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The More Religious Spouse

The More Religious Spouse

What to do when she wants Shabbos and he wants the football game.

by

What to do when most of us want to learn and grow.  We may take classes and read books, all in an effort at self-improvement.  Some of us find our way to the wisdom of the Torah and the tools for growth it promotes.  We thus begin a deep and profound journey, a truly life-changing one.

Embarking on this voyage as a married couple can be very exciting. The wisdom and insights can deepen your relationship, and learning and growing together is a special experience not many couples are privileged to enjoy.

But what if it doesn’t work quite like that?  What if your excitement isn’t shared by your spouse?  What if it’s viewed as “his thing” (as one woman said, “It’s better than buying a corvette and moving to a bachelor pad at the marina!”) or her hobby?

What if you can’t share the new ideas you’re learning because your husband is actually more interested in Monday Night Football? What if Shabbos in your home isn’t quite like you’ve experienced elsewhere because your wife only participates reluctantly or not at all? Struggles like these are not uncommon. What can you do about it?

A strong, healthy marriage built on mutual respect can accommodate individuals with differing viewpoints on their Jewish growth.

Unfortunately conflict over growth in Judaism can sometimes be played out in the marriage itself.  I think the most important initial recognition is this: Judaism is not causing the conflict; existing fissures in the marriage are. Or, to put it more positively, a strong, healthy marriage built on mutual respect can accommodate individuals with differing viewpoints on their Jewish growth.

So the place to begin -- before even talking about your Jewish life -- is with your marriage itself.  Be interested in your spouse.  Be attentive to their needs.  Be respectful of their wishes.  Ask about their goals and dreams.  Find ways and strategies to resolve conflicts reasonably and amicably.   Be loving and caring.  Be kind and solicitous.

Then, and only then, can you talk about your growth in Torah observance.

I know it’s a tall order. But it’s the crucial foundation for all growth to come.

He's a Different Person!

A person once said to me, “I married one person, a non-religious, driven businessman, and I woke up and overnight he has become someone else -- a religious Jew who has slowed down his pace to make time for learning and praying.”   There are two fallacies in this statement.  One is that your spouse has become another person and two is that it happened overnight.   

Most of us (I hope) don’t marry a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman on account of their profession.  We don’t think their career is the essence of who they are.  We marry our spouses for their character.  We are interested in them because they are kind and loyal, honest and easy-going, fun-loving and with a good sense of humor -- you have your list.  These basic internal qualities don’t change. If you choose well, these qualities will only be heightened and further developed through involvement in Jewish learning. If God forbid you didn’t choose well, if you are one of those smart people who made foolish choices, don’t blame the Torah.

And it is an exaggeration to say that it happened overnight.  If it seems that way to you, it’s because you weren’t paying attention, you weren’t listening, you weren’t expressing true interest in your spouse’s life.  This, fortunately, can be easily remedied.  Show interest, ask questions, be open.  You might be surprised by what you discover.

Being Held Back

Many people complain that they'd become more observant but their spouse is holding them back.  People may sincerely believe that their spouse is placing obstacles in their way.  Yet here it would be helpful to recognize that there are many mitzvot that can be done without your spouse’s assistance -- starting with saying blessings, praying, putting on tefillin. 

When you are working on your marriage (basic step one), when you have used the tools from Torah to strengthen your character and enhance your marriage (step two) and when you have mastered the list (and it’s a long one) of mitzvot you can do without your spouse (step three), then we can discuss how to grow further in the challenging circumstances of your particular home!

It's true that it's easier if the wife is the more observant one since, generally speaking, she's primarily running the home. Shabbos and keeping kosher are taken care of. But I’ve seen it happen the other way around as well.  It may require a little more effort on the man’s side, but if your wife is focused on your happiness, if Jewish observance is presented in terms of love and not coercion, it can work.  I know men who do the shopping and cooking to ensure that their home is a kosher one and I think those wives think they have a very good deal!

With Patience and Love

It is crucial to present Jewish observance and your new-found relationship with God and Torah in a loving way.  Sometimes a newcomer’s enthusiasm and zeal overwhelm the other party.  Sometimes we mistakenly try to impose our views on others instead of gently and patiently explaining them.  Needless to say this is not an effective strategy.

