Thursday, October 27, 2011

Being a Good/Serious Jew... with a non-Jewish Spouse

Longtime Failed Messiah commenter Dave asked an interesting question:
I am divorced, no kids, 53 years old. I was married briefly in 2004 to a beautiful Jewish girl, who turned out to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Both she and her family hid this "nugget of information" from me.  
I am now becoming more religious/ observant, partly to console myself for probably never having kids. I am attending an Orthodox synagogue.  
I am hoping to marry a Chinese girl. In my opinion, they are way more beautiful than Caucasian women. Just my opinion.  
I do not expect to be able to meet any woman, Jewish or Chinese or whatever, who is interested in either having a child with me, or adopting a child with me. 
I am certainly hoping that my future wife, if not Jewish, will become Jewish. I will certainly try to gently persuade her. 
I have a theoretical question- if (SADLY) for whatever reason a Jew or Jewess marries a goya/ goy knowing IN ADVANCE that (SADLY) there is no question of having kids with them- does it make a difference to the tzibbur whether or not the goya/ goy converts to Judaism, given the fact that there are not going to be any kids from that marriage?? 
When I asked for clarification, he added this:
I am asking 
1) what is your personal opinion about my marrying a woman who is non-Jewish and may never convert, GIVEN THAT (SADLY) there will be no children in the marriage, (SINCE I cannot find a woman who wants to marry me who wants to have or adopt children with me)??

2) what do you think is the view of Orthodox Judaism (Modern Orthodoxy, not Haredi nor Chassidic) about my marrying a woman who is non-Jewish and may never convert, GIVEN THAT (SADLY) there will be no children in the marriage, (SINCE I cannot find a woman who wants to marry me who wants to have or adopt children with me) ??

He threw it out to all us schmucks and schmuckettes who hang around FM all day, and by the time I finished writing back to him I realized that it had become a blog post unto itself. Hence, me throwing it up here.

Dear Dave:

As regards most things with personal practice, my opinion is that if it's not a big deal to you, it's not a big deal. While there may be some halachic issues with having a "mixed" marriage, my impression is that, for the most part, it is possible to be a practicing or observant Jew (particularly if no spawn are involved) without your partner being Jewish, too. What is necessary, to borrow from Dan Savage, is that your partner be "game." They need to at least be ok with what you're doing-- and, ideally, be willing to go along and play at least some role with you (particularly if you are fairly religious and want to keep that standard up in your household once married or living together).

While I don't think it's ethical to demand a partner convert, I think it is reasonable to communicate what your priorities and values are from the beginning-- just as, no doubt, they will be.  I'd be very clear with prospective partners that you want to have a Jewish household-- however you define it.  Presumably if you're committed enough to each other to get married, any potential partners will at least be willing to accomodate you, if not be actively interested in participating themselves in various ways.

My practice is not all that halachic, but since you mentioned you lean Orthodox, I think you may want to examine some of the nitty gritty issues of your personal practice and values, particularly how some of it might need to change or adapt if you had a non-Jewish partner. (Are there particular mitzvot you wouldn't be able to do that you want to? Are there potential work-arounds?)

I also think it's helpful to establish an intellectual framework in terms of what mental status you would want to use for your wife-- is she a giyoret-in-process? Is she a straight-up gentile? Is she a full-blown Jew except for the paperwork? That will help you figure out what lines of thinking you want to use in your personal practice in cases which involve your wife. For instance, would you want your wife to observe Shabbat with you, or would you want her to still be able to perform forbidden work? Would you want her to light candles, or would you? In our case, I treat my wife as if she were fully Jewish and invite her to do whatever Jewish stuff as she wants. The only "status" difference between us is not over halacha, but knowledge-- and these days, there are a few areas where she's more knowledgable than me.

Our model is definitely more participatory than obligatory, but it works for us. In the early days when we were dating there was a lot of explaining, lots of questions, lots of re-explaining, and lots of me asking my friends (and the internet) additional questions. Now, my wife reads books on Jewish sociology, follows Orthodox blogs, is slowly studying Hebrew with me, and so on. The point I'm trying to make is not that you need to search out someone that's going to be a rabba-in-training, but rather that it's better if your spouse has an interest in what you're doing, or at least isn't hostile to it.

Obviously, some of these issues may be is far off, but it's a useful exercise nonetheless. I think the biggest decision you need to make is-- will YOU care if your wife isn't Jewish? If not, then you should think about why not, and also start considering how you might integrate those ideas and conclusions into your practice-- either now, or when you find who you're looking for.

