Someone is Asking for Your Advice

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A reader send this to me asking for your opinions. It was originally posted on Reddit where it has generated a decent conversation and a respectable 86 comments at this moment.

All the necessary information is in there. The question is not about her parents and their philosophy, it is about the young woman and what she should do. My opinion follows the question.

Without further ado, have at it.

How do I tell my mother that being asked to marry another Jewish person as an atheist is against what I believe?

I grew up centerist Orthodox. I’m an atheist who is culturally Jewish in that I read the Forward, some orthodox blogs, and that is it. I don’t care if my (nonexistant) kids know that about me, and I don’t care if in my (nonexistant) marriage that we celebrate Hannukah or passover or christmas. My brother is dating a non-Jewish girl, and my parents are threatening that if he marries her, they will take out a restraining order if he tries to talk them after the marriage. Meanwhile, I’m sitting here realizing that it might be a bad idea to marry another affiliated with a synagogue type Jewish person, because I don’t want that for my kids. It is more important to me that they be free thinking, particularly about moral issues, than have a rabbi/school system tell them what to believe. I’m currently single, I’d like to meet another atheist, preferably one who is driven by moral questions (since I am). How do I tell my parents, particularly my mother, that asking me to marry an affiliated Jewish person is probably a bad idea.

Technically speaking, despite growing up orthodox, it would be an intermarriage, and likely to fail because I wouldn’t share values.

Since I too am a reader of this blog I am have taken the liberty of offering my opinion:

Although we oftentimes resent it, other people’s feelings about us should play a role in our decisions. I know that sounds very old fashioned and repressive, but I think it is truer than progressives like to think.

Parents are not just biological sperm and egg donors. They are not just responsible for raising us and nurturing us through the trials of childhood and our teenage years. Parents and children are connected in a deeper way in that they have had the most influence over our lives and their presence or absence can have a far ranging impact on our adult years as well.

Therefore, I think step one is to determine if you can be happy and at the same time satisfy their needs. I don’t mean that one should sacrifice one’s happiness for the sake of a parent’s specific request. But if one knows what their parents want and it can conform with one’s own needs, I think that should be the preferable choice.

Allowing the feelings of a third party influence our decision making is not be default allowing them to control us. It can be very empowering to accommodate the feelings of others. Especially when the stakes are so high. We are talking about parents here. Not Hebrew School teachers.

I know that it may feel “fake” or that it would seem wrong for a young adult to narrow one’s marriage prospects to a smaller pool because of one’s parents’ request. But I think that making the conscious choice not to burn that bridge and at the same time not settle in one’s search for a marriage partner is the best of both worlds.

That being said, if one would feel that their parents ruined their marriage prospects and bear resentment towards them for forcing them to marry against their own wishes, I don’t think it is worth considering the wishes of the parents. Only if one can be happy with the choice is it a fair choice.

Further, there are a lot of Jewish atheists. Many of them are culturally Jewish or they simply identify with some Jewish ideals and causes despite not being religious or believers in God. Jewish and religious are not necessarily corollaries. I think a Jewish atheist can marry another Jewish atheist and it would not feel like an intermarriage, it would feel very comfortable. In fact, marrying a non-Jewish atheist will probably strain the marriage more than marrying a Jewish non-atheist would. This is simply because of the cultural osmosis that all people who were brought up Jewish experience.

Finally, you ask How do I tell my mother that being asked to marry another Jewish person as an atheist is against what I believe?

The answer to that is that although it may be against your “beliefs”, it may not go against your “interests” and those are equally if not more important than living by one’s convictions. It’s not faking to make a concession on beliefs for the same of interests. It’s prudent.

In the end, I think there are enough options to keep your parents and you happy and I would recommend exhausting those options first so long as you are able to conquer any  of your own natural resentment.

Link: Reddit

  • I give you a poem by Daphne Gottlieb:

    the jewish athiest mother has her say

    baby, there is no
    god but
    they’ll kill you
    for him

    Just saying.

    • I receive more discrimination for being an Atheist than being Jewish, frankly.

