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My wife rejects our faith around her family. Can I make her stop?

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Dear Bintel,

I grew up in an Orthodox community where I went to day school and Jewish summer camps. Having always wanted to experiment outside the confines of my strict upbringings, I immediately made non-Jewish friends once I could go out on weekends. Many long Shabbos walks were secretly trips to concerts. I also exclusively dated non-Jewish women, maybe intentionally or maybe not.

This continued into college, where my tenth relationship began as usual. She was very involved in her church and though I was not observant, I introduced her to shuls and holidays like Purim. It was more of a flirtation than a sincere invitation for her to explore Judaism.

Unlike every previous girlfriend however, she immediately fell in love with Judaism. Of course Purim seemed like a cheating way to start but once she committed to Shabbos and fasted on her first Yom Kippur, I knew she really meant it. She immediately began conversion. I wanted it to validate the relationship but her commitment made it clear she wanted the pious lifestyle as well as being allowed to date me.

We married and continued living an Orthodox lifestyle. I was surprised how much I enjoyed keeping the rules and how little tempted I was anymore to break them. Her family is very religious and Christian but seemed more than welcoming about her conversion and showed great respect the first year of marriage when visiting our homes and synagogues.

After a year or so, her family began staying with us for much longer periods and this changed everyone’s attitude towards Judaism for the worse. My mother-in-law at first gently raised concerns about the sexism and racism of Orthodox Jewish people regarding specific instances. Now, she makes very exaggerated accusations with baseless proof.

Illustration of a woman running away from something.

Image by Liana finck

My wife at first defended both the Jewish people and me. However, the last few months, I’ve seen her agree with her mother when she makes mean-spirited descriptions of Orthodox Jews. Even worse, against our neighbors repeated requests to stop, my wife allows her mother to break Shabbos in a neighborhood where this goes very noticed, staining our reputation. My wife now blatantly eats non-kosher food with her family, goes on outings during Shabbos and so on.

I warned my wife five years ago when she began conversion that this process was not something you can opt out of if it no longer fits your lifestyle. She promised it was what she wanted. I told her she would be doing nothing wrong if she didn’t convert or considered a more liberal conversion option.

This would not matter if we were just friends. However, I changed my life dramatically, including making professional decisions based on the need to be Orthodox, because I felt we were in this together. She represented the end of my youthful rebellious streak and we consciously agreed on many ideas that conformed to Orthodoxy. I can’t just switch back. I also feel I adequately warned her that once we reached this exact type of situation, it would be too late to call it quits. Worst of all, her family’s initial respect has disintegrated into dismissal, mockery and insults both against Judaism and Jewish people. I’m ashamed to say I no longer call it out.

My wife privately says she still loves Judaism, wants to remain in a Jewish neighborhood, and promises she will resume a fully Orthodox lifestyle when her family is not around. I probably would have agreed to her recent liberal interpretation of law when we first met. But it’s been several years and I can’t continue to arbitrarily zig zag through various Jewish identities, especially in light of us trying to create a future for ourselves that, as of now, seems lost in our confusing attitude towards Judaism in our lives.

Yours Truly,
Up and Down Piety

Dear Up and Down,

Sometimes people change, even when they promise not to. Sometimes our Jewish communities don’t live up to the ideals of acceptance and warmth that they promise. None of that is the fault of your wife. None of that makes your wife’s commitment to Judaism any less real, God forbid, or her concerns about your particular Jewish community any less valid.

You ask for advice on how to communicate to your wife that her actions are not okay, and need to stop. That is not the advice I am going to give you.

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You need to speak with your wife. You need to listen to her, deeply and without making the conversation first and foremost about your sense of betrayal. Your wife is agreeing with her mother about issues of racism and sexism in your community!

The problem is not how to get her to stop; the problem is that she seems to be encountering racism and sexism in your community! The problem is that your wife is unhappy. The problem is that something is not working in your care for each other. Those are big problems, and ones which cut across all denominations of Judaism, and all sorts of Jews.

