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Dating Advice #201 - The Religious-Secular Gap
Dating Advice 201

Dating Advice #201 - The Religious-Secular Gap

Can a secular Jew and a religious Jew find lifetime bliss together?


My question isn't about intermarriage between a Jew and non-Jew. Rather it is about the problems I am facing as a secular Jew who is engaged to a man who is observant.

My fiancé began to keep Shabbat and kosher about two years ago. I come from a Russian Jewish family who passed strong Jewish values and traditions along to me, and we have strong connection to Israel.

So now we are getting married, but the issue of religion has become amplified during the past few weeks. I believe that my fiancé was under the assumption that I would "come around" and become religious at some point. It is not that I am unwilling to grow into more aspects of Judaism. But my level of comfort is somewhere around conservative.

My question is whether there is a way to meet in the middle. It seems like I can't discuss this with anyone. If I speak to a rabbi, he will advise me to become more religious. If I speak to someone who isn't religious at all, they will tell me to do what I believe. I don't want to have all of the aspects of an observant lifestyle, such as the way my fiancé wants to observe Shabbat. I have no problem with him observing these traditions, but I do not feel they should be imposed on me.

At this point I am stuck on how to proceed. Any suggestions?


Dear Naomi,

We're glad that you wrote us and hope that we can be helpful to you. But we aren't the only address for you to turn to for advice. Many rabbis and Jewish educators, particularly those who work in Jewish outreach, have experience with situations similar to yours. They understand that each individual needs to connect with Judaism at his or her own pace, and will not advise you to do something you are not ready to undertake.

Compatible goals and values are one of the vital foundations of a long-term marriage. Your letter describes many basic Jewish values that you and your fiancé have in common. Being Jewish is very important to both of you, and you both have a strong Jewish identity. Both of you want to marry Jews and to raise children who are strongly aware of their Jewishness. You are both connected to Israel. We expect that for both of you, your sense of right and wrong, the importance of family, the emphasis on helping others, and your overall view of life are heavily influenced by Judaism.

Although you share many basic Jewish values, the next question is how compatible each of you can be with the differences between you. Your fiancé's decision to become more religiously observant, and your desire to stay at a place in which you are comfortable, will be a serious challenge.

Principles of Accommodation

There are two basic principles of accommodation that we feel are non-negotiable. The first is that the more observant partner should not be pressured to lessen or compromise his or her level of commitment to Jewish observance. This is because the observant party cannot philosophically compromise on a value that he holds as absolute. For example, your fiancé may say that he cannot eat with a group of friends at a non-kosher restaurant -- not because he prefers not to, but rather because he cannot, due to immutable Torah laws.

Beyond this, at the end of the day, squelching one's spiritual yearnings is not something a human being can endure indefinitely, and it will inevitably lead to bitter resentment.

The second principle is that the couple must agree on the standards of observance that will be maintained in their home, and on the way their children will be raised and educated.

How does this work on a practical level? If one partner keeps Shabbat, he will surely want Shabbat candles lit, to have Shabbat meals as a family, to use electric timers to control lights, and to attend synagogue and study Torah. Even though each partner can be free to enjoy the rest of Shabbat as he or she pleases, the couple will have to deal with their differences when children enter the picture.

This is but one example, and there are many others. Another significant issue involves the Jewish laws of family purity, which your fiancé will undoubtedly want to follow. This aspect of married life requires the participation of both partners.

It is important to understand that for an observant Jew, Judaism is much more than a set of traditions and that the differences between the two of you are probably more than just practical considerations. Belief in God as the author of the Torah shapes one's entire set of values and beliefs -- and impacts how one shapes the home, raises children, and makes personal decisions in life.

You might view the idea of making accommodations in these areas as creating a situation in which you will have to make more adjustments than your fiancé. That's always true for the less observant partner. However, your fiancé will also be making compromises.

Since you are open to the idea of growing Jewishly yourself, you have probably considered that while you do not feel as religiously committed as your fiancé, if the two of you agree to make accommodations you may gradually acquire more of an appreciation for Jewish observance and may grow spiritually in other ways as well. We have seen this happen many times. However, your fiancé cannot "expect" this to happen or be angry with you if it does not, or if you do not grow as much as he would like you to do so.

At the same time, you must also consider the possibility that over time, your fiancé may continue to grow in Jewish observance. Can you each be comfortable with that possibility?

Eyeing the Future

Of course, every marriage requires compromise and adjustment. Even happily married spouses will change in many areas over the course of a marriage, often at different rates. When a husband and wife are flexible people, they usually are able to adjust to each other's changes, so that they can give each other encouragement and support and maintain a loving and enriching marriage.

We are personally acquainted with married couples who have had successful, long-term unions, notwithstanding the fact that they are at different points on the spectrum of Jewish observance. We have also observed other couples who chose not to remain married, because they could not resolve the difficulties that this situation presents.

Nevertheless, we see a difference between a couple who is already married and struggles to accommodate differences in religious observance that develop during their marriage, and a couple who has significantly different levels of observance and is planning to marry. A married couple has an existing commitment to try to adapt to the changes each wants to make to the route they have been traveling together.

However, for those who are not yet married, we question the wisdom of embarking on a journey when each will be following a significantly different roadmap. Marriage is difficult enough, with its unforeseen challenges, and you don't want to enter this permanent relationship if you cannot travel a good part of the way together.

The bottom line is that both of you need to consider objectively if you are headed in the same direction, even if your ultimate destinations on that path are different or may change.

It seems that you and your fiancé have a lot of serious talking to do. We suggest that you locate a local rabbi who is involved in Jewish outreach in your city, for some suggestions about how to proceed. There is a list of Aish branches at

We hope this helps you find a way to either balance your differences, or to have the strength to move on if you are unable to do so.

