The Prohibition of Intermarriage

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Intermarriage Betrays God

The end of Parshat Balak gives us a first example of a large segment of the Jewish people choosing to marry (or fornicate) with non-Jews. We also see how what starts out as “only” promiscuity or emotional attachment progresses to religion, the Jews coming to worship the Moabite god. (In my other column this week, Meshech Hochmah points out the Gemara assumes the Jews started Pe’or worship as an entry fee to sexual favors, then came to authentically believe in it.)

The story leads She’ilta 134 to discuss the prohibition on Jews marrying non-Jews, based on Devarim 7;3, ve-lo tithaten bam, you may not marry them. We will turn to who counts as “them” in a second, after we review two notable elements of She’iltot’s presentation.

The story culminates with Pinhas killing Zimri in flagrante delicto with Kazbi, a Moabite princess. Tradition credits Pinhas with knowing the halacha le-Moshe mi-Sinai, a law known orally since Sinai, permitting a kanai, someone acting only for God’s honor, to kill (without waiting for a trial) any Jew in the act of public sexual relations with a non-Jew. (Public means in front of ten Jews, because this is about the desecration of God’s Name in a Jew’s choice to abandon God for the worshipper of some other power. Aruch HaShulhan Even Ha-Ezer 16;5 expands “public” to include where ten Jews know the couple has gone to a place where they could consummate their relationship in private. The kannai can only kill them while in the act, however.)

Pungently, She’iltot speaks of the person being ready to give his life le-afru’ei pur’anuta le-marei alma, to take the vengeance of the Master of the Universe. As if to justify the idea of a connection between sex and God, he also quotes a Midrash where R. Hiyya b. Abba says a Jew who has sexual relations with a non-Jew is as if he has married an avodah zarah, a power other than God whom people worship.

Non-Jews Are Also Non-Believers

Culturally, we know intermarriage looms large. As we review some of the Biblical rules of it, She’iltot invites us to consider why, what makes this an overall betrayal of God and of the Jewish people. The question perhaps has greater force in our times, when many marriages unite people from very different backgrounds, without either partner thinking they have relinquished their connection to their origins. [It could be they’re all wrong, that marriage to someone from a very different background always involves a diminution of connection to one’s own origins, but that’s another discussion.]

Rambam gives us a good hint, I think, in Prohibition 52 of the Sefer Ha-Mitzvot. He says we are proscribed from marrying koferim, non-believers, when the verse clearly referenced the surrounding nations. I don’t know Arabic to check the original, but I doubt the translator turned a word for non-Jews into one about belief. Rambam seems to locate the problem in the belief system the non-Jewish partner brings.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch Mitzvah 427 emphasizes the point: people learn from their partner in marriage, even in a patriarchal society, where men were thought to know better, husbands still absorbed ideas from their wives, and mothers raised children with their values. Intermarriage brings foreign and abhorrent views into the Jew’s life. [There is an assumption of the delicacy of Jewish faith to which I doubt we pay enough attention: the idea of the whole world as a narrow bridge is a very Jewish one, because the Jewish version of monotheism is specific enough that it is terribly easy to fall away from correct belief.]

In Laws of Prohibited Relationships 12;5, Rambam argues a Jew having sex with a woman from a family of gerei toshav, non-Jews who committed to following the Noahide laws, would not be vulnerable to a kannai, although there would be rabbinic lashes. Aruch HaShulhan notes Rambam has no source, and suggests he inferred it from the tie of kanna’im pog’in bo to the story of Zimri, where turning to idolatry was very much on the table. With a woman who will not draw the Jew to idolatry, it is a different and lesser wrong.

Three paragraphs later, when he pauses to exhort readers to take the prohibition seriously, Rambam reminds us the child of a non-Jewish woman is not Jewish, will not be this man’s child (reasoning that does not apply to a woman contemplating intermarriage). For men and women, having children with a non-Jew will bind the Jew to the children, and to the idolatrous world they will necessarily at least partially inhabit.

The One Act of Marriage Incurs Karet

Rambam, too, includes the Pinhas story in his presentation in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, and goes a step further. He points us to Sanhedrin 82a, where R. Kahana has a dream telling him Malachi 2;11 is not only metaphorical, its reference to “Yehudah” marrying a daughter of a foreign god and incurring karet is true of anyone who has sexual relations with a non-Jew and no Pinhas around to kill him.