  • Yair Daar

    The problem with your advice is that it lacks limits. Although in this case, both parties could theoretically be satisfied if she marries a Jewish Atheist, she is clearly limiting her dating pool by only dating Jewish. At what point would you say, “you gave it a shot, but now you should move on?” Also, what percentage of the dating pool has to be in play for this to be worthwhile to date only Jews. I don’t think either of these are questions that can be answered.
    That being the case, this has to be a decision she makes are her own based on how she feels.
    She first has to figure out how important marriage is to her at this point and how important her relationship is with her parents. If marriage is not a pressing priority at this point, then maybe should could date Jews only for now and see how it goes. If upsetting her parents is not a major issue, then maybe she should open up her dating pool to everyone.
    At the end of the day, this is not a practical discussion as much as it is an ethical one. How far does someone have to go for their parents happiness if it means limiting theirs? This is not something one of us can really answer, and it’s up to each person to decide. Your advice, as practically sound as it is, becomes impractical if she can’t find anyone Jewish.
    So, even if this woman were to follow your advice, she still must decide beforehand a) how far do I go with this and b) what happens if I am forced to make a choice?

    • A long term relationship is important to me. I don’t care one way or another about the Marriage construct outside of the fact that in the US it is a predictor of family stability.

      I have other priorities as well when dating. Those also tend to be limiting factors. I also would prefer to date into a jewish population that equally doesn’t care one way or another about jewish life or practices (a mark zuckerberg type), since I am so minimal with mine, and best guess is that in a year or two outside of family concerns the rest will disappear. That group who behaves like me doesn’t actively look for other jewish people and saying I should only date jewish people creates this question of where are they?

      A third issue that no one addresses at all is that if you don’t really care about halacha as valid, what do you if the person was brought up jewish in an intermarried family and now is atheist? That actually is a common reality, even in places like NYC.

  • kooloytoyra

    If there is no G-d then Hitler did nothing wrong.

  • kooloytoyra

    Go to my blog and click Sep 25.

    • Don’t worry. We all read it already.

  • tikunolam

    I didnt read this in reddit so I apologize if I am repeating things that have been already said. I am a lapsed MO Jew and an atheist. By chance, I met my husband of now 16 yrs at a time when I was still hooked in socially with the Orthodox world. He too is a lapsed MO and would consider himself agnostic. Coming from similar backgrounds has certainly made our lives easier as we went pretty much along the same path, understand the family issues involved etc. . .

    If you happen to meet a fellow Jewish atheist with a similar background that could prove to be cool. Be assured though, it wont eliminate future problems with Orthodox relatives. Imagine when it comes bris time, choices of schools, whether holidays are recognized at all etc. You cant win. Imagine my latest, adopting a nonJewish child from fostercare and whether to convert her and even if I do, it not being an OJ conversion.

    The conflicts might start at who you will marry but that is just the beginning. Your parents wont like some of your choices. They may, in fact, hate some of them. Marry who you want, be true to who you are and what you want out of life. Just know that future decisions that you will make will come with the pain of knowing you have hurt your parents. That is just the way it is no matter how loving, polite and respectful you try to be while trying to live your own life. Being true to yourself will far outweigh the fallout though. I promise.

    • I’m being asked about these things already. Except for the bris thing, I have answers about what I value and tend to get yelled at about it.
      I guess the real question is how do you be true to yourself while having the patience to deal with those who would prefer not.

      • tikunolam

        I have found it is almost impossible to do it 100%. Not only do I not share certain values with my extended family but I find some of their values abhorrent. We have learned to avoid comflict, have the family over for secular occassions rather than share Jewish holidays or shabbat and order in kosher food.There have been painful times, especially surrounding what should be “simchas” like my Son’s not remotely OJ bar mitzvah, our choice for public HS and our adoption of our foster daughter rather than having more bio children. It isnt easy but everyone is still in each other’s lives, no one is in active conflict but feelings do get hurt.

        • How do you explain to your kids that you find certain values abhorent? (also, mazel tov on the to be adoption pending termination of parental rights) It does really help to have someone Jewish of a similar background, I know, but a lot of those people are now missing for me….

          • Tikunolam

            i don’t really need to couch my values in contrast to the families’. I just teach them my values. They know that one of my values is to be respectful of their grandparents. From a really early age my kids knew that when we are at their grandparents’ house we don’t turn on lights on Shabbat out of respect for their way of celebrating Shabbat. My 14 yo has come to some pretty strong opinions himself. He is an atheist and very vocal about many progressive values which I share. He still manages, as a teen, to be nothing but a mensch around people with differing opinions. My kids don’t live in the OJ world so it is not hard for them to simply live with the reality that all over this world people are different.