One frequent concern about a home in which parents have differing levels of observance is how it will affect the children.  This is of course a legitimate worry to which there are two answers and no guarantees (there are no guarantees when both parents are fully committed either).

How we behave -- and the character we exhibit -- demonstrates whether or not we are truly on a journey toward spiritual growth.

The first point to recognize is that the most fundamental lesson your children will learn about marriage and the Torah’s impact on it will be reflected in how you treat each other.  If you show your children that you love and respect each other, that behavior will leave a permanent impact that will ultimately bring them closer to Judaism. Conversely, if you constantly yell at your spouse and berate them for their lack of observance, the end result should be obvious -- and not good.

The final and perhaps most important point of all is that you need to trust in the Almighty.  Everything is in His hands.  If you make your best, most patient, most understanding, most loving effort you can with your spouse and your children, He will take care of the rest. 

We may not know why we each face our particular challenges -- why wealth is someone else’s challenge and poverty another’s, why someone enjoys perfect health and another suffers.  Likewise we don’t why that other couple seems to have grown at the same pace while we seem to struggle. And we have no control over it.  All we can control is our behavior. 

How we behave – and the character we exhibit -- demonstrates whether or not we are truly on a journey toward spiritual growth. Our personal example will have the deepest impact of all on our life partner.

Published: January 9, 2010


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Visitor Comments: 34

(33) Raphael, April 1, 2014 11:07 AM

One proven solution

In The Garden of Peace, Rabbi Shalom Arush gives a beautiful solution to this dilemma, which is all so common in this age of tshuva. First, the more more religious spouse needs to demonstrate ( in actions) that Judaism has made him/her a better, more loving spouse. Criticism for not becoming more religious, is OUT. Second, he/she must engaga in daily persoanl prayer, that the lagging spouse get into Judaism, as well.

(32) Nancy, March 30, 2014 11:14 PM

To Laurie Dinerstein Kurs--Your comments really make me angry!! You strike me as someone who wants what she wants exactly when she wants it, and exactly how she wants it. In my marriage I am the more religious spouse. I am however, very cognizant of Shalom Bayit. My spouse and I each make an effort to meet one another half way. Alas, my kitchen is (not yet) kosher but I hope that will change one day.

(31) Anonymous, February 9, 2014 5:10 AM

thank you

I appreciated one of this author's advice in particular, which is to ensure that we observe ALL the mitzvot we can by ourselves before we claim that our spouse is the one holding us back.
But having said that I can appreciate that it is probably harder when it is the husband who wants to become observant because of the time bound nature of the law men must keep.
Someone here commented that it is the wife that has more influence on how the family goes , I hope I can.
And of course, we must do what is in our power but also trust in G-d as Mrs Braverman stated. In a way the dilemma has has helped me to grow and has confirmed my love for Judaism. Thank you for always making such helpful lessons accessible to us.

(30) BatyA, February 2, 2014 12:29 PM

I have a similar situation. I'm dating a guy who is secular while I'm a baal teshuva. He's very open to my lifestyle. I just wish everyone around me Would leave me alone about my decision in dating Him.. It's very stressful. Everyone keeps telling me it will not work out..

(29) Shoshana- Jerusalem, January 23, 2013 8:41 PM

There are limits

The best thing for sure is to try to work things out in a loving, peaceful manner. If you want to keep Shabbos and he doesn't, perhaps you could come to an agreement that he won't turn on the t.v. in the room where you are sitting, or something like that. But even if he won't agree, you can still keep Shabbos. But kashrut, is a little different, because if he will mix up the meat and milk utencils, for example, you will not be able to eat in your own house. While if it's kosher, he can eat there. So this might be a little more difficult to work out. I knew a family that the kitchen was strictly kosher but downstairs, in the t.v. room the kids has their own setup where they ate what they wanted, with their own sink and refrig. I think that was a tragedy but it might be some sort of a compromise. BUT when it comes to taharat hamishpcha, laws of Family Purity, there cannot be any compromise, because one cannot expect the more observant one to live in sin until his/her spouse agrees to keep these laws. And the sad comment (#2) shows what can happen in such a case, Gd. forbid.

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