Faith

The Special Trials of a Mixed Marriage for an Orthodox Jew

[Getty Images] Portrait of family celebrating Hanukkah, lighting Menorah. Children aged 3 and 9 years.

Many people of the Jewish faith marry a man or woman of another faith or of no faith at all. Mixed marriages are hardly unique to Judaism, however. If a Christian has married another Christian outside his or her denomination, but later decides to become more serious about faith, the compromise seems easy. Both husband and wife can observe the same Christian holidays and each can even go to the other’s church.

However, if a Jewish man or woman marries a non-Jew and then suddenly becomes more interested in his or her Jewish heritage to the extent of wishing to observe a Jewish Orthodox life, the difficulties may become enormous. This is especially true if there are children involved, or if the couple decides to start having children.

There are actually many cases like this. Oftentimes it may come as a surprise to the Christian spouse when the person he or she had married, who had shown no interest at all in Judaism, suddenly starts to investigate and wants to become an Orthodox Jew, which involves restrictions on every part of a Jewish life.

The non-Jewish partner may have converted to Reform or Conservative Judaism, which basically involved no changes in the spouse’s life other than going to the synagogue on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, perhaps sending the children to a Jewish Sunday school, and perhaps even keeping kosher.

Being an Orthodox Jew, on the other hand, is definitely an entire life commitment. If the non-Jewish spouse had converted through Reform or Conservative auspices, then he or she would now have to have an Orthodox conversion and take up the commitment of living an Orthodox Jewish life.

If the couple is older and have no children of their own, it may work. The Jewish spouse can take on the different tenets of Judaism and the Christian or non-affiliated spouse can do his or her own thing.

One case in particular involves a man in his seventies who is married to a non-Jew. Each had children before they were married. He is actually a religious official of his modern Orthodox synagogue and goes to the synagogue every Saturday and on all of the Jewish holidays. They keep kosher, but since they are vegetarians it may be easier. On the Jewish holiday of
Succot (the Feast of the Tabernacles) he builds his own succah (the traditional temporary building) and eats there alone or with guests. His wife does not participate in this holiday or any of the others, though she is liked by the congregants and has come to the synagogue’s annual dinners. Their case proves that a spouse can become Orthodox while living with a non-Jewish spouse.

However, there is the sad case of a Jewish man who had three children with his non-Jewish wife and after he became an Orthodox Jew, they were divorced. He was able to have custody of the children and raised them as Orthodox Jews and then remarried to another woman who had found her Jewish roots and had become Orthodox as well.

More frequently, a Jewish man or woman will marry a non-Jew who converts to Reform or Conservative Judaism and they happily live Reform or Conservative Jewish lives until both together decide to become Orthodox Jews. The previously non-Jewish spouse then studies Judaism with a learned person and after a time has an Orthodox conversion and both then live an Orthodox Jewish life.

Parents in a mixed marriage with young children face the toughest challenge. How will the children be brought up? If the woman is Jewish, according to Jewish Halakhic law the children are automatically considered Jewish, even though the couple may not be raising them in the Jewish religion. If the woman in the marriage is not Jewish and the husband is, then the children are considered non-Jewish. This may be a bit more difficult as it would involve conversion of the wife and the children as well.

There is an actual case of this kind. A man has been married to a non-Jewish woman, and the marriage has been a good one. However, in the last couple of years the man has become more and more drawn to his Jewish roots and has been trying to take on the tenets of Orthodox Judaism.

He has purchased the obligatory tefillin (phylacteries) that a Jewish man is required to put on his forehead and arm each morning, he goes to the nearest synagogue on Sundays, and he has been sending his children to a Jewish Sunday school. He is now studying some of the Jewish writings with a tutor on a daily basis.

He is very sincere in his devotion to Orthodox Judaism, and wants his wife to convert to be able to live a fully Orthodox Jewish life as a family. His wife, though giving verbal acquiescence to converting, seems to still be a bit hesitant about taking the big step of conversion. It is easy to see the hesitation on her part, and not fault her for her hesitation. It would change her lifestyle radically. So, in essence this couple is still in limbo.

However, the good news for this couple, and others in similar situations, is that the Orthodox Jewish community is welcoming and also willing to help such couples try to resolve their particular situations. There is a prescribed method of becoming an Orthodox Jew, with a prescribed method of learning about Orthodox Judaism, with a group of rabbis to help guide such couples if they are felt to be sincere.

Judaism does not solicit converts and it may take a while to become an Orthodox Jew, but for families of mixed marriages where the Jewish spouse wants to become Orthodox, and especially for those with children, the non-Jewish spouse is helped along his or her conversion path, and when fully converted is accepted into the Orthodox community as if she or he had been an Orthodox Jew from birth!