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.