            So far the foster to adopt thing has been the hardest but with only with my MIL. The bar mitzvah was painful too. We are not extensions of our parents. We have to live our own lives.

            What do you mean that “a lot of these people are missing”?

            • I don’t know lots of ex orthodox Jewish people of similar backgrounds…

  • tikunolam

    Forgot to add. . .as for you tell her, just tell her that it might not work out the way she hopes and that maybe you should both be ready to commit to the parent child relationship knowing that religious differences will be there and perhaps it is a good idea to talk about a plan to minimize the negative effect that this reality will potentially have on your relationship.

  • Plotz

    I’ll share a conversation I had with a very good friend who grew up Conservadox and became an atheist later in life. He is completely unaffiliated with Judaism, even culturally for the most part. He thinks religion is an evil influence on the world and that humanity would be better off if it stopped clinging to superstition and morality based on ideas held thousands of years ago.

    Anyways, his parents are NOT happy. After realizing the battle to keep him a theist was lost (after the battle to keep him religious at all), they begged him to at least date Jewish atheists. The entire idea was laughable to him since what is a Jewish person if not one defined by the Jewish religion (either in practice or through lineal descent as defined by Judaism). It was a construct he completely disagreed with.

    When I asked him why not just humor your parents and see if you can both be happy (after all, he didn’t want to lose all relationship with his parents) he said this: “Do you have any idea how few Jews there are where I live? Now you want me to limit my dating pool to those Jews that have become atheists like me? Be serious.”

    I can’t say I disagree.

    • Right, I should have clarified that the OP lives NY.

      • Plotz

        Well, the other thing is (and you didn’t address this issue) is that Jewish is a construct that may not have meaning anymore if you’re an Atheist. Or, it may even have negative connotations. Even “cultural” aspects of Judaism are religious in nature to some extent unless maybe you’re taking about eating a bagel, in which case who even cares anymore?

        • I’m ok with cultures dying. Or changing.

    • ahg

      Funny thing is, atheists can be divided into two categories much like their theist counterparts: fundamentalists and for lack of a better word, I’ll call the others practicalists.

      I’ve encountered both.

      The fundamental atheist does not want anything to do with religion so strongly they will not allow any form of it in their house. (i.e. A Christmas tree.) This type has usually had some contact with religion and wants to expunge it from all aspects of their life.

      The practicalist, sometimes mistakenly thought of as agnostic, but not because they will affirmatively assert that they believe there is no god will have a Christmas tree if they think it’s fun and beautiful for the family but not attach any religious significance to it. A Jewish practical atheist might have a menorah and use it to convey a different message than a religious Jew but the thought of lighting one is not offensive.

      So as to the question of dating and marriage: If we’re talking about the fundamentalist type, then your argument is empty to them. They’re to busy trying their darnedest to expunge what they’ve absorbed by osmosis.

      But if you’re talking about a practicalist, then you’re right on the mark. While they might not appreciate the Christmas tree that a future atheist partner might want to bring in the house “just for fun”, they may just take pleasure in keeping the menorah in their window, albeit with a secular values message and benefit from finding another Jewish atheist.

      • I’m midway. I have some very basic cultural leanings, primarily around studying things. I also would have no problem with myself having a Christmas tree (guys, in the US this is a secular holiday in the coasts….) or someone else with me. I don’t place such a high value on Jewish ritual just because I was born with it. I do place high values on rituals that improve your life though (trying to work regular mediation into my life as a result)

    • As the person in question- I agree for different reasons. The type of men I tend to be attracted to/date tend to themselves also not care. And while there are Jewish Atheist Men in the circles I run in, I can’t count one who will only or even primarily date Jewish women.

      I’m also frankly really not interested in Jewish ritual, or Jewish themeclubs or whatever. When I socialize I tend to do around sets of common interests (barring my usual monday night drinking group, but even then, there are definitely common interests among the group). I’d value having someone who shares some of my interests more than the person sharing my etho-religious background.

  • chaim

    Nice reply. I think you should expound more on “the cultural osmosis that all people who were brought up Jewish experience”. I think there are reasons why even an atheist can appreciate Jewish continuity in view of the Jews’ contribution to mankind, but I don’t think that would affect her choice.

    • I don’t mind that cultural osmosis at all. I think that is in part what progress looks like.

