I am a soon to be converted Jew by Choice. The problem is, practicing Judaism is really causing problems in my marriage with my non-practicing Jewish husband. I realized how important religion was to me when we had our first child. In the last two years, our marriage has been fraught with arguments because he doesn't want to raise our children Jewish. He did participate in a baby naming, doesn't sulk everytime I light Shabbat candles as he once did and has agreed to a Jewish preschool, but I still feel like it's an uphill battle to raise our kids Jewish. He had trauma in his youth (abuse) that occurred at his shul for which he will not seek counseling. Am I right to keep pushing like this? I certainly want to be sensitive to my husband but feel like I'm repressing my own identity and the Jewish identity of our children.
When I was a child I didn’t want to go to synagogue.Both my parents worked for the shul and I did not really like the rabbi.Many of my friends attended the same synagogue but they were not always there and truthfully, it was just plain boring.My parents were wonderful about it.They never forced me to attend, never pressured me to come to a synagogue function or chastised me about my choices.From an early age they gave me the freedom to make those decisions and trusted that the Jewish soul they had given me through sedarim and meaningful Jewish moments throughout my life would hold me over until I felt called to return to the Jewish community.
Eventually, I did find my way back to the synagogue.And I recall clearly phoning my childhood rabbi to tell him that I was being ordained.I thought the silence on the other end of the phone indicated a heart attack due to incredible surprise!
I share this story to give you my own experience so you will understand where I am coming from.In general, I don’t believe in pressuring partners or children about issues of faith.For whatever reason, Jewish guilt rarely works in this arena and the bitterness of pressure often encourage people to stay away out of anger or frustration.It is so hard when children are involved and I can’t begin to appreciate how difficult this situation is for you.But I believe that if you force the issue you may win in the short term but do long-term damage to the Jewish identities of your partner and children.Perhaps you are feeling an uphill battle because you are fighting on the wrong front.
Pirke Avot tells us that we “must not separate ourselves from the community.”But it never spells out what that means.I know people who have incredibly deep relationships to the Jewish community through trips to Israel or through philanthropy, but who never step foot in to the synagogue down the street.I know others who find community through the Jewish Community Center but not with the local rabbi.Relationships and identity just isn’t that simple.
I want to empower you to provide a rich and varied Jewish identity for your children and for yourself.That is your right and obligation as a parent.The Talmud teaches us that parents are obligated to teach our children about faithfulness and service (along with a profession and how to swim).And I encourage you to continue to be open and honest with your partner about your concerns and to share with him your passion for giving your children a strong and meaningful Jewish identity.You two will need to work together to find a variety of experiences in your community that may meet your needs and the needs of your children.Speak with your local rabbi and connect with other Jewish families.
But remember that the most important teaching moments about Judaism and Jewish tradition don’t happen at the synagogue.They happen at home around the seder table or while lighting candles for Shabbat.They come at bedtime as we sing the Angel’s blessing and as we teach our children to sing the Shema.And they occur when we least expect it but when they are most needed.
Your very moving question reflects why Judaism requires that, when someone wishes to convert to Judaism, both spouses must be on the same page.Think about it: How can only one spouse adhere with fealty to the laws of family purity if the other spouse does not?How can one spouse build a Jewish home with a proper Shabbat home environment while the other is watching a college football game on TV in the next room?Is one parent going to be strictly kosher while the other brings the kids to McDonald’s? How rear Jewish children properly in such an environment?
Yes, the same problem arises in a two-Jewish-parent home when one opts to begin observing the Torah and mitzvot, while the other refuses to evolve.That is horrible, emotionally wrenching for the observant party.But such a situation is completely outside the pale if someone non-Jewish wishes to convert, to come into a Covenant to which the spouse is not willing to adhere.
In my rabbinical career of thirty years, I have experienced wonderful situations when the demurring spouse, with some rabbinical pastoral counseling and lots of encouragement and love, came “on board.”But if (s)he will not agree to live the Torah life, then we will not proceed with the conversion.We will not bring someone into the Covenant between G-d-the-Creator and the Jewish People if the Covenant will not be lived and honored at home by both members of the couple.
The first baby steps for the recalcitrant spouse may be accepting the baby naming, your candle-lighting, and the Jewish preschool.But in time a Jewish home also needs a proper Shabbat each and every weekend, from Friday sunset to Saturday nightfall; a strictly kosher home and kosher-eating lifestyle outside the home; inclusion of mikveh in the marriage; commitment to the Jewish calendar, rearing children to live the life of practicing Jews.
If you really want to be Jewish – authentically a member of the Torah Covenant, beyond a pro forma conversion that will not be regarded for yourself or your children by wide swaths of the Jewish People – then your spouse would need to work through his issues.With the right rabbi, I have seen this effort succeed.Otherwise, we could not put you through to conversion, and – even if we could – your children would emerge so very confused.In Orthodoxy, it tragically would have to be a “No Go.”Which is the reason that a sensitive and gifted rabbi, and a loving spouse, potentially could overcome the challenge.It is not clear whether you have those ingredients in your recipe.From your passion, you clearly deserve those ingredients.
