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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