Uncomfortable with Religion? Welcome!

As I’m sure you’re well aware, building relationships (especially with one’s in-laws) demands attention, reflection, good sense and patience. It sounds like you’re blessed with these qualities and more.

With respect to engaging your daughter-in-law with your Rosh Hashanah activities, and being Jewish more generally, as I’m sure you know, you have lots of “assets.”

First, Rosh Hashanah is a distinctively (and exclusively) Jewish holiday with universal (and inclusive) import. The melodies are Jewish; but the lyrics apply to all humankind.

Second, on the larger plane of engaging her in Jewish life more generally, we Jews have a lot going for us (and you). One is that Judaism is NOT a religion. It’s a very peculiar combination of a cultural-ancestral group with a religious culture. But, as several scholars with far greater expertise than I have argued, it’s only in the last two centuries or so that Jews have acceded to the larger society’s classification of us as a religion (or so I have learned from my friend and colleague Prof. Charles Kadushin). In short, if your daughter-in-law is uncomfortable with religion, she’s in the right place (well, the right family). She (and your daughter) can be as Jewish as they wish without necessarily construction their engagement as religious.

Third, although we all need to work on acceptance of LGBT people, as a group at least, Jews are among the least homophobic religious or ethnic groups in American society. Our high levels of education and cultural liberalism provide part of the explanation (and support) for our relatively high levels of tolerance.

And last, I understand that you are not trying to “get her to be Jewish.” But, at the same time, I’d invite her to partake of Jewish family life as much as she wishes. Rabbi Joy Levitt and I wrote a piece that appeared here in the Forward advancing the view that if you “Marry a Jew … You’re One of Us.” In short, we should treat our non-Jewish family members as is they’re, well, one of the family. Not just one of our individual families, but one of the extended Jewish family.

And who knows? Maybe this Jewish New Year may well begin a long process of identificational evolution. After all, the book isn’t sealed on Rosh Hashanah — and it may stay open well past Yom Kippur! In fact, I suspect, the book on your daughter-in-law’s relationship with her loving Jewish family is still being written. L’shana tovah tikatevu!

Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.

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