Families and Jewish Differences

Bringing us together, tearing us apart.

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin is an educator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2001.