My brother recently married a non-Jewish woman. I went to the wedding, not because I wanted to, but because my mother insisted I go. My husband and I sat in a corner with our kosher store-bought sandwiches (no kosher food in sight) and made a presence. It was a very uncomfortable evening, and has led to even more questions for me. I love my brother very much and want to be part of his life, but I truly do not want to be around his non-Jewish wife. We do not live in the same city, so it's not like we run into each other frequently, but I am not sure what I am supposed to do for the occasions that we do meet. I would consider myself modern Orthodox and my brother has gone beyond non-observant; he now considers himself an atheist. What is the Jewish view on these situations? Does one just try to be polite to the non-Jewish spouse to maintain a relationship with the Jewish family member? My husband and I hope to have a family soon. How do you handle exposing your children to something you are teaching them is wrong? I know the fact that I do not want to be at a table (or in the same room) as his wife hurts my mother tremendously (she does not like what my brother has done either, but fears losing him). Is my difficulty with my brother and his wife a lack of respect for my mother as her children cannot spend quality time together? I know there are several questions listed here. I thank you in advance for your assistance with this.
Both you and your mother feel deeply pained; perhaps the word betrayed isn't too strong, that your brother has married someone who is not Jewish. This is not what you hoped your sibling would do, or model for your own children. Your mother values an intact family and you honored her wishes by attending the intermarriage and brought your kosher food along, as so many of us do under such circumstances, as well. You wish guidance for how to relate to the competing values in your situation, and question exposing your children to something you think is wrong.
In Jewish law there is a principle of b'diavad (advising in advance) and l'hathillah (adjusting to a new reality gracefully, thoughtfully and without being toxic. Just as your mother treasures your brother as more than his marriage choice, so too, do you love him. ? B'diavad, this wasn't permitted, l'hathillah, you have a new fact on the ground, his intermarriage. Punishments in Judaism are up to HaShem, coping with new realities are the province of humans.
While you mention the option to "just be polite to the non-Jewish spouse", I recommend that you get to know her, become a sister to her, let her into your beautiful Jewish life--for his and your mother's sake, if not your own. Have her experience the beauty of Shabbat and chaggim. Your brother made the intermarriage decision--she fell in love with a member of the Jewish people and accepts a place for herself in our family tree---now, her sense of the Jewish people will come from how you treat her in large measure. Creating the potential for hate for Jews in her heart could be a seed you plant with coldness or "just being polite", what wisdom could there be in doing so? She may have talents and a heart for being an aunt to your children that are religion-irrelevant; depriving them of her presence in their lives (after all your brother finds her special, she probably is!) is a lose-lose for everyone. Plant seeds of love for you, your children, Judaism and Jewish people in her experiences with you and you may have good surprises down the path of life.
Further, you and your new sister-in-law will be joining your brother in caring for family elders over the years. Your mother knows it would be very ill advised to alienate any daughter-in-law, no less to so grievously wound a son (or brother.) Dogma isn't everything, leave space open to the future. Your sister-in-law may give birth to your nieces and nephews, will you spurn them and default on being an aunt to your sibling and wife's child? Being Jewish isn't all that there is to being a mensch in this world. Show lovingkindness, become their favorite aunt and they may follow you a good distance in this life. You may not show up for Christmas or Ramadan or whatever holidays they may embrace in addition to your brother's Jewishness, still, inbetween, be there for them. Goodness will follow.
Breaking up a family by withdrawing contact is a major trauma that creates a tragic pattern in families. It can be hurtful even to your future children. You presumably love your brother in more ways than any marriage could damage, and will care for him and those he loves over time. There can be so much good that transpires when you shift your focus to loving connections by the mitzvah of hakarat hatov, showing gratitude for all that is good in your brother and his family—support the good and be revealed as a good and caring person yourself. All things change—leave room for that possibility. Religious rigidity can damage important future possibilities; also remember, if you realize you don't like her as a person that he and the children will need your support even more. Not all marriages last.
We had your experience in our own family when one family member who is quite frum (religious) announced he was going to cut his sibling off for converting to Christianity some years after intermarrying. When we encouraged him to speak with his Rav, he was surprised to learn the tradition of "sitting shive for someone who intermarries or leaves the fold" is not in Jewish law. Instead he was encouraged to stay in connection with his sibling, to offer to study Torah together, to show caring and to remain a faithful sibling. Twenty years later, she is returning to her Judaism, bringing a bat mitzvah-age daughter in this direction. Thank God, no one shunned or shamed her. (If it's a liberal Jewish wedding, I will attend in the manner you did, if it's a Christian or other religion's wedding, we only go to the reception to be with family but not support the dogma of the other tradition coming into a Jewish home. Rabbi/Priest weddings, are no go for us, children can't choose for themselves, that was a weird idea of the past generation...children deserve to learn and develop inside of a healthy tradition where, however, other religions aren't demonized.)
