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: firstname.lastname@example.org
I am a married half-Jewish, half-not, atheist married to a Jewish woman. She believes in God and I don’t. Now, I support her desire to raise our family Jewish and feel warmly about the Jewish community, culture and religion and think our young kids will benefit from feeling part of it. But no matter what there is a gap between us because of her faith and my lack thereof. Not only will I never feel as connected as she does to Judaism, I, full-disclosure, really just can’t wrap my head around how someone could believe in God. Seesaw, I need help with talking about religion and God with my wife in a way that is respectful and enthusiastic and still honest for me. And please, nothing about the merits of humanistic Judaism because I am familiar with all that. This is about our relationship and, eventually, my relationship with our kids.—Good Dad, Bad Believer
Love Thy Wife as Thyself
DAN FRIEDMAN: First of all neither of you should have to wrap your heads around God or atheism. Difference is OK. Like so many things, such as when the good dishes are used and how important it is to line your shoes up in pairs, such disagreements can be a source of delight — sometimes even more delightful when things about your spouse remain a little bit mysterious.
Second, I too love Jewishness but feel conflicted about the theological and spiritual aspects of Judaism. When I explain that Jews are a culture, a people, an ethnicity — I always feel a mild anxiety about not being authentic, like I’m saying that eating bagels is enough, even if they are BLT. But there are indeed many ways of being authentically Jewish without getting a certificate about it from the Beth Din. Apologies to my progressive Jewish friends who may feel no anxiety whatsoever, but the only groups of people who seem perfectly secure in their Judaism seem also closely identified with 17th century Poland or 19th century Syria.
So I’d say that you should be as supportive of her views of God as you would like her to be of yours. Explain honestly to your kids, at whatever level, that lots of Jews believe in God as a real thing and lots believe God’s just part of a story that allows us to talk about our responsibilities to each other. As Jews, we share those stories and traditions. Hillel tells us that the most important thing is to love thy neighbor (or thy wife — certainly not thy neighbor’s wife) and, in this context it means to wrestle lovingly with each other over what they mean and what you believe about them.
Dan Friedman is the managing editor of the Forward.
Start By Getting to Know Her Better
KEREN MCGINITY: I’d start by asking your wife, what do Judaism and God mean to her? Hearing her out will likely create room for finding some middle ground, thereby reducing the gap. The goal is not to win, but rather to listen to what is important to her and to try to understand why. Let your love for your wife and young children guide you forward, one step at a time, keeping in mind that celebrating your differences — including faith and doubt — is a viable way to have a successful marriage.
It’s great that you and your wife agree on raising Jewish children; you do not have to agree on God’s existence. Pew’s 2013 finding that one in five American Jews are Jews of no religion suggests that someone who identifies solely based on ethnicity has lots of company. By taking part in the ritual while also sharing your disbelief with your children you will demonstrate to them that there are multiple ways to be and “do Jewish.” Trust that they can handle varieties of Jewishness and Judaism.
You can and should play an active role parenting Jewish children — not just support your wife’s desire — by educating and learning alongside them about the full spectrum of Jewish beliefs, cultures, histories, texts, rituals, foods and languages. What about your “half-not” side? Is there something cultural that you would like to share with your family? Make sure to put your wishes on the table, too. In other words: lean in.
Dr. Keren R. McGinity is an author-educator affiliated with Brandeis University. Her books include the newly released “Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood” and “Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America”, a National Jewish Book Award finalist. Learn more at www.loveandtradition.com.
Get On Your Yoga Pants, It’s Flexibility Time
SCOTT PERLO: Get yourself some of those dude yoga pants — your marriage will take some mental flexibility. I get your question a lot on both sides of the believer/atheist spectrum. Understanding something not naturally evident to you is no easy feat.
Both atheists and believers share the difficult dilemma of simply trying to get how the other’s mind works. Most often people retreat to easy psychologizing: “God is just a psychological crutch;” “Atheists just don’t like the idea of being told what to do.” (Both are things I’ve heard.)
These reductions don’t help; even worse, they’re boring. To understand other people from their own vantage points is to experience the richness of their lives.
So listen, listen, listen. Listen until you get it from her perspective. Then ask her to listen to you. “Why” questions will be unhelpful because they call for an argument. Instead, ask “when” questions: “When do you feel connected? When do you feel God? When did you start believing?” Also ask “what” questions: “What leads you to understand that there’s no God? What makes you feel fulfilled? What gives life meaning for you?” Give each other time to respond; experiment with which questions are the right ones.
What to say to your kids will proceed directly from the consequent revelations.
Kurt Vonnegut has a collection of essays called “Palm Sunday.” His piece on religion, written from the perspective of someone with serious reservations on the subject, is worth your time.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.