  • sweetpotato

    I am surprised no one is discussing the fact that the author’s parents threatened to take out a restraining order against their son if he marries a non-Jew (G-d fobid). I’m unequivocally against intermarriage. But I can’t imagine what it would be like to tell one’s child that they will be literally cut off from you if they were to choose to do so — no matter how devastating and unacceptable that choice would be.

    • Because we aren’t here to judge the parents. We are here to help our fellow reader.

    • As the writer of that reddit post – it is a turn off from being Jewish and being active in Jewish things. To me it means there is something weak about what you believe that you have to start using threats to get someone to agree.

  • @ShanaC:disqus

    Hi Shana – It seems to me your question needs to be segmented. It is less about how (the style) of telling your mother, and more about the intent and outcome.

    Given that you even ask suggests tenderness, that you care and do not wish to offend.

    Despite what others may advise you about serving your interests and not your values; it may be that the two are indivisible for you and the alternative mere sanctuary of a hypocrite. I will assume this is the case.

    If you mentally rephrase your Mother’s belief it may be more approachable to you and your approach to her less contentious – who needs it ?

    So – we know your mother believes in a creator God and you do not. This is divisive, but we can explore commonality as well as differentiation.

    For example (and this is only an example not an argument) if you were to believe that the Universe “came about” as in “the big bang”, it follows that you believe there was a start to time. Note: no physical processes implies, no time – Hawkins explains this better but more mathematically.

    Given absence of time or “e-tern-ity” ( “before-time” is an oxymoron), there is an absolute breakdown in cause and effect. Indeed if time starts at all, then it starts without “cause”.

    Suppose the idea of occurrence without any cause is abhorrent to most people – It allows absolute nihilism, then you are stuck with a dilemma…

    Either things were at least “pre-historically” ( I mean eternally) totally spontaneous (very weird – by definition they never happened) or we posit some underlying (perhaps unknowable) “postulate” that is necessarily outside physics (non physical and therefore eternal) to explain our otherwise inexplicable existence we apprehend.

    Note 2 : – We even have to posit that we exist at all and are not merely imagined (Bring on “The matrix” or “A midsummer nights dream”).

    I think if this weirdness matches your worldview at all, then this underlying reason, this axiom that helps you explain your world, whether personal to you or not may be what your mother calls God.

    The positing of an axiom to aid explanation and consideration is intellectually rigorous and necessarily non-disprovable. And ( though I am Christian and no Hebrew Scholar ) I suspect that the roots for the words “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” imply grounds, reason, purpose and explanation. As in the Greek Logos.

    What your mother holds dear converges somewhere close to you, she needs there to be a purpose and in her tradition that purpose is absolutely self-defining, rather like yours.

    If it fits I would recommend you explore your commonality before rejecting it out of hand, because if you reject what you hold dear (even accidentally ) it can harm you.

    Hope you don’t mind me contributing on this personal issue. :).

    • You end up having to ask what before time was like, and then you still don’t answer questions of theodicy.

      And theodicy is something driving me, especially when I see the religion itself driving evil.

      I’m also much more a bible literalist – you read in the most pashut (simple) way. If you start doing this too much, the stories and the laws really don’t line up well.

      Mostly, though, despite everyone calling Judaism a biblical religion – it isn’t. it is a talumudists religion, and I have issues with how laws are understood and constructed.

      Because my mother finds the law system important (and I don’t) we see lots of conflict. I don’t see a purpose in following laws that create theodicy problems, and I don’t feel so culturally attached that needing someone equally Jewish seems appealing….

      • Ok – it seems I have misunderstood the question. I took it that you were Atheist as I would use the label it, now it seems to me you are facing a cultural “alignment” issue that is unique to your circumstance, where identity religion, and culture strongly overlap.

        I could argue theodicy from some angles, but I don’t know enough about your context otherwise. So I will bow out and wish you (and your Mother) well. All the best .

        • Thank you James. I don’t think this is honestly going to end well, to tell you the truth. I’m angry at her for being such a stickler about this.

          • Shana – I’m sorry to hear that – Advice (from an old guy) for what its worth.Frustration may be reasonable, but anger probably isn’t of much benefit .Try to love her for what she is – she will have been through stuff that you don’t get yet, and she will find it hard to accept that you have a mind of your own (Mothers do). And most of all – if you give up on traditions and culture its one thing – but values – they are worth hanging on to – make sure you do – make sure you will be able to explain yourself to your children – It sounds like a lot of pressure – but I think its good advice – All the best !