Chayey Sarah: A Marriage Dilemma

In Chayey Sarah we are presented with a marriage dilemma. On the one hand, Abraham has his servant swear that he “will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.” (Genesis 24:3-4) In-marriage is clearly preferred to marrying out of the clan. On the other hand, Rebecca and her brother Laban come from a family of idol-worshippers; in the next generation, Rebecca’s niece Rachel steals her father’s household gods (chapter 31), and Jacob’s family even seems to have adopted idol-worship under the influence of 20 years with Laban (ch. 35). So what was the advantage of this marriage over marrying a daughter of the land of Canaan, who would also be an idol-worshipper?

The advantage seems to be three-fold. Rachel’s brother Laban (and we may assume therefore her family) did recognize the God of Abraham; Laban acknowledges this when he pursues Jacob (ch. 31). So Rebecca may have found it fairly easy to connect with the religion of her new husband’s family. In fact, we are told that Rebecca herself had a relationship with God; when she was pregnant, she “went to inquire of the Eternal,” and received an answer telling her of the future of her twin sons.

In addition, there is a social advantage to marrying someone of similar background. The parties to the marriage have a similar sense of who they are in relationship to the rest of the world — a sense which is particularly strong if both are immigrants. So someone from “the old country,” even if not yet a follower of the God of Abraham and Sarah, would have helped to strengthen the boundary between the family of Abraham and Isaac and the families of the Canaanites.

In addition, Rebecca displayed values that would come to be important in Judaism. She offers the weary traveller water, draws water for ten camels, and invites him to her house. When he gives her expensive gifts, she runs right home and tells what has happened to her. Kindness to strangers, concern for animals, and strong connection with family are all part of Rebecca’s being. This, too, made her a suitable partner to carry on the new religion, even though it was not hers from birth.

In those days there was no formal “conversion” as we know it. For women, the change of affiliation came automatically along with marriage, as they joined their husband’s household. Today, though, we maintain the boundaries with careful distinction. There are rituals for becoming a Jew, and I have on occasion had to gently point out to a couple that marrying a Jew does not make one into a Jew, no matter how closely the non-Jewish spouse identifies with their Jewish spouse’s family and its rituals. One has to be “adopted” into the Jewish family, not just “married” into it.

But like Rebecca and Isaac, intermarried parents can raise committed, proud and knowledgeable Jewish children. It’s not necessarily the easiest task in the world, and there are plenty of reasons to encourage Jews to marry Jews. But the reality is that many of our children, as well as many of our peers, will be looking for a person like Rebecca: One with whom they share values, one who makes them feel at home, and someone whose attitude toward God and religion is similar — even if the religion itself is not the same. Some of those spouses will eventually convert, many will not. But in a 2005 survey of intermarried families in Boston, an amazing 60% of those families were raising Jewish children! (Here’s the .pdf file of the survey report — look at page 16 for the statistics on children of intermarried families in Boston.)

Like Abraham to his servant, we can make our preferences known to our children — though we need to do so long before they think about loading up their camels to start looking for a partner.

But if they announce they are marrying someone who is not Jewish, we still have good choices about how to respond. We can feel our anger or anguish or angst — these emotions aren’t unusual. And while we are feeling these things, we can also welcome the new spouse, invite them to learn about our religion, and encourage the couple to make early and sensible choices in raising their children — which includes giving them a solid sense of self, identity, and belonging. The one thing I encourage parents NOT to do is to “expose the children to both” and “let them choose.” That’s setting up children to choose between their parents, and which of us is ever old enough to do that? It also moves religion from the category of “personal identity” to “lifestyle choice,” from something which permeates our being to something that we might change to suit the times. Judaism — or any religion at its best — is far deeper than that.

This week’s portion comes to remind us that committed Jews can be raised in many kinds of households. It invites us to help our children make Jewish choices at every moment of their lives, no matter what other choices they are also making. And it encourages us to follow in our ancestors’ footsteps, raising children who will carry on Jewish religion and culture.


This drashah first appeared in the Jewish World newspaper in Albany.