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The Jewish Ethicist  - My More Observant Spouse

The Jewish Ethicist - My More Observant Spouse

Expect accommodation, not transformation.


Q. My husband has recently become much more observant, and he is pressuring me to transform my lifestyle as well. How can we move forward when I really want the old him and he seems to want a new me?

A. Change in degree of religious observance is just one of a variety of lifestyle changes that can grip people in mid-life – and create pressure on their marriages. Other examples are career burn-out and change, which can require a spouse to cope with significantly reduced standard of living or with fewer hours together due to new work responsibilities; people becoming suddenly "green" with attendant demands for a more "sustainable" household; or health freaks who suddenly want the family to change their diet and exercise habits.

It's normal and healthy for people to continue to grow and develop after getting married, but the marriage commitment means that such changes obligate both spouses to make certain accommodations. The basic rule for the changing partner is that it is legitimate to make reasonable demands on the spouse to accommodate your new habits, but it is not fair to expect the spouse to change their habits. A good example is the old TV series Green Acres: Lawyer-turned-farmer Oliver expects his glamorous wife Lisa to adjust to life in the country, which she strives to do with good humor, but he doesn't demand that she give up her shopping sprees in the city.

In the case of Jewish observance, a newly religious partner will need a kosher kitchen; family trips on Shabbat and Jewish holidays will now be out of the question; and so on. But the non-observant spouse shouldn't be pressured to change their way of dress, or their own habits of eating and traveling when outside the home. To take an example from another kind of lifestyle difference, I have a friend who is a competitive amateur athlete. He told his wife he expects her to accompany him to competitions from time to time (not to mention endure his hours of training), but he does not expect her to lace on her own sneakers to join him in activity.

There are many Jewish sources which support the need for changes to be made with consultation and consideration. A very famous Talmudic passage tells how a leadership crisis necessitated changing the Nasi, who was in ancient times the highest religious and temporal Jewish authority in the land of Israel. The community leaders offered this position to the young Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah. (Note that even thousands of years ago, Jewish leadership was exercised by the free choice of the governed, and leadership transition was orderly even when precipitated by crisis.) Rabbi Elazar's reply was, "Let me consult with my household", that is, with his wife. (1) Later authorities write that Rabbi Elazar's conduct was not merely exemplary, but was actually obligatory. Despite the immense honor and importance of the job, it would have been forbidden for Rabbi Elazar to accept the new position, with its new demands and responsibility, without the consent of his wife. (2)

An instructive source of guidance is to see what kinds of behavior are considered in Jewish law grounds for divorce. It makes sense that if a behavior is considered grounds for divorce then we would say that the spouse has a legitimate demand that it be changed.

We find that in general, a spouse's conduct is grounds for divorce only to the extent that it impacts the other spouse. The Talmud gives the example of a wife who feeds her husband non-kosher food. (3) The fact that she herself may not eat kosher is not mentioned.

The exception to this is immodest dress or behavior, which constitute grounds for divorce even when they don't directly impact the spouse. But even this must be judged according to the standards of modesty the couple acknowledged when they were married. The eminent contemporary authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that less than modest dress according to religious standards is not grounds for divorce as long as the partner's conduct was known at the time of marriage. Rabbi Feinstein's reasoning is that the obligations and commitment of marriage are a voluntary agreement, and if a person accepts these even if the spouse is not observant, he remains bound by them. He writes: "And the ruling of the Talmud [that lack of hair covering is grounds for divorce] is only when he doesn't know, for he [reasonably] assumed that she would conduct herself like all observant Jews." (4) And specifically in the Jewish context, we should recall that marital harmony is itself one of the greatest commandments, as we learn from the laws of the suspected wife that even God's name may be erased in order to make peace between mean and wife. (5)

The exact same principle applies to other kinds of lifestyle changes. It is reasonable, within limits, for you husband to expect you to accommodate changes and enable the "new him" to adjust his identity. But it is not reasonable for him to expect you to substantially change your behavior or identity. Acceptance is the most basic precondition for coexistence in a marriage.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 27b. (2) Pitchei Teshuva Even HaEzer 76:3. (3) Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 72a (4) Responsa Igrot Moshe Even HaEzer I 114. (5) Babylonian Talmud Chullin 141a

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at

October 6, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Anonymous, October 22, 2007 12:13 AM

What about Taharas HaMishpocho?

