew online with Israel's best teachers