In 1962 I graduated rabbinical school and entered the army for a two-year stint as a chaplain. Such national service was then still required of all JTS graduates before they could take a pulpit. After completing chaplaincy school in New York, I drove to my first assignment at Fort Dix, New Jersey. I arrived in the late afternoon and decided to visit the Jewish chapel where I would preside without delay. That was my first mistake.
Outside the door paced an agitated, well-dressed gentleman in civilian clothes looking for a Jewish chaplain. I revealed my identity all too quickly and smugly, my second mistake. In the office I would occupy for less than a year (the army would reward my stellar work at Fort Dix by sending me to Korea), he unloaded on me an impassioned account about his daughter who was going to marry a young Greek in basic training at Fort Dix. I couldn’t tell exactly whether the father, a wealthy man from Connecticut, was furious because the kid was Christian or poor and uneducated. In fact, the father suspected him of seeking to marry his daughter for her money. He insisted that I call in the kid to disabuse him of his folly, and I, by now floundering in my inexperience, reluctantly agreed. To my surprise, the young man came when I summoned him and turned out to be good-looking and charming. Despite great discomfort, I carried out my futile task and never heard from him or his nemesis again.
In retrospect, my baptism of fire foreshadowed the engulfing crisis of Jewish continuity in our day: Can Jews as individuals avail themselves of the unlimited opportunities of American society and still preserve their group identity? Are the twin goals of integration and survival compatible? As so often, the Torah relates to our predicament.
The end of last week’s parashah and the opening of this week’s deal with an early instance of integration. After 40 years, a renewed nation of Israel finds itself primed for the conquest of the Promised Land from the territory of Moab in the west. Alarmed, Balak, the king of Moab, calls on the gentile soothsayer Balaam to thwart Israel with his curses: “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed (Numbers 22:6).”
But Balaam is overwhelmed by the singular beauty of Israel’s individuality. He recognizes therein the hope of humanity, a new, far purer, and more wholesome form of nationhood. Try as he might to curse Israel, he can only sing its praises: “There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations…. No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel…. Lo, there is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel…. How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 23:9, 21, 23; 24:5)” To Balaam, the young Israel appears without blemish and invincible.
Yet the very next episode in the narrative brings a stark reversal of Israel’s fortune. For the Torah, with its hard-nosed view of reality, stability is never a long lasting human condition. At Shittim, Israelite men begin to mix with Moabite women, even to the point of joining them in their pagan rites. The midrash sees the hand of Balaam behind this intermingling. Before he is unceremoniously dismissed by the irate king of Moab, Balaam advises him to erode Israel’s apartness. Socializing will lead to intermarriage and apostasy. Soon what could only be done at first in secret will become publicly acceptable. Thus the Torah recounts the romance of one mixed couple flaunted in full view (Numbers 25:6). Is Moses’ conspicuous absence from this turn of events another sign of his growing weariness or of inner conflict springing from his marriage to Zipporah, herself a Midianite woman? The leadership vacuum is filled by Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron, who on his own kills the offending couple and halts the plague that has already consumed 24,000 lives. In gratitude, God rewards Pinhas (who bears an Egyptian name) for his zealotry with a promise of friendship and eternal priesthood (Numbers 25:12-13).
The midrash detects in the words of the opening story – vayeshev (settled down) – a touch of paradox. “When Israel settled down at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with Moabite women (Numbers 25:1).” Overtly, the verb suggests the end of a taxing journey, the delicious anticipation of a long and undisturbed rest. But, declares R. Yohanan, in truth, wherever the Torah uses the verb “vayeshev“, the narrative that follows is filled with anguish and turmoil. For example, Jacob returns “to settle down (vayeshev) in the land where his father had lived, in the land of Canaan (Genesis 37:1)” after an arduous absence of 21 years in the house of Laban. What follows is hardly the respite he sought and deserved, but the bitter envy of his sons toward Joseph. Similarly, Israel arrived at Shittim to rest prior to invading Canaan, and not to become entangled with the women of Moab. How often the course of events makes a mockery of our hopes!
Is America any different? Here too Jews came filled with the sentiments of vayeshev, to escape the antipathy and constrictions of a conflicted continent, where even the advocates of emancipation for Jews despised Judaism. Nor did this country fail us. Since the Second World War it has surely afforded Jews a measure of individual opportunity and collective freedom unprecedented in Jewish history. But will equality and prosperity be our undoing? Does the term vayeshev still carry the ominous ring of disaster? The escalating incidence of intermarriage is already decimating our ranks. What communal strategy can secure our collective identity without giving up on our individual equality? For most American Jews, a flight back into the seclusion of the ghetto is unacceptable. The zealotry of Pinhas is no longer helpful.
Permit me to close with a concise formulation of my own view. First, I believe that if our children end up marrying non-Jews we should not reject them. Their choice of a mate is usually not made out of pique with us or in rebellion against Judaism. They happened to fall in love with a non-Jew because that is where circumstances, which admittedly we might have better controlled, placed them. Indeed, we should love them more in order to retain a measure of influence on their lives, Jewishly and otherwise. Life consists of constant growth and our adult children may yet reach a stage when Judaism will suddenly take on new meaning for them.
Second, we should not miss an opportunity to give the non-Jewish spouse of our son or daughter a chance to savor Jewish experience. We should start from strength by taking them into our families and exposing them often to the emotional warmth, ethical standards, intellectual power, and artistic beauty of Judaism. While religious conversion remains for me the final goal, I realize fully that helping someone even consider the idea takes patience, sensitivity, and understanding.
Third, in the midst of our confusion and pain we should not ask of Judaism to adopt measures which do violence to its integrity. Judaism is not responsible for the intermarriage crisis nor is it without resources to address it. That is why I stress the historical significance of conversion as a reflection of religious openness and universalism. We absolutely need to do as much outreach as possible, giving intermarried couples a sense of being welcome and an appreciation of the sacred in Judaism, but without eliminating boundaries. In time, Jews by choice will undoubtedly enrich Judaism with their own religious sensibilities.
And, finally, long before intermarriage takes place, we need to deepen the Jewish consciousness of our children. If we can extend their study of Judaism beyond bar-and bat-mitzvah, enlarge and enhance the Jewish teaching profession, build more day schools and enrich the curriculum of our afternoon schools, expand the opportunities for informal Jewish education in Israel, at camp, and in youth movements, and, above all, turn our home into a venue of holiness, we will dispose our youngsters to seek a Jewish mate, and, short of that, to expect of their non-Jewish mate to become a Jew by choice. With sufficient pride and knowledge they will not long abandon us or Judaism. In sum, where external barriers no longer exist to separate us from our neighbors, we must cultivate inner resources to offset the pull of complete assimilation.