What We Can Learn from the Zoroastrians


A few days ago, the New York Times published an article by Laurie Goodstein titled <a href=” http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/06/us/06 … ref=slogin” target=”_blank”>“Zoroastrians Keep the Faith, and Keep Dwindling.” It says nothing about Judaism, but the similarities between the issues the Zoroastrian community and the Jewish community relating to issues of intermarriage are uncanny. If you just replace the word Zoroastrian with Jewish and priest with rabbi, this article could be about the American Jewish community.

“We were once at least 40, 50 million—can you imagine?” said Mr. Antia, senior priest at the fire temple here in suburban Chicago. “At one point we had reached the pinnacle of glory of the Persian Empire and had a beautiful religious philosophy that governed the Persian kings.

”Where are we now? Completely wiped out,” he said. “It pains me to say, in 100 years we won’t have many Zoroastrians.”

There is a palpable panic among Zoroastrians today—not only in the United States, but also around the world—that they are fighting the extinction of their faith, a monotheistic religion that many scholars say is at least 3,000 years old…

While Zoroastrians once dominated an area stretching from what is now Rome and Greece to India and Russia, their global population has dwindled to 190,000 at most, and perhaps as few as 124,000…

”Survival has become a community obsession,” said Dina McIntyre, an Indian-American lawyer in Chesapeake, Va., who has written and lectured widely on her religion.

The Zoroastrians’ mobility and adaptability has contributed to their demographic crisis. They assimilate and intermarry, virtually disappearing into their adopted cultures. And since the faith encourages opportunities for women, many Zoroastrian women are working professionals who, like many other professional women, have few children or none.

Despite their shrinking numbers, Zoroastrians… are divided over whether to accept intermarried families and converts and what defines a Zoroastrian. An effort to create a global organizing body fell apart two years ago after some priests accused the organizers of embracing “fake converts” and diluting traditions.

”They feel that the religion is not universal and is ethnic in nature, and that it should be kept within the tribe,” said Jehan Bagli, a retired chemist in Toronto who is a priest, or mobbed, and president of the North American Mobed Council, which includes about 100 priests. “This is a tendency that to me sometime appears suicidal. And they are prepared to make that sacrifice.”

Their obsession with survival, their mobility and adaptability, their conflict over what defines a Zoroastrian—the similarities to the Jewish community are amazing. They become downright eerie as you continue to read:

…the intermarriage rate in North America is now nearly 50 percent.

According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, 47 percent of new marriages involving Jews were intermarriages. And the range of Zoroastrians’ response to the their declining numbers is also quite similar to the spectrum of Jewish response to intermarriage:

Zoroastrians believe in free will, so in matters of religion they do not believe in compulsion. They do not proselytize.

Ferzin Patel, who runs a support group for 20 intermarried couples in New York, said that while the Zoroastrians in the group adored their faith and wanted to teach it to their children, they in no way wanted to compel their spouses to convert.

”In the intermarriage group, I don’t think anyone feels that someone should forfeit their religion just for Zoroastrianism,” Ms. Patel said.

Despite, or because of, the high intermarriage rate, some Zoroastrian priests refuse to accept converts or to perform initiation ceremonies for adopted children or the children of intermarried couples, especially when the father is not Zoroastrian. The ban on these practices is far stronger in India and Iran than in North America.

”As soon as you do it, you start diluting your ethnicity, and one generation has an intermarriage, and the next generation has more dilution and the customs become all fuzzy and they eventually disappear,” said Jal N. Birdy, a priest in Corona, Calif., who will not perform weddings of mixed couples. “That would destroy my community, which is why I won’t do it.”

Goodstein concludes with an example of a woman who sounds like many of our readers and writers.

The peril and the hope for Zoroastrianism are embodied in a child of the diaspora, Rohena Elavia Ullal, 27, a physical therapist in suburban Chicago. Ms. Ullal knew from an early age that her parents wanted her to marry another Zoroastrian…

Ms. Ullal’s college boyfriend is also the child of Indian immigrants to the United States, but he is Hindu. [They married on Saturday and had two ceremonies—one Hindu, one Zoroastrian.] But Ms. Ullal says that before they even became engaged, they talked about her desire to raise their children as Zoroastrians.

”It’s scary; we’re dipping down in numbers,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt his parents, but he doesn’t the kind of responsibility, whereas I do.”

One thing Jews can possibly take from this article is evidence that the traditional approach to intermarriage, which is a combination of prohibition and rejection, is not effective. The priest in California who refuses to do mixed marriages, accept converts or perform initiation ceremonies for the children of intermarriages says breaking traditional Zoroastrian prohibitions “would destroy my community, which is why I won’t do it.”

But, as the article demonstrates, the number of Zoroastrians is dwindling regardless of this line-in-the-sand kind of thinking. Moreover, by forsaking the children of mixed marriages, he very well may be contributing to the decline of Zoroastrianism. The same could be said for those in the Jewish community who would disregard the opportunity to welcome intermarried families and embrace their children.

The response of Rohena Elavia Ullel and Ferzin Patel, who want to raise their children as Zoroastrian but don’t want to push their husbands to convert, is more realistic in our diverse world. And their response certainly has a better chance of stemming Zoroastrian population decline than the outright rejection of the intermarried. The Jewish community faces the same issues. Whose lead do we want to follow?

2 thoughts on “What We Can Learn from the Zoroastrians”

  • Maybe if you looked at the article below on your own website. Utah has the highest female fertility rate of any state (Source: Laboratory of the States)

    There will be no risk of the Jewish people demographically dying off as long as we have communities of religious Jews having lots of Jewish children with all such communities being extremely opposed to intermarriage

  • Dear Micah: I am very glad you mentioned that article on the Zoroastrian intermarriage problems. I wondered if anyone else had noticed the parallels with the Jewish community.

    I think interfaith outreach needs to take a very close look at that article — like you, I was struck by the eerie parallels between the largely identical dysfunctional responses of both the Zoroastrian and Jewish communities to their interfaith families.

    I was especially struck by the fact that the Zoroastrians have a mirror image of our destructive “who is a Jew?” battle — that in their religion, only the child of a Zoroastrian father is automatically a Zoroastrian; the children of intermarried Zoroastrian mothers must convert — also so must adoptees.

    So just as some groups in Judaism throw away hundreds of patrilineal children of intermarriage, and also adopted children of intermarriage, and also converts who are converted in sufficiently strict ways, the Zoroastrians are throwing away hundreds of matrilineal children of intermarriage, and also adopted children of intermarriage and converts.

    What’s happened to the Zoroastrians shows that eventually Judaism will have to drop the remaining barriers against patrilineal children of intermarriage, adoptees, and converts, if we expect to survive as a people.

    Robin Margolis
    Half-Jewish Network

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