Rambam acknowledges the Torah nowhere establishes this karet. [The relationship between Nach and the Torah as a matter of law is not as defined as we might like. Although we are clear later prophets may not make new Torah law, the Gemara not infrequently takes verses in Nach as revealing what was always true. Rambam has ideas about why God would leave important ideas out of the Torah, but the discussion takes us too far afield.]

Not Just Men, and Not Casual Sex

In Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Rambam writes as if one instance, one sexual encounter, incurs all the consequences we have discussed. In his list of mitzvot to introduce the Laws of Prohibited Sexual Relationships, however, he speaks of not marrying a non-Jewand in 12;1, he says having sex for marriage with any non-Jew violates a prohibition, draws lashes by a court.

Mishneh Torah also fills in another missing piece from Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, women. The Torah phrases itself to men, and we might think the prohibition only applied to them, because they initiate marriage. Rambam takes the continuation of the verse, which speaks of both sons and daughters, to expand the prohibition’s purview. Women intermarrying also violates the Torah [despite, for example, their children being Jewish].

The Torah speaks of marrying off our children to non-Jews, so Sefer Ha-Hinuch pauses to say it obviously all the more so applies to us.

Is It Really Torah Law?

Rambam holds the prohibition applies to all non-Jews, where Tur, based on an Ashkenazic view going back at least to Semag, thought the consensus view in the Gemara limited the prohibition to the seven Canaanite nations, and only after they converted to Judaism. [Before they convert, there is no meaning to marriage, so the Jew is having an affair, I think plausibly with a lesser connection than if married.]

Shulhan Aruch Even Ha-Ezer 16 accepts Rambam’s view, and Rema adds only that some disagree. Sefer Ha-Hinuch argues the verse’s explicit ruling out of marring our daughters to their sons nor taking their sons for our daughters expands the prohibition to other nations, although he agrees the seven remain prohibited even after they convert.

We might think the debate relatively unimportant, since Tur accepts the idea of kana’in pog’in bo for any non-Jewagrees Malachi revealed a karet for any such marriages, and has no doubt Hazal instituted four prohibitions on sexual relations with a non-Jew.

It still leaves holes. Sefer Ha-Hinuch points out this view would have to rely on rabbinic law to explain why a totally private act of sexual relations was prohibited [and rabbinic law is more open to change by a later Sanhedrin than is Torah law].

Aruch HaShulhan Even Ha-Ezer 16;2 argues the other side would see a Biblical violation in a Jew living with a non-Jew as if they were married, because Avodah Zarah 36b refers to ishut derech hatnut, cohabitation in the way of marriageEven though Tur et al object to Rambam’s idea because there is no legal meaning to marriage with a non-Jew, living together long-term, as if they were husband and wife, will do the trick.

Rambam also thinks a kohen has a Biblical prohibition on relations with a non-Jew because she counts as a zonah. Others hold the non-Jew is consigned to zonah status only after a sexual encounter with a Jew, Aruch HaShulhan writes. He does see a Biblical prohibition on having an affair with a married non-Jewish woman, because Bereshit 2;24 spoke of a man leaving his parents and cleaving to his wife, the source of the prohibition of adultery for non-Jews (his wife and not another man’s wife, R. Akiva says in Sanhedrin 58a).

How Carefully Does the Torah Guide Us

We are left knowing the Torah does not want Jews marrying non-Jews, with lasting debate about how Hashem chose to express that. For Rambam and his camp, God prohibited members of the seven Canaanite nations even after they converted, other non-Jews who did not convert, and allowed extrajudicial killing of public fornication with a non-Jew. The other side agrees with all the values Rambam inferred, just thinks the Torah expressed those non-legally, left it to Hazal to codify.

Either way, the topic is a reminder of ideas Western society often denies, and therefore worth reinvigorating in our own worldview: sexual relations tend to be about more than the physical, tend to produce emotional connections that lead to intellectual and attitudinal ones. Marriage with someone who holds beliefs or values that should be intolerable to us carries the danger and likelihood we will lose sight of truths we knew until then, only because of the emotions relationships bring.

Intermarriage is about the way marriage shapes us, the way this marriage will take this Jew farther from God.

About Gidon Rothstein

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