Over the six years we've been together, my wife has shul-hopped and davenned with me, celebrated Shabbat with me, fasted on Yom Kippur with me, lit menorahs with me, helped me lead seders, hang mezuzot, studied chumash and commentaries with me, and most importantly, explained and defended our eclectic practice to her Christian relatives (as well as to my secular ones who accused me of brainwashing her). She has even been experimenting with covering her hair since we got married (totally unprompted by me, for the record).

I would much rather have an engaged partner who is interested in participating in Judaism than a partner with "the right" status who could care less.

Just my POV. Feel free to comment or email me if you'd like to chat more.

Readers, what say thee? I realize I have kind of copped out on what Modern Orthodoxy might have to say about this (though, given that I'm not MO and don't really hang out with MOs, I feel that anything I could say would only be a random guess). Feel free to leave comments for me or Dave.


MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Actually Dave sadly starts from a false assumption. He keeps mentioning the "but we're not going to have kids" thing as if it was relevant to the situation. It's not.
Here's the deal as I understand it: If Dave chooses to hang around in non-Orthodox circles he won't have any problems other than some very jealous guy friends.
If he chooses the hang around with us frummies, then there will be problems:
1) The only marriage Jewish law recognizes is between a Jewish man and Jewish woman. Therefore he will be considered as shacking up while unmarried.
2) In addition the woman he's shacking up with isn't Jewish which carries a level of social opprobium all its own.
3) As a result none of his Orthodox friends will feel comfortable eating in his house. His social forays into the Jewish community will all be invites out, never getting to entertain. That can put a strain on the relationship.
You also have to remember all the niggling little things we get hung up over like non-Jews touching our non-mevushal wine. Many shuls have policies denying membership and/or kibudim to intermarried men. All that will still come into place.

Friar Yid said...

Garnel- Thanks very much for your comment. I knew about things like mevushal but assumed that Dave was aware of that stuff and therefore that he had already decided it wasn't an issue- though perhaps he simply doesn't have many social contacts from shul and so it hasn't occurred to him. I agree that the social stigma attached to intermarrying would likely be a not-insignificant issue among frummies. (I'm curious; what are the halachic issues with eating in an intermarried family's house? Are non-Jews not able to keep kosher?)

I know that MO is liberal-ing up these days (at least that's the accusation I hear thrown around by the Black Hatters), but you're probably right that unless Dave is either hanging out with frum-ish heterodoxers, or extremely laid-back Orthos, there are likely to be some issues.

The points you raise are important for people to know-- both people like Dave, who are involved with the Orthodox world and who need to know what they're potentially setting themselves up for, as well as for people like me, who aren't Orthodox, have no plans to become Orthodox, and occasionally require reminders as to why.

Garnel Ironheart said...

There are issues with non-Jews keeping kosher. First of all, there's something called bishul akum - in order to create social distance between us and non-Jews there is a rabbinical rule that certain foods, if cooked by a non-Jew without the supervision and assistance of a Jew knowledgeable in kashrus, is considered non-kosher.
In addition keeping properly kosher isn't something so simple. There are lots of little rules, people from a kosher home pick them up but I've read books on how to keep kosher that miss them. And sometimes not knowing a particular rule can ruin a kitchen. For example friends of mine who are genuinely trying to keep kosher once told me that the only exception they make is that if they can't find a specific spice that's kosher they'll get the non-kosher equivalent and rely on teh "batel b'shishim" rule. They had no idea that the rule doesn't apply to spices!
We have to separate between intentions and achievements. A non-Jew may work with 100% sincerity towards producing a kosher meal and even take more care than a frum Jew that does it by rote but chances are the non-Jew will still screw up at some point. That doesn't make him/her a bad person but just becuase someone's decent and honest doesn't mean I can eat their food.

Anonymous said...

Hi Friar Yid and Garnel,
Thanks for your responses.
I am a member of an Orthodox synagogue where most of the people drive to synagogue on Shabbat.
I know it sounds strange, but there it is.
I am not worried about social stigma. Sadly, I will probably never have any kids to marry off.
I just like praying in an Orthodox synagogue. I do pray (or should I say "daven") at home.
I did try for about at least 25 years to meet a Jewish girl. Basically it didn't happen.
I do think that not ever being able to have children is germane to this issue, simply because most people, Jewish or not, used to get married by 30 max., so obviously children were always a consideration. Now things have changed.
Friar, I most appreciate your comments and I think how you relate to your wife as far religion is concerned, seems great to me.

Anonymous said...

