Let’s unmix mixed marriage

The example of the Marranos shows that you cannot ride two religious horses at once


How to treat Jews who marry “out” is one of diaspora Jewry’s greatest dilemmas. Should they be welcomed into mainstream communities, in the hope that they will bring up their children as Jews? Or should they be rejected, to make the option of marrying out less appealing?

With the rate of intermarriage generally accepted to be 50 per cent in the US, and possibly at a similar level in the UK, the question has never been more urgent. Recently, the beginnings of an answer came to me from an unexpected source: an outstanding new book on the history of the Marranos — the Jews of Spain and Portugal who were coerced into converting to Christianity in the 14th and 15th centuries, and their descendants.

In The Other Within (which featured at Jewish Book Week last Sunday) Professor Yirmiyahu Yovel, chairman of the Jerusalem Spinoza Institute, tries to make sense of the Marranos’ religious identity. Were they fully fledged Catholics, who kept some Jewish traditions out of habit or nostalgia? Or were they really secret Jews, whose Catholicism was just a mask meant to protect them from the authorities — the more romantic picture with which many of us were brought up?

The answer, according to Yovel, is neither. Most of the Marranos may have initially taken on Christianity as a skin. But they could not keep up the pretence, year in, year out — going to Church and confession, venerating saints — without internalising some of its beliefs. Similarly, they may have intended to stay loyal to Judaism, but it was impossible to practise a religion only partially, and in secret, without losing its essence.

The result, he says, was that many Marranos practiced a mish-mash religion. For example, many believed in Judaism because it was the true path “to salvation”. The intent may have been Jewish, but the framing theology — salvation —- was Catholic. Similarly, the Marranos had a patron saint: Queen Esther, herself a hidden Jew. The Inquisition records show Marranos who baptised their children on a Saturday, because of their “affection” for the day; and New Christian monks who rejected the Trinity and the sacrament, without intending to return to Judaism.

They may all have been drawing on Judaism and Christianity but they were practising neither. Their identity, says Yovel, was far more fluid than either the Inquisition — which condemned as a secret Jew anyone who kept even one Jewish tradition — or subsequent historians could discover.

Allowing for different historical circumstances, there is a parallel here with modern Jews in mixed marriages. It seems clear that only a minority of mixed-marriage households choose to bring up their children in a primarily Jewish environment.

The majority are either largely Christian (particularly in the US, where Christianity is so much stronger), deliberately mixed, or largely secular. The result is that most children of interfaith marriages grow up in homes in which Jewish holidays such as Chanucah and Pesach co-exist with Christmas and Easter; in which there are as many occasions to visit church as to visit synagogue; in which family members may openly discuss their belief in Jesus; in which a Pesach Seder, or a life-cycle event such as a barmitzvah, may take on multiple religious meanings; and so on.

Is this blended religion really Judaism as the established community knows it? In Double or Nothing? — a 2004 study of mixed-marriage families in America by Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, teenagers whose parents marked Christmas in some way generally saw themselves as heirs to two religions, which co-existed in their minds as something essentially different from either mainstream Judaism or Christianity. Fishman goes on to describe an enormous, hybrid sub-culture of North American Judeo-Christian families, which differs “strikingly” from other American Jews of every denomination.

Although her book was widely reviewed, this aspect was underplayed. The preponderance of such marriages has profound implications for diaspora Jewry — which might soon find itself outnumbered by such families — and even for Israel, which theoretically could be forced to accept many of them under the Law of Return.

Yovel sees such dualities of identity as a condition of modernity, prefigured by the Marranos. But it seems to me that this is one duality the mainstream Jewish community cannot accept; it can only lead to a distortion of Jewish (and Christian) belief.

While doing our utmost to draw intermarrying couples to our community, we must ultimately urge them to choose one, unambiguous religion for their children. Even if, regrettably, that religion is not Judaism.

    Last updated: 12:13pm, February 26 2009