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Honey, I Stole the Judaism

The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: [email protected]

I have a weird problem that people just don’t believe. I was a goy who married a Jewish woman a few decades ago who is not religious at all. We raised the kids Jewish, although in a “holidays-only” kind of way. I recently converted to Reform Judaism and am leaning towards more observance. My wife has been almost hostile about this transition, saying things like, “OK, now you’re Jewish, go to shul every year like everyone else and that’s that.” This attitude raises eyebrows among people I mention this to, including my rabbi. He had told me that this could be a problem.

Now I’m trying to figure out what type of shul I would be most comfortable at and am even considering trying out an Orthodox one. (If I decide I feel most comfortable there, I will consider an Orthodox conversion.) I have decided that it makes most sense for me to go to the Orthodox shul without telling her, just so I can have a little space to figure out what I want. Is this starting off on the wrong foot? I am truly confused as to what type of Jew I want to be and need time to sort through the choices and politics without negativity. -Jew by Choice with Tsoris

It’s Possible for Spouses to Have Different Religious Lives

SUSAN KATZ MILLER: If you love your wife, you are indeed starting off on the wrong foot. Pick up that foot and take a step back. The keys to a strong marriage, interfaith or otherwise, include communication, trust, respect, and cooperation. If this marriage is important to you, I would start with a deep conversation with your wife about the changing religious landscape in your relationship. I think you need to listen with love as she explains to you how hard your new-found zeal may be for her, and why. And she needs to listen with love as you explain how your passion for Judaism has inspired this religious journey.

As the child of a successful interfaith marriage, I don’t believe that both partners in a marriage always need to have the same religion, or belong to the same Jewish movement, or have the same beliefs around God, or have the same level of practice. However, Orthodox Judaism, with all of the home and family life observance, is going to be impossible without the goodwill and cooperation of your wife, even if she remains non-religious. So ideally, she would be involved in your explorations, so that you can determine together what affiliation and type of practice is going to work for your marriage, and so that she understands that you still see your marriage as a partnership. That doesn’t mean she needs to come to every shul visit and Torah study session with you, but it certainly means she needs to be in the loop, and have input on any decision that will affect your home life together. The other choice is to forge ahead without her, which seems likely to result in leaving the marriage behind.

It’s Okay to Explore on Your Own

JAMES PONET: You are in a wonderful Jewish bind. Reminds me of what I used to say when a couple who had been living together for years came to see me to discuss their intention to get married, one being a Jew, and the other being, as you put it, “a goy, albeit one who wanted to discuss the possibility and probity of converting prior to the wedding. (In those days I still required conversion before I would agree to officiate.) Addressing the Jew, I would always find an opportunity to say, “I must warn you that you fell in love with a Gentile. If he/she now becomes a Jew might you not find your original intent undermined? Beware!”

You and your wife are both in difficult places; your newly awakened Jewish hunger propels you to search for more observance, more tradition, and your wife is understandably threatened by this. It may be wise for you to taste the experience of praying in an Orthodox synagogue without flagging your plans. But I say this with a confidence that were you to find it important, edifying, significant for you, you will indeed find a way to share it with her. Some marriages weather secrecy and separation well; others, such as mine with Elana, respect privacy but eschew secrecy. I hope that you will be able together to enter this new phase of your Jewish marital life. Marriage after the children have left home deserves renewal and re-conception.

An Orthodox Conversion Will Be Impossible Without Your Wife On Board

HAROLD BERMAN: Your situation isn’t as “weird” as you think. I’ve counseled several people recently who want to convert to Orthodox Judaism, and the barrier is that their born-Jewish spouse wants nothing to do with it. A rabbi who works with intermarried couples once remarked to me that many intermarriages are based, in part, on underlying (and often unspoken) assumptions about religion. When one spouse challenges those assumptions, it can threaten the marriage.

Your interest in observance challenges the “holidays-only” assumptions that have been integral to your marriage thus far. It also may threaten your wife’s own Jewish identity, based on “every year” synagogue attendance and a belief that such Jewish minimalism, not Jewish observance, is what “everyone else” does.

Whatever you do, open communication is key. If you give up on your journey to Judaism because of your wife’s hostility to observance, you will only feel resentful. And if you do things without telling her, you will only make matters worse.

Additionally, an Orthodox conversion would be virtually impossible without your wife on board. Orthodox rabbis recognize that Jewish observance centers around the family as much as the individual. So they are reluctant to convert someone whose family environment can’t support their observance.

It is therefore imperative that you create an open, honest dialogue. Tell her just how much this means to you, and invite her to explore Judaism together. You are not insisting she become observant, only asking that she approach this with a truly open mind.

You might begin this dialogue with a rabbi or therapist who is attuned to the issues. Also, there are many initial experiences she may find less threatening and more accessible than an Orthodox service – such as a traditional Shabbat dinner, Torah study with an inspiring teacher, or the many resources you can explore together on the web.

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