Her mother’s outright mockery of Jews and Judaism is not okay, but I don’t think you can address the concerns with your mother-in-law until we’ve addressed why your wife is no longer on your side. It’s hard to feel like our partner in life has turned against us. I don’t know if it feels different because her mother is not Jewish, which seems like a potential element in all of this — though I imagine her comments would sting just as much if she was simply from a different Jewish community. Either way, you are forced to listen to insults about your way of life and your identity, and that would be intolerable for anyone.

Still, the key thing now is to reconnect with your wife. Don’t discount the reality of her struggle just because you doubt its source.

You twice mention that you “warned” your wife that her religious decisions, once made, would be irrevocable. But that’s not a mindset that will bring you any peace.

Life is not a signed document of promises whose consequences we must bear silently, no matter how ill-fitting they become. What a sad fate to wish on a loved one. Sometimes we have to change a commitment we once made in good faith.

Even the Talmud teaches that a woman who commits to a husband with a difficult profession is not held to her promise if it turns out that she cannot handle it (like, say, if he is a tanner and she thought she could live with the stench of the business, but she finds it unbearable after marriage). Such a woman is freed from her obligation, and the courts can compel her husband to divorce her.

Seder cartoon

Seder cartoon Image by Liana finck

I get that you feel betrayed. It sounds like you have made real sacrifices to commit to the Orthodox lifestyle that was important to her, and you feel like the rug is being pulled out from under you. But nobody is served by acting as if religious community can never be renegotiated. No amount of communicating your displeasure will make your wife’s concerns suddenly vanish, as if they were never real. If her concerns are deep-rooted, you want to know that as soon as possible. Or if she really is just unable to confront a strong-willed mother, then you want to support her in that too.

For whatever reason, your wife is not sharing her concerns with you; you both need to communicate more openly. It might be that your wife worries that you won’t listen to her. You need to listen to her with compassion and openness, not anger that she is making your life difficult. As much as you can, ignore her mother’s offensive comments until you better understand what’s motivating your wife.

Your letter comes off as troublingly controlling and unfeeling towards your wife’s situation. We don’t know your mother-in-law, or how difficult the situation might be at home. Perhaps you are even afraid that this doubt about your lifestyle reflects a doubt about your marriage, and you worry your wife moving away from Orthodoxy signals a rejection of you too. This sounds like a painful and confusing situation. But your pain might be leading you astray.

You say that you can no longer “continue to arbitrarily zig zag through various Jewish identities.” You also describe your marriage as the welcomed end to your youthful rebellious streak. In some ways, it sounds like you’ve outsourced your faith to your wife, and turned her into a pillar of piety on which you can hang your hat, so to speak. You sound resentful about the ways that her wavering is causing you to waver, and to newly imagine other lives which you thought were no longer possible. I see why that would cause resentment! You chose your wife, and she chose Orthodoxy, and you took up the cause, leaving behind other worlds. But just as she has a voice in how she leads her life, you also have a voice.

In other words, do you want to be Orthodox?

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That can mean so many things to so many people, from a firm conviction in the binding nature of Jewish law to a particular theological commitment to a desire to live within a certain type of community. But that is not a decision that you can leave to somebody else.

I don’t think this is an issue you can tackle alone or resolve with one stern conversation. You need to make your wife your partner in this struggle. That means listening to her, thinking about what she says, and potentially realizing that your commitments might not be as stable as you thought. If prayer has been a part of your religious life, now might be the time to ask God to guide you in how you approach this topic.

But figure out what is going on with your wife’s change in behavior, and figure out where you yourself stand on some of these big religious issues. If you seek out a religious authority or a marriage counselor, make sure it is a person that both you and your wife feel comfortable being entirely open and truthful with.

No warnings given, nor promises made, can change the reality of your lives today. However you proceed, you must let go of past commitments and proceed from where you are today.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected].


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