I am a soon to be converted Jew by Choice. The problem is, practicing Judaism is really causing problems in my marriage with my non-practicing Jewish husband. I realized how important religion was to me when we had our first child. In the last two years, our marriage has been fraught with arguments b/c he doesn't want to raise our children Jewish. He did participate in a baby naming, doesn't sulk everytime I light Shabbat candles as he once did and has agreed to a Jewish preschool, but I still feel like it's an uphill battle to raise our kids Jewish. He had trauma in his youth (abuse) that occurred at his shul for which he will not seek counseling. Am I right to keep pushing like this? I certainly want to be sensitive to my husband but feel like I'm repressing my own identity and the Jewish identity of our children.
Before moving to concrete suggestions, I would like to offer you some validation. Your adult decision to embrace Judaism is highly praiseworthy. I hope that you can maintain your Jewish loyalties, even as you negotiate the important issue of achieving “sh’lom bayyit” (domestic peace).
It is not at all uncommon, in my experience as a Conservative/ Masorti rabbi, to see a Jew by choice have greater enthusiasm for our religion that her spouse. (Less frequently, the husband is the Jew by choice, but there, too, the pattern can apply.)
It would be lovely if you could “have it all”, in the sense of the Jewish household you crave, plus a willing, happy husband who is progressing in step with your spiritual growth. But that is not likely, and certainly not in the short run. If your husband is reacting against a strongly negative personal experience, you are correct that psychological counseling would be the best recourse. If, for now, he continues to resist that step, you may want to concentrate your efforts on showing him that the experiences you enjoy are not replications of his unhappy experiences. Not every Jewish synagogue authority is the person of his nightmares. Even conceding that your surmise about his having endured abuse is well-founded, if only for the sake of argument, that chapter was from a different place and time than the life that you are leading.
I would look for steps that will accentuate the beauty and joy of Judaism, to help overcome the resistance that your husband carries from earlier formative experiences. Your question indicates some movement on his part towards accepting your devotion to Judaism, and that is a positive sign Patience and selectivity on your part could help him to see Judaism with your positive perspective. You would be well advised to focus on those Jewish ceremonies and rituals that are the most obviously enjoyable. With the holidays approaching, there could be many beautiful and easy-to-appreciate moments, such as apples and honey for the Rosh Hashanah eve dinner, decorating a sukkah and enjoying al fresco dining with friends and family, participating in the “happy pandemonium” of a Simchat Torah parade.
In short, the answer is not “all or nothing”. Marriage is about compromise. Less than what you want, and more than his default position, is an honorable place, at least for now. May Heaven bless you and your children, and over time, may the example of engaged and joyous Jewish living that you exemplify help to heal your husband, as well.
My learned colleagues have offered you much good advice, and have set forth some of the Halachic (Jewish law), practical, and emotional issues, so I will not plow that ground again. :-)
Given what you say about the circumstances, it seems likely that you are already working with a Reform rabbi to study for your conversion, so I will also not say much about the approach of the Reform movement to conversion (aside from which, there is much already written and appearing here on the Jewish Values Online website on that topic – you can find it by doing a keyword search on the website).
So, first and foremost, it is clear to me that this is something you should definitely be discussing with your rabbi, the rabbi with whom you are studying for conversion. Depending on the movement within Judaism of the rabbi, your conversion may be delayed or in jeopardy if this cannot be resolved. More immediately, if this is actually going to jeopardize your marriage, you need to consider proceeding carefully in that light.
Second, I would ask; is your husband actually unwilling to raise the children as Jews, or is it it that he is unwilling to ‘marginalize’ himself in the family by agreeing that his family will be observant (to some degree) while he won’t be? In other words, could this be based on a concern that he is going to be separated in some way from his wife and children by religion?
It seems to me that you would need to have some conversations with him to find out. These conversations may be quite difficult – this is not necessarily something that will go smoothly and easily, and it is possible that you should seek to have them with some assistance. Involving a counselor may be a good way to approach a subject that already seems very fraught for you both.
One more point on the relationship; though this is perhaps cheap armchair psychologizing…. It seems to me that your husband married someone who was not Jewish. Perhaps that was intentional and even important to him at some level (think of some of the Jewish secular literature, perhaps including Philip Roth, in this regard). If so, your choice to convert, and now to convert and raise your children as Jewish, would in that case be a problem for him. You might want to think about this, and try to find a way to ask him to consider if this is playing any role in the matter.
The end result is unclear, but if you approach this with sensitivity and a sense of compassion and openness to his feelings, inviting him to accompany you as much as he wishes and is able, on a journey you are on, and which you would like to share with him, he is much more likely to take steps towards where you wish to be – though there is no guarantee (and small likelihood) that he will ever stand in the exact same place you do – most marriages and unions require both parties each to compromise on some things, to concede others, and to stand firm on a very few. It is choosing those issues which fall into each grouping that is in the art of marriage. :-)
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