Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon’s May commencement address at a Hebrew Union College graduation ceremony for Reform movement clergy and professionals in Los Angeles created a storm in the American Jewish world. In the most quoted passage of the speech, Chabon described “endogamous marriage (where one marries only within one’s own group) as a ghetto of two.”
And if the current rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews condemns much of the Jewish world to extinction, so be it, Chabon — who is himself married to secular Jewish novelist Ayelet Waldman — opined: “If Judaism should ever pass from the world, it won’t be the first time in history that a great and ancient religion lost its hold on the moral imagination of its adherents and its relevance to their lives. Nor will it be the first time that an ethnic minority has been absorbed, one exogamous marriage at a time, into the surrounding population.”
Indeed, Chabon averred, intermarriage should be viewed as positive: “Seize every opportunity to strengthen and enrich our cultural genome by embracing the inevitable variation and change that result from increased diversity.” As for his own children, Chabon expressed the hope that they would marry into some kind of universalist tribe, one that “prizes learning, inquiry, skepticism, openness to new ideas… that enshrines equality before the law, and freedom of conscience, and human rights. I want them to marry into the tribe that sees nations and borders as antiquated canards and ethnicity as a construct prone… to endless reconfiguration.”
But the prohibition against intermarriage is just the most salient example of what Chabon rejects about Judaism — and all religions. He abhors “the making and enforcement of distinctions between the sacred and profane, heaven and earth, gods and human, clean and unclean, us and them.” He rejects all division and fences, even those constructed for purposes of security, for “security is an invention of humanity’s jailers… It is — and always has been — the hand of power drawing the boundaries, putting up separation barriers and propagandizing hatred and fear of the people on the other side. Security for some means imprisonment for all.”
His final charge to the graduates — who will go on to become the next generation of Reform clergy and professionals — was to “knock down the walls. Abolish the checkpoints… Inscribe the protective circle of your teachings around all those people whose very otherness demands that we honor our avowed commitments to peace and justice and lovingkindness.”
Chabon received a rousing ovation for his remarks.
One person who certainly was not surprised by Chabon’s speech — an exceptionally eloquent statement of the universalism of many contemporary Jews — was Jonathan Neumann, a 30-year-old honors graduate of Cambridge and the London School of Economics, and the author of a new book that has generated immense attention, To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel. Harvard Professor Jon D. Levenson describes the book as “a devastating exposé of one of the worst vices of American Jewish life — the penchant of many rabbis and communal leaders to pass their own progressive politics off as continuous with classical Jewish sources.”
(Excerpted from Mishpacha Magazine, Issue 732)