By Rabbi Simcha Feuerman
In “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye exclaims in frustration to his daughter who is considering a marriage outside of the faith, “A bird and a fish can fall in love, but where would they build their home?” Today, many couples find themselves in a position of religious disparity. Whether they started out in the same religious position and one turned more religious and the other less, or they married under this circumstance, it challenges the most loving relationship. The degree of conflict, hostility, and power struggles can reach an unmanageable level. However, with correct and healthy notions of ground rules for any relationship, crises can be averted.
Within Judaism, there is a parallel between the spirit and values behind the law, and the law itself. For example, it doesn’t take a great philosopher to understand that rituals such as fasting, penance, and prayer on Yom Kippur are to induce a contrite and reflective state of mind. The rabbis say as much. Yet, regardless of one’s state of mind, the obligation to fast is inviolable. Additionally, fasting without true repentance would be hollow, though a technical fulfillment of the legal dictates. Therefore, it is clear that values and ritual law, though closely linked, are not the same at all.
Being aware of this distinction can allow for respectful and even deep care and intimacy, despite a couple having radically different practices and rituals. Some common examples that create tension between religious couples are: Sabbath observance, kosher laws, family purity, and concerns about how Judaism responds to gender equality and sexual orientation. Some of these conflicts, on a practical level, will require one or the other to compromise, and, in certain cases for the religious spouse, may require halachic consultation with a skilled and sensitive rabbi to figure out which parts of the laws can be bent without being broken. However, the rules and the compromises do not dictate love or closeness.
In one important study that examined successful couples who were able to remain married for 20+ years, a counterintuitive finding was discovered. Couples did not need to share the same interests. However, couples did need to feel that they could discuss their goals and interests, and so long as they felt that their spouse cared and understood it, they were fine. This has significant application to the scenarios we described. A couple may disagree on points of Jewish law and still find connection over shared values.
Most sane and rational humans can understand the deep and meaningful power of observing a day of rest, a day to focus on family, prayer, and meditation without external distraction. Orthodox Judaism has an incredibly detailed list of restrictions to help enact and enforce this form of rest and contemplation. Those who are not used to it may bristle at the restrictions and may question how turning on a light or watching a movie constitutes “work” and is restricted. Such a person may not be ready to observe all the restrictions, and, as stated, perhaps rabbinic consultation is necessary for the more religious spouse to work through practical details. Nevertheless, if the couple can agree on the concept of Sabbath, even possibly agree on the dogmas of Sabbath, such as testimony and faith that the world was created by G-d, many celebratory and spiritual aspects of Sabbath can be experienced in a respectful and intimate manner.
It is easy to see how a similar approach can be developed toward kashrus and family purity. Many persons coming from a secular perspective will have a difficult time, seeing certain aspects of gender roles and sexual prohibitions as antiquated and discriminatory. On the other hand, persons from more traditional backgrounds have a hard time understanding why certain ideas that have been so long a part of traditional societies could be so offensive.
The best approach when anyone is offended about anything is to try not to make excuses or become defensive. Such responses tend to anger the person more, making him or her feel that his or her concerns are being dismissed. It is better to validate that there are feelings and experiences that are subjectively troubling and hurtful. It is not disloyal to Orthodoxy to affirm that someone feels hurt or uncomfortable with halachah. There are aspects of halachah that are not always easy to understand. There are situations where halachah can make accommodations for individual sensitivities and needs, and other times where it cannot. Give the person a deep sense of empathy while standing for what you believe in, and let G-d take care of the rest.
Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R describes himself as a relationship and personality surgeon who works with high conflict couples, families, and individuals. He is also president of Nefesh International.