Rosie & Sherry

March 18, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 22

(22) Anya, October 8, 2011 4:11 AM

Melting cake...

Noami, As a fellow Ru-Jew, I totally understand where you are coming from. When I came here, i was only a baby, but having an older, school-aged sister, my parents decided to take the opportunity the Jewish community gave them and send her to an ultra-Orthodox school. I remember her coming home and crying, because instead of having Shabbat, we'd be watching TV, and she didn't understand why. Let me share a story: On my sisters 7th birthday, my parents decided it had to very special. We went to the local JCC and had a big party. My mother even made a special, beautfiul cake. Upon entering the JCC, the receptionist stopped her. She looked at the cake,and my mother, and told her she couldn't bring it inside, as it wasn't kosher. Fighting back tears, my mothers long hours literally melted away in the hot June sun. My mothers second attempt was seemingly successful. She went to the local market and bought a kosher cake. Again, she came back, and again, she was rejected. Since it was a fleisheig birthday, my mother had to buy a parve cake. So, my mother, went and came back. She had spent her last tips from her first job here( as a manicurist...sad, she was so successful in Russia) and pay for that cake, to keep up with standards. Point is, my parents tried to enter a life they had no idea about. A life of serious commitment and dedication, and the dedication that comes from your heart. Part of that, comes from finding your besheret (soul mate). The position to you is certainly not fair, but realize that with such strong differences, it's nearly impossible to just have a middlemen. People in the community may not come to your home for a meal because they can't trust if it's a kosher home etc, your husband may not be able to eat fully at home, etc. Good luck.

(21) Anonymous, May 29, 2006 12:00 AM

what do you mean by "Dating"?

I`m a New Jew!My mother only discovered that she`s Jewish 4 years ago.I`ve become quite religious.I also gave up my non-Jewish girlfriend over a year ago.I am assuming this section for dating is not Torah-based dating?Since I found out that it is not right to touch,kiss,etc.,girls before marriage, I am not doing so.It`s very tough for me,I`m in mainstream-society and people touch all the time.I don`t know why Jews copy regular society like that.Is it because they follow the dominant behaviour?They want to fit in and be just like everyone else?Who can blame them for that?Most of the media says it`s OK to have casual relationships,everywhere you go society says it`s fine to behave like that.So if most people do it and think it`s fine,why not follow them?.....It`s just that now I know it`s wrong I can`t go back to the way I was before I found out.Now I know I`m a Jew I can`t behave that way.David

(20) Terry, April 27, 2006 12:00 AM

You must compromise to be happy

You clearly accept that some level of compromise will be necessary in order to make it work. You must make every effort to support him in what he chooses.

However, it is also his responsibility to do his best by you. His lifestyle should not hold you back from living the kind of life you want. What I am saying is that he will have to make compromises as well. If he loves you, he should be able to keep a sensible grip on what he does and does not observe. If he is not able to do this, then fair enough, that is his choice and you can't hold him back from pursuing his religious beliefs, but whether he is able to compromise in order to be with you is really a true test of his commitment. His love for you should be the dominant thing and everything else should follow.

(19) Anonymous, April 7, 2006 12:00 AM

Mesiras Nefesh

Mesiras nefesh is one of the most important principles for a successful Jewish marriage.

Each partner must commit to some level of self-sacrifice for the sake of the other partner's happiness, or it just won't work.

In this case, clearly the groom cannot become less observant; it would fly in the face of his most basic understanding of the world.

And Jewish observance is closely related to family. I just have sad visions of the groom sitting at the Shabbos table, singing zemiros to himself . . . We observe Shabbos and Yom Tov as a family. Kashrus -- all meals eaten as a family. Family purity, naturally.

If the girl is unable or unwilling to make the effort to match her husband in religious observance, then I must sadly and reluctantly recommend that they break it off.

However, if she truly loves him and cares for him, then it should come naturally to her to want to share his interests and basic beliefs, to be his partner on the road of life, and to focus her eyes and heart in the same direction as his.

If she wants to make that commitment, make that effort, then Hashem will shlep her along and there is hope for the couple.

Kol Tuv

(18) Shaul, April 5, 2006 12:00 AM

Differences even among the orthodox can be fatal to a marriage


I divorced nearly 3 years ago after incessant friction over many issues, some of which centered on religious observance. I am an American born Ashkenazi who came to Israel and was attracted to Oriental and Yemenite customs, while my wife was Persian born but wanted to raise the children as Ashkenazim. She was so dominating that she even silenced me when I tried to sing Yemenite songs at the Shabbat table. In the end she won the children over to her side but lost me.

In Benei Beraq where we lived, there was an older, very orthodox (Haredi) woman who used to come every Shabbat at 6 AM to arrange the seats and Siddurim in the women’s section of the Beit Knesset. I heard later that she was a Baalat Teshuva while her husband remained secular, and that he gave her complete freedom to do what she wanted.

Unfortunately, my example shows that things usually don’t work out so smoothly even when the differences are far more trivial. Rabbi Simcha Cohen is therefore right when he discourages marriages between people with significantly different religious viwepoints. As the reader who divorced after 4 years of marriage correctly observes, there are things which no truly observant Jew can compromise on, such as the three mainstays of the observant home - Shabbat, Kashrut, and Family Purity. Thus, for example, if the husband cannot trust his wife to observe the laws of family purity according to his standards, a marriage is halachically not even possible in the first place.

I would therefore strongly advice Naomi and her fiance to discuss their commitment to Jewish observance, not only as you are now, but as you each see yourselves years from now. If you cannot reach accomodation on these pivotal aspects of the Jewish home and how to raise your children, then it is not worth your trouble. A broken engagement is far more preferable to a divorce, especially if there are children.

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