And what of the issue of modeling to your children? If you live in a frum community, that's done amply. They also need to understand the greater world and be able to navigate that. Self-ghettoizing have serious and growing rates of youth rebellion in our times. You are better served to simply treat your brother and his life with loving inclusion, while emphasizing to G*d willing, your future children, the beautify of two Jews co-creating a Jewish home at times when it is not at all able to be interpreted as disrespect of their uncle.
Should you wish to work through these understandable and difficult feelings via phone consultation, via my non-profit hashpa'ah, Jewish spiritual counseling is available on a sliding scale. with blessings on your life and path, Rabbi Goldie Milgram
Life events generally do involve variant issues with a spectrum of ethical concerns and, as such, many questions should actually be expected. You are, as such, to actually be commended for voicing many of them. The first challenge that often exists, though, is the proper articulation of these concerns. This is not to say that you have presented your questions incorrectly. What is often overlooked, though, is a necessary investigation of the underlying ethical constructs upon which one may base one’s perspectives, conclusions and dilemmas/questions. We often assume certain ideas or viewpoints to be correct without a proper consideration of the true underlying values or motivations in the circumstances. In certain ways, this is also what we must first investigate in regard to your questions. (It is with this in mind, that I would also like to direct you to another question within this general topic of intermarriage that was previously addressed on Jewish Values Online. Please see http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/867. As the development of my response in regard to this question may direct me in a different way, my thoughts there may also be of assistance.)
The essence of your inquiry is clearly the question of how you are to relate to your brother given that he is now part of an intermarriage. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of this question is how you are to proceed when, please God, you have children. Before you approach this issue, though, you must first consider why you are honestly against intermarriage. How you understand the problem will greatly affect how you will respond to it and there are certain implications in your description of this issue that leads me to believe that your perception of the issue is somewhat skewed, yielding the possibility of error in how you proceed. Don’t get me wrong. Intermarriage is a powerful challenge within the Jewish community and developing a proper response to it is a most difficult undertaking. This is especially so when we consider the message we wish to impart to our children in this regard. This, however, makes the correct definition of the issue even more important.
The first item that hit me was how you mentioned that you do not wish to be around your brother’s non-Jewish wife yet you do not mention anything about her. As a person, do you like her? Do you dislike her? What has she done to offend you? If anything, you should perhaps have great difficulty being around your brother who has forsaken his heritage and, it would seem, even his belief? I am, of course, not offering this as a suggestion or even an alternative. Your brother’s conclusions about God, religion and even his own Jewish identity are, most likely, the results of weaknesses in our Jewish educational structures. In so many ways, the reasons that are often presented for why someone should continue to identify as a Jew and not intermarry are so weak that it is actually amazing that even more individuals are not choosing to intermarry. I clearly do not believe that you should have negative feelings towards your brother because of his choice of a non-Jew as a wife. In the same vein, though, I would also question why you would or should have negative feelings towards his wife simply because she is not Jewish. That is a fact that bothers you because of your beliefs – a matter we shall discuss shortly – but it is not – and should not become – a statement about her. She is simply a person acting pursuant to her beliefs (with which you happen to disagree). Of course, there are times when another’s beliefs are so offensive that they are a reason, in themselves, for you to shun this person. But is that the case here? If the woman is actually a fine human being than the harbouring of negative feelings towards her simply because she is not Jewish – or, in more specific terms, is a non-Jewish woman who chose to marry a Jew – is a problem. From her perspective – and perhaps even more importantly, from the perspective a rational natural morality -- she has done nothing wrong. It is your belief in a Revelation at Sinai that declares her behaviour to be wrong – and it is within this perspective, and only within this perspective, that this dilemma must be approached.
This leads me to the second item that struck me and that is the role of your mother. While the Torah’s commands to honour parents are clearly of high value (see Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 33), there is a clear limitation on them whenever they collide with any other Torah value. See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 240:15. (See, further, Biurei HaGra.) Concern for your mother is thus important but only subsequent to your own independent determination of what is proper. It is only within the spectrum of proper behaviour that one can consider the effect on parents in terms of narrowing down the permitted options. On the surface, this would seem to simply imply that concern for your mother’s familial feelings should not be allowed to interfere with any clear-cut directive to remain aloof from your brother’s wife. While this may be a proper conclusion as well, this recognition of the gap between your mother’s views and the Torah views also indicates that any deviation between your mother’s negative view of intermarriage and the Torah’s negative view must also be acknowledged and considered. In that, it would seem you and your husband ate your kosher food at this wedding alone, your mother does not share your views of Revelation and the binding nature of Jewish Law. If this is so, why then is your mother against intermarriage? Without a clear Revelational directive not to intermarry, human emotions against intermarriage raises many questions and issues. It is important as you proceed that, in both directions, you do not let your mother’s perspectives – and even natural value selections – deviate you improperly from the Torah path.
