Dear Rosie & Sherry,
I have a quick question about a long-standing problem. I want to keep Shabbat, and my fiancé does not. We like each other a lot, and I can't imagine life without him at this point, but I'm worried that we will have a lot of trouble in the future.
I like to go to synagogue, have Shabbat meals, and do other things that make the day special and holy. I don't travel on Shabbat. We're already having troubles each time a long weekend rolls around and he want to get out of town over a Friday night or go on a day trip on Saturday. I'm sure you can imagine further scenarios.
What am I to do? He is not religious and doesn't want to keep Shabbat according to Jewish law. However, he has agreed to make kiddush, have meals and other rituals for major holidays, send the kids to a Jewish school, and keep kosher inside our home.
I am at wits end. I'm thinking of joining him with traveling on Shabbat, even though I hate the idea. Can you help me?
Ideally, a couple should start married life with common goals and values. That's the first thing we encourage people to look for when they are choosing a dating partner. Unfortunately, there are a number of daters who look for other criteria first, such as someone who's fun to be with, has a personality they like, looks good to them, or wants the same kind of economic or cultural lifestyle as they do.
These are all important in a relationship, but we don't believe they should be the first criteria to look for. That's because we've seen many couples who are in a situation that is similar to yours. They care deeply for and respect each other, and can see themselves building a fulfilling life together -- except that each one has a set of goals or a worldview that is very important to them and is not easily reconciled with that of their partner.
For one couple, this can be his lifelong desire to live in Israel and her unwillingness to do so because of responsibilities to aging parents. Another couple can be torn between his desire to have a business career that will require him to travel to different communities and her expectations of developing close ties to the community in which she lives. For you and your fiancé, the dilemma is your different views on incorporating Jewish observance in your personal lives and in your home. In each case, the partners have very different ideas about what their marriage will look like, and they realize that this will be a serious impediment to their ability to build a home and family.
What happens when a couple who cares very much for each other and wants to marry realizes that unless they resolve their conflicting goals and values, they'll be locked in perpetual conflict? Sometimes, one partner decides to re-assess his goals or values and discovers that the source of conflict isn't as important to him as he once thought. For example, we know of a geologist who spent much of his time working in a remote region and loved the harsh climate and relative solitude of where he worked. However, the woman he was dating couldn't see herself living in relative isolation, far from a Jewish community and employment opportunities. The geologist decided that he had other fulfilling career choices, and that it would also mean a lot for him to put down roots in a community where he could raise his children and have more opportunities for Jewish fulfillment.
People often feel they are giving up their freedom and self-respect.
Sometimes, one partner decides to make a major concession for their sake of their future marriage, without going through the process of re-assessing their current values and creating new ones. That person often feels they are "giving up" some of their freedom and self-respect. We have seen this happen when a partner who is on a higher level of Jewish observance gives up on observing kosher or Shabbat for the sake of harmony, but resents the fact that s/he has had to make this concession. Because that resentment goes unresolved, it can be a continuing source of inner turmoil for the person who made the change, and of conflict for the couple.
There are also couples who find ways to make and be comfortable with compromises that respect the values and goals that are important to each of them. It sounds as if you and your fiancé have tried to do this, by his agreeing to certain aspects of Jewish religious observance and by educating your future children in Jewish schools -- while you agree to forgo part of your vision of what you wanted your home to be like on Shabbat and holidays. However, it's clear that neither of you has been able to yield enough to what the other wants.
What troubles you the most is the same thing that troubles us the most. Your fiancé expects you to go against a major tenet of Sabbath observance -- not traveling in a car on Shabbat -- something that makes you feel very uncomfortable and resentful. He can't respect your religious sensibilities enough on this issue because they conflict so much with his own desire to "get away" for the weekend.
On one hand, we can see his perspective -- the lifestyle he envisions for himself includes paying homage to the American version of a weekend, and he wants to share this with the woman he loves. Since he isn't as attuned to Jewish observance as you are, he can't share your vision of what Shabbat should be like. He also doesn't realize that by pressuring you to violate laws about Shabbat observance, he is expecting a lot more than compromise about certain lifestyle preferences: He expects you to betray your basic values.
Part of the issue is understanding that for an observant Jew, Judaism is much more than a set of traditions or practical considerations. Belief in God's 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.
We understand that it has been difficult for each of you to make compromises. There are probably other points you've agonized over, such as what happens when you want to go to a restaurant together -- will you fight over going to a kosher restaurant? Even though he won't fully observe Shabbat, can you both agree on a certain atmosphere in your home? What will you say when your children question your differences? Is he willing to learn more about why Jewish observance is so meaningful to you? Is it possible that even if you reach an agreement in which you won't transgress the Shabbat laws, you'll still resent not being spiritually attuned to each other, and he'll resent the fact that he can't live a lifestyle that's comfortable for him?
There is another point that we'd like you to consider. It seems from the tone of your letter that you may be on a journey toward more traditional Jewish observances. What will happen if you continue to grow spiritually after your marriage, and your husband says, "I already compromised on this... why do you expect more from me?" Since he made compromises on the assumption that you'd stay at a certain level, he wouldn't be wrong to ask this question. Many couples make a spiritual journey together, but if one partner is not interested in growing this way, they are in for a lot of conflict.
We've given you a lot to think about. While we've highlighted many of the problems we see in your situation, it's also important to know that there are marriages that have succeeded when the partners had significantly different religious orientations. In each case that we know of, the more observant partner was able to maintain his or her level of religious observance and impart it onto their children, and the partners were able to respect each other's choices. We also know of couples who tried very hard to compromise their differences but were not successful.
One principle of accommodation is non-negotiable.
There is a basic principle of accommodation that we feel is non-negotiable: 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 is absolute, according to Jewish law. Beyond this, squelching one's spiritual yearnings is not something a human being can endure indefinitely, and it will inevitably lead to resentment.
Of course, every marriage requires compromise and adjustment. 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.
It might be a good idea for you and your fiancé to meet with a rabbinical couple or a rabbi who does outreach work. They may be able to help your fiancé better understand the sensitivities involved here, and suggest additional compromises you can both be comfortable making. Whether or not these efforts are not successful, we know that you each have some difficult choices to make.
We wish you success in navigating the dating maze,
Rosie & Sherry