Families and Jewish Differences

Bringing us together, tearing us apart.

Even families in which every member is Jewish can be filled with religious strife. The bitterness that can emerge from well-intentioned, but hurtful words spoken between family members with different levels of religious observance can last for years. Recovering from or even avoiding this bitterness requires significant maturity and self-awareness. All the members of a family ideally should commit themselves to the Jewish value of shalom bayit, a peaceful household, in which disagreements can be set aside for the greater purpose of family love, holiness, and togetherness.

Affirming Choice

When discussing religious variation within families, it is important to recognize that all religious observance is a choice. This is as true for Orthodox family members as for those who barely observe at all. For a person who believes that God expects Jews to adhere to the Torah and its mitzvot (commandments), the will to follow those laws represents a choice, even if it is a clear-cut choice between righteousness and sin. 

jewish family observanceEvery person also has rationales for these choices. For those family members who choose to follow Jewish law (halakhah) as a reflection of God’s will, concern for less-observant family members naturally can result. Conversely, a Reform Jew who believes that ritual observance and moral law are not intrinsically linked might scoff at the idea that God cares about small details such as mixing linen and wool. 

A person must recognize their loved ones’ right to make their own choices if one wants to nurture and maintain deeper, more mature relationships. Loving someone unconditionally means just that–you love regardless of differences, not because of your similarities.

“Mine” and “Ours”

Couples experiencing religious difference are most successful when they define areas of shared and separate observances. According to Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, in The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, couples with different levels of observance often compromise on a level of kashrut that is mutually workable in the home, but observe Shabbat in different ways. Cohen and Eisen report that the compromises necessary for a shared household and childrearing seem to move closer to the level of observance of the more “Jewishly involved” spouse. A couple may decide together that they will eat in restaurants according to their own comfort levels with kashrut, but have a strictly kosher home. 

This separation of religion into “mine” and “ours” is helpful for extended families as well. It is imperative that families have discussions of which values and observances can or should be shared and which need to be compartmentalized as personal practices. For example, some people may enjoy visiting traditionally observant family members for meals on Shabbat or holidays, but feel more comfortable if they sleep at a hotel, where they don’t have to worry about using electricity.

Jewish Guilt

People may experience feelings of guilt when confronted by family members with higher levels of ritual observance. Having internalized a concept of ideal, (usually) Orthodox observance, some Jews perceive themselves as “less Jewish” than they should be. This guilt–either conscious or subconscious–can produce contradictory behaviors. Some people might respond by deferring to more observant relatives; other people might angrily misconstrue every ritual observance as inherently and implicitly critical of their own choices, even if no criticism is intended. 

Guilt can also be felt by observant family members who “miss out” on family activities because of their religious commitments. They may avoid a beach outing where men and women will be swimming together, and yet feel guilty about missing the family occasion for which the outing was planned.

Ba’alei Teshuvah: Newly Observant

When a loved one becomes religiously observant, families often struggle with the consequences. The process of becoming “ba’al teshuvah” (Hebrew for one who has “returned” to Jewish observance, often used to describe those who become Orthodox) often occurs far from family and may appear to parents, siblings, and friends to be the result of a sudden, irrational decision–even when the change has been gradual and well-reasoned. 

A person usually becomes ba’al teshuvah (or ba’alat teshuvah, as a newly observant woman is called) during late teen or, more often, early adult years, when young people are away from home in college or on a visit to Israel. Older adults may make a similar transition after a life-changing experience (an illness or death of a loved one) or as a result of a search for greater meaning in life.

Whatever the reason, the enthusiasm of ba’alei teshuvah for their new lifestyle may be unsettling to other family members. A desire for family members to have a similarly meaningful experience may or may not lead to open attempts to “convert” relatives to observant practices. Ba’alei teshuvah also are likely to refer to the teachings of a rabbi from whom they accept both moral and ritual guidance. In the earlier periods of a ba’al teshuvah’s transition, these references may give family members the impression that he or she is blindly following a spiritual leader.

For some people, discomfort and fear arise from not knowing what changes will occur next to their relative’s lifestyle. A ba’al teshuvah should communicate clearly about his or her new practices, without expecting others to adopt them. Family members should feel free to ask the newly religious about these changes.

Honor and Fear Your Mother and Father

An Orthodox child of less-observant parents should review the halakhot of honoring one’s parents with a teacher who understands the requirements of observance as well as the desire to maintain warm family relationships. It is forbidden to judge or contradict one’s parents; on the other hand, parents are also bound by Judaism and God’s laws. There is no one correct approach to balancing these two principles. One should always remember what the Talmud tells us about the holiness of parents: as partners with God in a child’s creation, parents require deference similar to that merited by God.

This is all the more vital for ba’alei teshuvah or other observant individuals living in a parent’s home. Respecting a parent’s choices, not criticizing their activities or judgment, and making space for difference should be high priorities. Insisting that the family home suddenly become kosher (or “more” kosher) is both impractical and inconsiderate; to set rules in one’s parents’ home usurps their proper, sacred roles. Discussing the introduction of some separate dishes, utensils, pots, and refrigerator space for kosher usage is a more appropriate alternative.

What Do You Mean, ‘I’m Not Jewish’?

The issue of Jewish legal status causes a great deal of distress in the larger Jewish community, and individual families may echo this larger trend, for example when a relative’s spouse or child has a conversion. Conservative rabbis do not accept conversions without the halakhic requirements of immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath), circumcision for males, and a rabbinic court; most Orthodox authorities do not recognize Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative conversions. Both Conservative and Orthodox authorities do not recognize the Jewish ritual status of people who have a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.

The personal status issue becomes a bigger challenge around lifecycle ceremonies, when participation in synagogue honors may not be offered to some relatives who are expecting them. On the other hand, Orthodox relatives may feel the need to refuse service honors or remove themselves from rituals such as a prayer service where bar or bat mitzvah is celebrated or a wedding ceremony when the individuals involved have questioned Jewish status.

Finding acceptable alternatives–such as leading a prayer for the country or offering a toast at the reception–is important to recognize the familial connection and emotional bond between relatives.

Discussions surrounding Jewish identity should be approached very tentatively. Jewish identity is multifaceted and includes ethnic, familial, spiritual, communal, and ritual elements. One approach to the issue is to verbally acknowledge that there are different aspects of Jewishness, only one of which is defined by Jewish law.

Another approach would be to never discuss the question of relatives’ status. Accept them as beloved family members, respect them for their uniqueness, and let loved ones deal with their personal situations in their own way. Remember: sharing one’s every thought or being totally (brutally) honest is not always appropriate from a Jewish perspective.

Be Jewish Together

Regardless of the religious differences among family members, it is important to celebrate your shared heritage and the role of Judaism in holding you together even as it sends you on separate journeys. Avoiding Jewish interactions altogether fails to recognize that Judaism has a real ability to reinforce family bonds, provide a sense of family history, and allow distant branches of a family to come together in meaningful ways.

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