Question: We are a middle-of-the road Orthodox, shul-going family. My son, who is in his mid-30s, has met a non-Jewish girl he’d like to marry. Although she is willing to let any children be brought up as Jewish, we are still unhappy. Should we try to discourage the relationship or try to make the best of things?
Rabbi Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.
Do you really think that you can discourage your son from marrying the woman he loves? In all my years as a communal rabbi, I have never once met a parent who was able to discourage a child from marrying out, once the child had set his or her heart on it.
The time for dissuasion and arguments is before the child starts dating non-Jews. At that point you are opposing an idea not a person. Once your child falls in love, it becomes personal and all you will achieve by trying to dissuade him is drive him further away from his family and his faith.
A generation or two ago it was not uncommon for parents in your situation to sit shivah and to behave as if their child had died. At the time this severe practice was justified as a deterrent because on the whole it worked. Today it just does not have the same effect. More importantly, in previous generations a child who chose to marry out was perceived as openly breaking with the Jewish people. For various reasons this is no longer true. Many young Jews today who marry out do not want to stop being Jewish. They continue to identify with their people and many want to raise their children as Jewish. Marrying a non-Jewish (often un-churched) partner is not a rejection of their Jewish faith. Most young Jews who marry out are not exchanging one faith for another. They simply found a partner that they love and with whom they want to spend their lives.
Given that this is the reality, the best thing you could do at this stage is to put aside your understandable disappointment and reach out to your son and his future wife and offer them unconditional love.
From an Orthodox perspective, their children will not be Jewish unless they are born after their mother converts. Conversion is a serious life-changing commitment and it is not something one undertakes lightly. This is a decision that only your daughter-in-law can make and I don’t think you or anyone else for that matter should put any pressure on her to do so.
She may very well chose to convert of her own accord and if she does, as so often the case with converts, she may very well become more religiously knowledgeable and committed than your son, raising his level of Judaism and creating a vibrant Jewish home for your grandchildren.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.
Of course you are unhappy. My suspicion is that mention of your son’s age indicates you were wondering whether he would ever marry, while I imagine that even when he was little, you had always assumed that he would marry someone Jewish.
But although you may feel disappointed by the way things have turned out, you need not feel guilty, as he is part of a well-trod pattern in two respects. First, many Jews are marrying at a much later age, seeing no need to settle down early, especially as — with today’s longevity — they may still have 50 years of marriage ahead of them.
Second, many are marrying non-Jews, with the rate being 44 per cent in 1996 and it may well have increased since then. However, this is not necessarily a rejection of either Judaism or family upbringing, but a reflection of today’s tolerant multifaith society. It is almost inevitable that people of different backgrounds who work together during the day will socialise together afterwards and form relationships.
As a parent, you certainly have a right to make your concerns known, although doing it constructively rather than abusively. But as an adult, he also has the right to make his own decision, in which case it is better to accept it with good grace and not alienate both him and his partner. It is not a matter of “giving in” but of playing the long game: keeping the channels of communication open, showing the best of Judaism to your future daughter-in-law, ensuring that they will bring round any grandchildren for Jewish ceremonies and giving them positive Jewish experiences. It need not be a case of him marrying out, but of her marrying in.
You imply that she is not willing to convert, which would have been desirable had she so wished, but you might like to know that 50 per cent of converts convert after marriage, having become immersed in Jewish family life and warmed to it, which is another reason for being welcoming.
But there are other options. If both parents agree, the children can be awarded Jewish status by the Reform Beth Din in their own right without the mother converting, if she undertakes a study course. Alternatively, Liberal synagogues recognise children of one Jewish parent as Jewish providing they have a Jewish home life and education. The Jewish line does not have to end