Over the High Holidays, many of us reflect not just on what kind of people we are, but also on what kind of Jews we can and should be. I suspect this is especially true for the less observant among us, for whom Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur make up a large chunk of yearly synagogue attendance.
I am one of those Jews, and often leave the holidays with ideas of ways I can and will be more spiritually engaged. Most years this includes things that could actually happen, but truth be told, I rarely see them through. This year it included letting go of something that was never likely to happen, and it’s left me feeling rather hopeful.
My husband is not that into Judaism. Yes, he’ll come along to services whenever I ask, got farklemt when our 2-year-old son recited the blessing over the wine for the first time, and loves a good Seder because, well, who doesn’t?
But does he feel a sense of heightened awareness at synagogue? Nah. Enthralled by the wisdom of the rabbis of the Talmud? Nope. Believe that grating 10 pounds of potatoes and watching them fry is imbued with a higher purpose? Not exactly.
As such I have spent the past 10 years or so as MSAS, or “married single at shul.” This particular relationship status was never a source of shame for me, but it was, in spiritual terms, holding me back. Most simply, I went to synagogue less because of this status. There were logistical reasons for this: It’s hard to carve out time for oneself in a family with two working parents and a young child. There were also psychic reasons. I was, I now realize, waiting for that moment when our family would arrive at some sort of spiritual equilibrium and we’d stumble upon a solution that feel right for us all. That this would likely never happen is not something I let myself believe.
Now, I wish I could say I came to see how unrealistic this was through my own logic and reasoning, but that was not the case. Instead, this realization came by way of a small moment I witnessed recently at a bat mitzvah; a short scene that probably felt routine to its players, but when I replayed it in my head at Rosh Hashanah services it transformed me.
It involved a married couple: people whom I’d classify as somewhere in between acquaintances and friends. He was wrapped up in his tallit — his gaze inward, his prayer executed with ease and joy. Her gaze moved out, prayer book resting on her chest, a soft smile stretched across her otherwise still mouth. They stood there, side by side, apart and together, close and far away, and it all seemed so very okay. It wasn’t the kind of marital harmony I had longed for in my spiritual life, but it was harmony nonetheless, and one I could imagine for myself.
I asked the friend I have in common with this couple if my impression of them was grounded in truth. He said yes, and then asked why I was inquiring. When I explained, he agreed that this couple did in fact find a way to accommodate different spiritual frequencies. And while, yes, they did it better than most, this wasn’t that unusual. My friend, who is in his 50s, explained that he knew few couples that were spiritually aligned. “You find a way,” he said.
While there have been no large-scale studies of how many MSAS people there are in the Jewish community, it is fairly common among other religious groups. In 2001 the Presbyterian Church conducted a survey of more than 1.2 million regular worshippers and found that 58% of women and 38% of men attend most services without their spouses. My own anecdotal research among young families in New York City (one could do worse) tells me that MSAS exist, but our numbers are not yet as high as they are among Presbyterians.
How does this phenomenon fit in to communal life?
Organized Judaism, in case you haven’t heard, is in crisis. Synagogue attendance is down, as are donations to local federations and, well, if you’re reading this you’ve heard this all before. (That organized Judaism has been in crisis for millennia is a point for another time, another column.) We often talk about how institutions need to adjust, adapt, give people and families what they want.
But my coming to peace with being MSAS suggests to me that it’s possible we need to adjust and adapt, too. With 20th-century freedom came choice, so much choice, and with choice came so many ways to be, feel and do Jewish. The odds of non-Orthodox Jews marrying someone who is their spiritual equal, in terms of both sense of obligation and gut feeling, do not seem like something that will rise.
And so I’ve arrived at my post-High Holidays revelation: To live a spiritual life different from that of one’s partner should not be considered a failure or hindrance to a richer spiritual engagement — not by the partners themselves, nor by their community. Sure, there will be obstacles. From the logistics of getting to services or preparing for a holiday when my spouse has little interest in doing the same, to the inevitable question from our son: “Why do I have to go when Dad doesn’t?” (My answer, which I’m sure you’d like to hear: “On the big days, Dad comes, too.”) Ultimately, it’s better for our child, and perhaps one day for our children, to experience one parent who approaches Judaism with fondness and curiosity, instead of two parents who have struck a balance but unhappily so.
We live in an age of companionate marriage in which our spouses are supposed to be not just our life partners, but also our best friends. It’s a more equal model of matrimony, and household decisions are something couples often make together. While this is generally a good thing, especially for women, sometimes the habit of making decisions together can get us in the frame of mind that we are searching for one solution rather than two. But there are times when a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t serve us, times when one partner longs to sway in prayer while the other is content to stand still. And this, I’ve come to understand, is just fine.
Elissa Strauss is a contributing editor to the Forward.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.