Plus, I also love reading from the Sefer Torah. I did it once recently, and I've signed up to read Vayera in November and I'm busy preparing. I would miss reading from the Sefer Torah if I were not allowed to. I might even go to a Conservative synagogue on occasion, to be able to do that.
To be frank, I currently do not have a girlfriend, but I am looking toward the future.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Hi Dave,
I'm going to take a guess, tell me if I'm wrong.
I'm going to guess you're "Atypical". What I mean is that you're not a typical Yeshivish or Chasid, MO or Religious Zionist, Conservative or Reform. You like a bit of a bunch of different systems and have custom built a system you practice based on that.
The reason I'm guessing this is because I've seen this kind of thing happen before. Actually it happened to me for a while. While I was in university I didn't fit a particular mold. I liked davening in "black hat" shuls but I wear a knitted kippah. I liked learning but also owned a TV and could quote Simpsons and Star Trek. I wanted to marry a girl who would cover her hair but listen to modern music and watch the occasional movie at home.
I had a friend this happened to as well. Sweet guy, very intelligent, decent looking, not Orthodox but enjoyed Shabbos and holidays, went to shul and wanted a girl who would keep some modicum of kashrus and Shabbos. He spent a long time alone too.
Both of us went through this: we weren't "frum" enough for the frum girls and we were too frum for the non-frum ones.
Here's the deal: once you step out of the mold you really, really, really cut down on your chances to find a woman. Most people - men and women - are "typical" and they want to meet someone "typical" just like them.
So I can see the temptation to date a non-Jewish girl. There's lots of them, they're decent, sincere and share lots of interests.
But here's the problem - if you care about your Judaism, if you have red lines you won't cross, they will eventually trip up your relationship. Might not happen at first, or it might be something you "compromise" on for a while for the sake of the relationship but eventually it'll break it.
Take your time, she's out there somewhere and like sleep, it'll happen when you stop worrying about when it's going to happen.
On the other hand, if my guess about you is wrong then just ignore everything I wrote.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

Garnel- I agree 100% that anyone in Dave's position (or something similar) needs to take a very close look at their practice and figure out what their red lines are. At the same time, they should be honest to themselves and differentiate between which things are their red lines and which ones are others'.

I understand the deep appeal of belonging to a community, particularly one which is engaged and serious about its Judaism. But I also have to say, the subtext of your story-- that you had to change parts of who you were-- even things as mundane and harmless as what you did for entertainment-- in order to "fit in" and find a spouse reads to me as quite sad. To me this is an unfortunate result of community hashkafa trumping halacha. If you're Orthodox and follow what the Torah says to do, your friends and neighbors shouldn't be judging you based on the fact that you act too "modern."

I realize that this is part of the entrance fee for being part of a community. But even if I hadn't already written myself out of the Orthodox world through my marriage, the price seems too high.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Actually I never changed who I was. I very strongly believe in, as you said, differentiating between my red lines and others'.
I was never prepared to put on a black hat to impress a girl and I still don't (unless it rains and then I have this great rainproof one I got at the outlet mall for $35! Can you believe it?)
I was simply patient instead. The Orthodox community is not this homogenous Oreo cookie mix. There is tremendous diversity within it and ultimately searching hard enough will find you a bunch of people just like you. Might you change a little bit along the way? Sure, but that's called personal growth. You might discover something about Judaism that you enjoy and add it to your practice.
Patience and hard work is the key here, not compromise.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

Garnel- Thanks for the clarification, and sorry for making assumptions. I'm curious though, your previous comment seemed to indicate that if you were too outside the Ortho box, getting a spouse (or even getting Ortho friends) would be a long, uphill battle. Are you saying this isn't true? Or that you just have to be patient and be on the lookout for other "oddballs" in a community that you can relate to and build relationships with?

Put another way, were you able to find other people in your community who also enjoy modern music, Star Trek and the Simpsons, or have you had to leave those behind?

Anonymous said...

