Chavurah Masarti

Lynchburg, VA                  Founded on 2 Cheshvan, 5766 


This Rabbinical opinion was developed by Michael Gillette and it represents a trans-denominational perspective.  Readers who identify with a particular Jewish movement or congregation should consider their local Rabbi as the appropriate authority.

Question:  How has the Jewish view of intermarriage evolved throughout history?

Opinion: It is likely that ancient attitudes regarding intermarriage were much more lax than those of today, except with regard to specific Canaanite tribes to which Jews were specifically prohibited from marrying. This attitude changed as a result of the Babylonian Captivity, after which Ezra extended the prohibition against intermarriage.

   At a recent Torah study, one of our particpants raised question about when Jewish law became so concerned with intermarriage, as it seemed from the text that Bathsheba had married a non-Jew, Uriah the Hittite.  If that marriage is mentioned without objection, then intermarriage seemed to be an accepted part of Jewish custom, and yet the same cannot be said of current attitudes.  So why the change?

   First of all, some sources would say that there has been no change.  Some claim that any biblical reference to intermarriage actually involves only individuals who have already converted.  The most famous example of this argument is from the Book of Ruth.  Rabbinical authorities point to the fact that Ruth stated "My people shall be your people...", and that that indicates that Ruth converted before marrying Boaz.  This argument may work for Ruth, but it doesn't necessarily create a template for other biblical records of intermarriage, so it is thin evidence at best that intermarriages didn't happen biblically.

   A second possibility is based on the Jewish concept of the "righteous monotheists".  Some sources say that a monotheist who does not actively practice another religion is not prohibited as a spouse for a Jew.  This argument could be based on the fact that, in Devarim 7:3-4, God commands Jews not be marry any of the people from the seven Canaanite tribes.  The prohibition is clear, but specific tribes are listed as being off limits.  Many have argued that this prohibition extends to all non-Jews, but it seems that if these specific tribes are listed, it might be because a special prohibition existed for them that did not apply generally.  The seven Canaanite tribes might have been listed because they were considered idolatrous, and there is a stated fear in the book of Deuteronomy that marrying into these tribes would lead Jews toward idolatry.  Other tribes may not have been considered idolatrous, and thus not perceived as being of equivalent danger.  In ancient times, many non-Jews were likely to have lived among Jews and adopted their customs at least in part, without formal conversion.  It is possible that such individuals were considered "righteous monotheists" and that marriages to them were not prohibited.

   This entire line of reasoning is of interest, but it is probably not decisive because it all took place prior to the Babylonian Captivity.  In 586 BCE the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebudkaneezer, who commenced the Babylonian Captivity by forcibly removing the majority of the Jewish population from Israel.  This was a major transformative event in the history of the Jewish people, and it is responsible for many of our current practices and traditions including the invention of the synagogue and the rise of personal Jewish ritual as opposed to priestly sacrifice.  The Rabbinic tradition can, in many ways, be traced back to the Babylonian Captivity, since the Jewish people needed to reinvent itself in order to survive the separation from the physical location that served as the religious hub of a theretofore geographically centralized religious nation.  For the first time in our history, Jews were thrust into a foreign land and a foreign culture.  The last time Jews lived in a foreign culture, Egypt, they weren't yet Jews.  This was the first time since the covenant at Sinai that the Jews were immersed in a non-Jewish environment.  As we might expect, some Jews prospered and enjoyed their new culture, and intermarriage was prevalent.

   The turning point in the story takes place in the Book of Ezra.  When Ezra led a group of Jews back to Israel after Cyrus the Great ended the Babylonian Captivity, the first thing that he had to do was reconstitute the Priestly tradition.  When he looked around at his fellow Jews, he recognized that many of them had become so attached to non-Jewish culture that their Judaism was at risk.  This took place in Babylonia where the Jews were immersed in Babylonian culture, but also in Israel where Jews were a minority in their own land.  The experience of living in the Diaspora, and living as a minority under foreign rule within Israel, clearly had weakened the Jewish attachment to its own religion and culture.  It is in Ezra chapters nine and ten that the prohibition on Jewish intermarriage is made clear and that it is extended beyond the original seven tribes.  When Ezra reconstituted the Priestly cult and invented the predecessor body to the Sanhedrin, Jews overtly cleansed themselves of intermarriage and professed condemnation of the practice.  This, along with the original prohibition from Devarim, then became the source of subsequent Talmudic prohibitions on intermarriage that are echoed by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah and by Joseph Karo in the Shulchan Aruch.  There is no doubt that traditional Jewish law now prohibits Jewish intermarriage, although all sources agree that marriage to a person who has converted to Judaism is not intermarriage.

   The lesson from this brief review of halachic history is that context matters.  Our ancestors were probably not as concerned about intermarriage when they were living within a Jewish environment and any intermarriage that took place was both infrequent and within a solidly Jewish environment where the non-Jewish spouse was a religiously un-influential minority.  In Babylonia, however, where intermarriage carried the risk of moving Jews toward compliance with the surrounding non-Jewish culture, the practice was much more dangerous. Ezra saw that danger and extended the intermarriage prohibition after concluding that Judaism could not survive in the new reality of its weakened position unless homogeneity were encouraged.  The Rabbis sided with Ezra.  The prohibition on Jewish intermarriage probably dates, therefore, to around 450 BCE.

   Question:  Is our current situation more like living in Jerusalem under David's rule, or more like living in Babylonia under Nebudkaneezer?  The answer might inform your judgment about the relative risks associated with cross-religious marriages.

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