Seems to me that something that is so very basic and which impacts the wife needs to be at the top of the list.

(5) Anonymous, October 15, 2007 4:51 AM

In the answer by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir he confirmed exactly the way my wife and I handled/continues to handle that situation. When we first wed (a second marriage for both of us) she had 4 children none of which had ever had any religious training, while I had 4 children and each had had at some religious training. Actually, my eldest son had already had a bar mitzvah and my twin sons were attending Hebrew school at that time. My wife was probably better versed in what was a wife's contribution to a Hebrew home than I was, so when our marriage began we reached an accommodation; though we would not begin by setting up a kosher kitchen, at some time later we would do so, but only after we had both decided that it is what each of us wanted.
Well, it took many years but a time came when we both had decided that living a kosher life with a kosher kitchen, attending Shabbat Services and observing all Holy Days was, and is, what we both want.
What I would suggest to the husband (I am the husband in our household) is do not pressure your wife to conform to what you want to accomplish. If you want a kosher kitchen and only have kosher foods brought into the house, you begin doing all the grocery and meat purchasing. After you become confortable doing that you can inform your wife that when ever she would like to share that chore, that she let you know. You can bring her along on a shopping trip and demonstrate how you go about purchasing only those foods that fit into your level of observance. Each time thereafter that you shop for food, be it meat, chicken or plain everyday groceries, ask if she would like to come along and help purchase the foods.
The same can be done with the kitchen; if she is not ready to take responsibility for maintaining a kosher kitchen, don't demand that she do so. Have 2 kitchens. Eventually, a time will come when you will both come together. It worked for my spouse and me and it will work for anyone in that position. I have to admit that it took me a much longer time to adapt to my wife's desires, then she to mine, but by both of us staying loose, we came together eventually.
Please pass this along to the couple.

(4) Hadar, October 12, 2007 3:35 PM

Respect first, everything else second

I am more observant than my husband; I require him to use the right dishes and silverware in the kitchen, I ask him to not bring treif food into the house, etc. But I can't ask him to get up at 9 am on Saturday to go to shul if he doesn't want to; I cannot ask him to not order a certain meal at lunch only because I am observant. If he doesn't come to it on his own, the idea is worthless. I respect and love him for what he is. Because I act that way, he responds in kind - we're members of an orthodox synagogue (even though he is a rare visitor); our child will be going to a private Jewish school (although my husband's preference would have been to send him to a public school, but he made a concession because it's important to me), and he otherwise accommodates my needs for a more kosher home in general. If I were to insist on his observance, our marriage would fail because nobody likes to be pressed into something they aren't ready to accept. I believe the key to successful marriage is respect of our differences, and the ability to find harmony despite the fact that we are different people with different upbringing.

(3) Nechama, October 11, 2007 2:18 PM

While your advice was good,Rabbi Meir, I was amazed that you compared doing tshuvah with mid-age crisis. Of course, people can have many reasons for becoming more observant, but we are commanded to judge for the good and believe that they are truly sincere and want to observe the Torah the way Hashem has commanded us.
The husband, in this case, should have a rabbi to guide him in his attitude towards his wife and advise him on what he should and should not expect of her.
Hoping that all Am Yisrael will do tshuvah very soon.

(2) Anonymous, October 9, 2007 4:42 PM

What About Kids ? ? ?

This article was very helpful, except I'm still curious how Judaism would respond to such a situation when children are involved.

What if the wife is pregnant with the couple's 1st child, for example, when all of these changes are made by 1 partner? How, with both spouses maintaining a sense of respect, could the child be raised? (If the child is to be raised w/ the restrictions of the more religious partner, isn't it as if the less religious partner is somehow not good enough? If the child is not raised religiously, that could be heart-breaking for the partner who sees so much benefit in the religious ways.)

Please share if you have any ideas!

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