I'm a single male Jew, 35 years old, well established in my career. I am now at the point where I am considering dating for marriage. I know intermarrying is wrong. However, I am terrified of dating a Jewish girl for fear her family would inevitably discover my entire family is dead, and that I would be by definition be a poor choice for suitor into any good family. All grandparents are dead. My father died of old age, my mother and sister committed suicide (presumably due to abuse by father). I've had my share of abuse by father as well, which has affected me.
I've been nonobservant and have not gone to synagogue for the entire past decade just to avoid being reminded of the hurt.
I've engaged in a lot of therapy, which has helped me to hear, an that is why I am even considering dating at all.
Do I just throw up my hands, tell myself I am not fit to marry, and just live for work? Or would the other side be at all understanding of my background and situation?
What should I do and how can I balance the mitzvot to marry and have a family, against my situation which makes me question if I can be a decent spouse and parent and fulfill the obligations to a family?
Obviously, you have been through a great deal, and your family background is giving you significant pause in terms of wondering what sort of spouse and parent you might ultimately be. It seems to me that not only Jewish families may be taken aback by your background; any parent who is concerned with the ultimate happiness of their child will view your personal and family history as reason for being extremely cautious.
However, Jewish tradition assumes that any individual can rise above his past and whatever has beset his relatives. As R. Chanina states in Berachot 33b, “All is determined by Heaven except for one’s moral/sprititual/ethical attitudes.” When it comes to the type of person that we are, we have freedom to define ourselves, despite our backgrounds and predilections. This of course assumes a high degree of reflection, self-analysis, knowing our weaknesses in order to try to overcome them, being open to constructive criticism, and realizing that we are all “works in progress” as long as we are living and breathing. The fact that you have already engaged in therapy and that it has led to self-understanding and awareness should stand you in good stead as you face the future.
As you embark on trying to find someone who will be a true life partner, in my view, it is extremely important to be honest about your history and experiences in order that the individual be aware of what she might be in for. If after discussing where you have come from and where you would like to go, and spending significant time together in order to determine whether personal idiosyncrasies and style can be at least tolerated and hopefully even loved and embraced, both of you will be in a position to make choices that will affect your respective long-range futures.
Finally, you mention that you have been alienated from Jewish observance for a lengthy period of time. I would suggest that if you become part of a thoughtful, warm, embracing Jewish community where observance is taken seriously, the structure that engaging in a life of Mitzva fulfillment and relating to God will contribute significantly to your ability to strive to become an ever-better human being and spouse to your significant other.
First, let me express my sadness at hearing of your difficult family history and the deep respect I have for the work you have done to bring yourself to a place where you are ready to look toward marriage. The questions you ask are deeply personal, and I will do my best to offer guidance from Jewish tradition to encourage you to move forward in your search for a life partner.
Very directly, I do not think you should “just throw up my hands, tell myself I am not fit to marry, and just live for work.” The very fact that you now feel ready to date for marriage is proof enough that this is the direction your heart and soul are leading you in, and to deny that would be to deny an intrinsic part of yourself.
The Torah tells us, It is not good for the Human to be alone (Genesis 2:18), establishing the basic need for all people to have companionship. I believe it is precisely that need that you are feeling now as you consider marrying – the desire to have another person in your life who will love you and to whom you can give your love. That need is hard-wired in your soul, and to deny the longing that you clearly feel would almost certainly inflict a great deal of suffering upon yourself.
While I know that certain specific Jewish communities do scrutinize family background, outside of those particular communities I don’t believe Jewish women are any more particular about their potential partners’ family histories than non-Jewish women. In my community, there are many people who were orphaned, children of divorced parents, or who suffered abuse, and despite the apparent difficulties in their background found wonderful loving partners; I believe the same will be true for you, so long as you have the courage to continue moving forward in the face of your fears.
The right woman for you will love you not despite your family background, but with it and even because of it – because no matter how you grew up, you have done your own work to become the person you are today. And since the fact that you are asking this question suggests that one of the qualities that you value in a partner is a shared engagement with Judaism, I would encourage you to honor your personal values and seek a Jewish partner for marriage.
The question of whether you “can be a decent spouse and parent and fulfill the obligations to a family” is a question that almost every person – no matter what his or her family history may be – faces at some point. There is no reason to think that your personal history makes you any less qualified to be a “decent spouse;” that will be determined not by your past, but by your present and your future.
You are more than the accumulation of your past history; you are a beautiful soul, created in God’s Image, and deserving of love and companionship. I encourage you to be brave and seek the loving family you desire.
I am happy to be responding to your note. It has so many layers in it that I will try to understand.
I sense your fear of dating a Jewish woman since it would reveal that your parents are gone and that your sister committed suicide. If I understand you, you feel that that would somehow make you unpalatable to a girl. In the old days, I suppose it would have. Matchmakers looked at the whole family, the family history, etc., and would match people up. Having no family may have been a detriment. But that was a long, long time ago and most Jewish communities have neither the authority nor the right to hire a matchmaker.
You carry pain with you, to be sure. But I also know that your pain can be soothed by the love of a woman and, having that faith, you are bound to meet someone. Of course there is a Jewish woman out there for you and one who will grow with you and you with her. She will not judge you by your life losses, but rather what she and you can build together in your own lives. Your ezer kenegdo – your other soul – is out there looking for you, too.
There is a lot of hurt in your life but that just makes you human, not unfit to marry. When you are ready, reenter a synagogue as a new man carrying your hurt but not being a slave to it. The Torah says “uvacharta l’chaiim’ – Choose life. I know that this can become your mantra as you have reached out and are ready to hear it. Indeed, choose life and, with blessing, you will find a wonderful Jewish woman who wants to share the journey with you.
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