Garnel, you're right. I am not typical. I am Sephardic, (3rd generation out of Iraq). I have several ancestors who rabbis- including Rabbi Abdullah Somekh, who was the teacher of the Ben Ish Hai. I grew up in Canada in the late 60's and 70's. At that time, being a member of a synagogue was very expensive. Our first year in Canada we went to a Conservative synagogue, which then merged with a Reform synagogue, so we went to that one for a few years. Then we found it to be too expensive, so we just went for the high holidays to an Iraqi Jewish association which rented places at Jewish schools etc. For some of the 2000's I just prayed at home and fasted at home, etc. Then in 2009 I started attending an MO synagogue. My experience is that a lot of people claim, especially Orthodox people, that the religion is the important thing, and not the culture, but when I go to synagogue and after the service I say "shabbat shalom" and everyone else says "good shabbos", well, that's culture. Anyway, I've gotten over all that. Now most of the time I go to the MO synagogue, which is nearby, and some of the time I go to a Sephardic synagogue which I enjoy also (for sentimental reasons). However, my opinion is that however religious I became, most Ashkenazi women, religious or not, would be disappointed because I'm not of their culture. I have come to the conclusion, after reading this blog, that, since I'm likely not going to have any kids (SADLY), it's basically between me and Hashem. I enjoy praying and I enjoy reading Torah, and I'm going to continue to do that, regardless of who I am married to. I plan on becoming kosher, but if I develop some Ortho friends, I may not be kosher enough for them- well "tant pis" (as the French say). Anyway, if I don't have any kids, I am basically a "footnote" as far as really Orthodox people are concerned. I am not expecting them to accept me. And if I marry someone who isn't Jewish, well I'll still be as observant as I can, and well, that's it.
I realize it's hard to imagine, but if you're not part of the majority group in the Jewish people, one is pretty marginalized.
I blame it on the Christians and other goyim who kicked our butts in the Diaspora for so long that we felt we had to imitate their culture to get them to like us, to the point where we can't recognize our own people. In spite of what I've just written I am a very happy person, and I trust in Hashem always.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Hi, sorry it took me a couple of days. Been busy

> Or that you just have to be patient and be on the lookout for other "oddballs"

There's more of us than people realize out there. It's kind of like how in Soviet Russia everyone hated the government but no one told their friends because they couldn't be sure their friend wouldn't tell the KGB. Lots of frummies have normal interests but keep them secret because they don't want their kids to be rejected from the "right" yeshiva or not get a shidduch, etc.

> I am Sephardic, (3rd generation out of Iraq).

That's great! We have a couple families like that in my community. Great cooks, except for that green mush thing...

> At that time, being a member of a synagogue was very expensive.

At that time? Buddy, it hasn't changed! My shul has reasonable dues but they ding me for a "donation" every couple of months.

On the other hand, the small town shul I grew up in only charge $400 a year for dues. I think a lot of the big price goes with the big city.

> but when I go to synagogue and after the service I say "shabbat shalom" and everyone else says "good shabbos", well, that's culture.

Well yeah, there's really indistinguishable. I say "Gut Shabbos" not for religious reasons but cultural ones and I expect an Iraqi Sephardi would say "Shabbat Shalom" for the same reason and not think twice about it. But I like that mosaic. Last time I was in Israel I had an Iraqi cab driver one day and hung out with an Ethiopian Rav and his Tunisian wife the next. For me this variety shows we're a real nation, not just a religion.

> is that however religious I became, most Ashkenazi women, religious or not, would be disappointed because I'm not of their culture.

But that's their loss! For Heaven's sake, why should "not of their culture" be a penalty? My white bread Ashkenazi best friend in Israel is married to a Morrocan woman and he says that if it wasn't for the prohibition against idol worship he'd pray to her 3 times a day because she's an amazing wife. The background adds spice but it's who the person is that actually matters.

> it's basically between me and Hashem.

Then let Him worry about finding you a shidduch. You do the best you can in the meantime.

> I am basically a "footnote" as far as really Orthodox people are concerned.

You need to move to a small community for a couple of reasons. For one, in a small community everyone is valued, regardless of marital status or having kids. For another, a lot of the "I need to conform to the mold" attitude is not present because there aren't enough snobs around to make it work. Finally, as I mentioned before, dues are cheaper.

> I realize it's hard to imagine, but if you're not part of the majority group in the Jewish people

If you're circumcized, you're part of the majority as far as I'm concerned.

Anonymous said...

Hi Garnel, thank you very much for your response. I will reflect on your wise counsel and try to act accordingly in some respects.

Anonymous said...

Hi Friar Yid and Garnel,
Just an update. I have been dating a Chinese woman for the last two months. She immigrated from China about 12 years ago. She checked out Christianity for a while, but never got baptized, and stopped attending services. I told her a couple of times that I would love it she considered becoming Jewish, but I would definitely be unable to cope if she considered Christianity again. She has indicated that she's open to becoming Jewish.
She's 44, but would still like to have kids. So at this point I am hopeful.

Anonymous said...

Are there instances where mixed marriage couples have children? If so, are they taught both religions (if applicable)?