May one be converted to Judaism if the other spouse does not? The question has a straightforward answer: Yes, providing the proper circumstances accompany the response.
One should not undertake a conversion if one spouse thereby destroys the sh’lom bayit, the “domestic tranquility,” of the other. If one causes the other to break up the family relationship, the conversion comes with sinful consequences in what follows.
Furthermore, the supposition accompanying a conversion is that he or she undertook acceptance of the mitzvot and the practices of Judaism. Can one spouse undertake these halakhic requirements, and this lifestyle, without the spouse agreeing to them as husband and wife?
And what follows for the children and their parents? Along with whatever else the convert agrees to, there is the commandment to teach Torah to our children. Will the conversion be valid if that precept is flatly ignored on the face of it?
There is a positive answer for this question, provided that the surrounding circumstances contribute to enable its success.
The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, the entity within the Conservative Movement that generates rabbinic responsa to questions of Jewish law, approved a paper by Rabbi Ben Zion Bergman in February of 1993 that concluded with the following two paragraphs that are relevant to the present question:
“Caveat: This is not to deny the fact that conversion under the stated conditions presents its own inherent problems. This convert, though sincerity and motivation are beyond question, does have a greater difficulty in fulfilling Jewish responsibility and achieving a Jewish lifestyle. The rabbi and bet din who supervise and carry out the conversion have the responsibility to make sure that the non-converting spouse (and other non-Jewish members of the household) are supportive of the convert and will cooperate with the convert in maintaining standards of kashrut, Shabbat and holiday observance, etc. This will require extensive consultation and counseling with the convert and the convert’s family. Only when the bet din is convinced that this support and cooperation are forthcoming should the conversion be completed.
“Conclusion: A married gentile may convert to Judaism even though the convert intends to remain married to the unconverted gentile spouse. Such conversion should take place, however, only after proper counseling and consultation assuring that the convert will be able to practice the Jewish religion without interference by the non-Jewish member of the family. Under these conditions, those who seek… ‘to shelter under the wings of the Shekhinah’ – … ‘may their numbers increase in Israel,’ … ‘and may blessings be bestowed upon them.’”
(The full text of this paper can be accessed on the Rabbinical Assembly web site – rabbinicalassembly.org – by clicking on the CJLS tab and typing in “conversion” in the “search” space.)
The questioner also must keep in mind that conversion into Judaism is a complex spiritual and religious process that entails a significant and multi-faceted cultural reorientation, both for the convert and for the convert’s non-Jewish family members. This is challenging enough for a convert who is married to a Jew, whose children are being raised as Jews and whose gentile family members (e. g. parents and siblings) do not live at home with her/him. It is even more of a challenge for a convert whose closest gentile family members – a spouse and children who are remaining non-Jews – live under the same roof. How would they react, for example, to her/him sitting shiv’ah in their home upon the death of a member of his close non-Jewish family (a practice that the Conservative Movement urges – and some would say mandates – converts to do, as do religious authorities in other Jewish movements), with strangers coming in and out to comfort the bereaved convert and to join her/him in prayers?
The questioner must also realize that Judaism is experienced most meaningfully in the context of community and a circle of friends who share her/his new and emerging religious and cultural values and who can provide camaraderie and support in times of joy, sorrow and other needs. Such relationships take patience and effort to develop, on the part of both the community and the convert. How would the convert’s family adapt to this new reality? How comfortable would they feel accompanying him to a synagogue event (other than worship)? Would they feel the Jewish community, with which they would not have the same ties, was coming between them and their loved one?
While a multi-denominational household is not unheard of in 21st century America, sociological studies indicate that it is not the ideal setting in which to raise a family and in which “domestic tranquility” can easily be sustained. Religion frequently impinges upon rationality, and unintended consequences can emerge that can create serious problems. One cannot know when a moment charged with great spiritual power will push an emotional button that releases a torrent of anger and pain that results in an irreparable tear in the fabric of the family.
For all these reasons – even though there are good reasons to welcome a covert whose family at home remains non-Jewish – Rabbi Bergman’s and my caveats must be taken seriously and must be acted upon prior to the commencement of the conversion process. This email response is not adequate; the questioner and his family must seek the counseling discussed above.
Ultimately, in order for you to convert to Judaism, you must find a sponsoring rabbi and a beit din (rabbinic court; three individuals, usually all clergy) willing to sign off on your conversion. If you are sincere in your intentions and willing to commit to the course of study, observance, and other ritual requirements, then what could be the objection?
As I suspect you have anticipated, since you raise the question yourself, you might find many rabbis hesitating, at least initially, to accept you as a conversion student. Why? Given your circumstances, your conversion to Judaism would create an interfaith marriage and an interfaith household where previously there was no such complication. As Rabbi Feldman indicates, Shalom Bayit (family and household harmony) is a serious concern. How would conversion impact your marriage and/ or your relationships with your children? Another serious concern is the question of whether you could and would succeed in creating a Jewish life, home, and identity for yourself within the context of an otherwise non-Jewish family. Does your spouse support your choice? Would you be able to bring Jewish observances and holiday celebrations into your home and share them with your non-Jewish family? Would you feel comfortable attending worship services and community celebrations alone, if necessary? To what degree would your family choose to participate with you in your new Jewish life? If you cannot provide satisfying answers to these questions, conversion may not be a good choice for you right now, regardless of whether you can find a rabbi (or rabbis) to support you.
A rabbi with more traditionally halakhic concerns might balk at the fact that your marriage to a Christian will prevent you from fulfilling the mitzvah (commandment) of a Jewish marriage and (quite possibly, given that you already have three children who have, I presume, been raised as Christians) the mitzvah of raising Jewish children, among others. However, as Rabbi Mark Washofsky writes regarding a woman in a similar situation to yours (wanting to convert to Judaism while remaining married to her Roman Catholic husband) in Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century (Vol. 2):
All of us struggle to overcome the obstacles that stand in our way to a more complete Jewish life. None of us is perfect (however we understand that term) in his or her Jewish observance, and we do not require perfection from this proselyte. All we ask of her—and this is no little thing—is that she make a sincere and informed decision to adopt the Jewish faith as her exclusive religious expression and that she identify her fate and destiny with that of the people of Israel (95).
So it is certainly possible, in the eyes of Reform Judaism, for you to convert. If you can convince a sponsoring rabbi that you are whole-hearted in your wish to convert to Judaism and that your current family and your new religious life can flourish together and support one another, then you will be well on your way. I wish you all the best.
Washofsky, Mark, ed. Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century: Sh’eilot Ut’shuvot, Volume 2. New York: CCAR, 2010.
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