But what now is this Torah path? As we recite daily in the blessings we say in preparation of our study of Torah – asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim, Who has chosen us from amongst all the nations – it is important for us to understand that our root distinction as Jews is because God has chosen us from amongst the other nations. It is a Divine act that has distinguished us a Jews. If this is on our mind, we can also understand that with this great distinction come great responsibilities. If God has so honoured us by choosing us from amongst all the nations it must clearly have a great purpose – and it is of this purpose that we must continuously be conscious. What does this say in regard to intermarriage? On the simplest level, we could argue that this idea should tell us to have strong negative feelings towards a Jew who intermarries because this person is throwing off a yoke of responsibility. Yet, does the person truly see it this way? What about the Divine honour that this person is also ignoring for it is God Who has so chosen this person? The bottom line is that most people intermarry because they don’t view their Jewish identity in this manner. They do not see it as a responsible privilege that God has bestowed upon them. It may even be that the non-Jewish spouse sees the marrying of a Jew as more honourable than the Jew himself. The fact is that the challenge of intermarriage should actually bring us back to consider the very honour of being Jewish. If people are willing to challenge this identity, it may be because these people simply do not value this identity or do not value it enough. The proper response, thus, cannot be to shun the non-Jewish spouse but, rather, to promote the honour of this identity and to act in a manner, within the confines of Halacha, that meets its responsibilities and brings honour to the identity.
Bottom line, what I am advocating is that you focus on the positive. As the ancient fable goes, more can be accomplished by the sun shining brightly than by the wind blowing violently. Your responsibility is to act as a Jew and to make others look upon our status as Jews in a most positive light. Within my organization, Nishma (www.nishma.org) our byline quotes from Devarim 4:6 which states that our goal should include the nations of the world seeing us a “a wise and understanding people.” That is clearly not always possible; our observance of Torah can also often lead to negative perceptions from others and this cannot stop us either (see Rashi, Bamidbar 19:2). Yet, for many reasons, attempting to be seen in a positive light must also be part of our interaction with the world. Our Jewish identity must be perceived as something honourable and of value in the world. It is in this regard, that we can truly further foster commitments to Jewish identity. In the case of intermarriage, one of the solutions is for the non-Jewish spouse to convert (of course, fully pursuant to Halacha) – and this does happen on occasion because this spouse’s new interaction with the Jewish world has actually instilled in him/her a value in being Jewish and thus a wish to become one (which then also affects the spouse born Jewish). With children also the method of dealing with such situations is by promoting the value of being Jewish, not through a motivation from a fear that they will see the other alternative as better. If your children say one day how unfortunate it was that your brother intermarried or that his wife did not convert because they have forsaken the honorable and responsible status of being Jewish, you know you will have been successful.
So what am I saying? This is a time for you to respond with not simply a pride in being Jewish but with a recognition of the great honour and responsibility that God has bestowed upon you. Act in a manner that garnishes honour from God and your fellow human beings (Avot 2:1) – that is the challenge that is before you. In this manner you could even re-ignite positive feelings of Jewish identity in your brother and, perhaps, kindle them in your sister-in-law. In this manner, you also need not worry about your children coming in contact with this violation of Jewish Law or with any individual who offers a lifestyle choice contrary to Halacha. They will want the status of being one of those who positively maintains the status that God has bestowed on them. The answer lies simply in how you conduct yourself as a Jew.
Thank you for the question. I’d like to address it through the value of “shalom.” I understand why your brother’s non-Jewish wife is offensive to you. There are indeed many sources, both ancient and modern that condemn intermarriage as an complete abandonment of Judaism.
Let’s consider a famous biblical source – that of Pinchas. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story; male Jews are cohabitating with Midianite women. God is angry about this and announces a harsh punishment to the Jewish people. While the Israelites are weeping, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman are seen “l’einei Moshe u’leinei kol adat b’nei yisrael” In the eyes of Moses and the children of Israel.
Pinchas takes a spear and stabbed both of them through the belly. For this he is awarded a brit shalom – a covenant of peace. One way to get to shalom, which is very close the word shalem or wholeness, is by cutting out anything that is not “you.” Having no contact with anything you disagree with ensures a peaceful existence. However, the “vav” of shalom, is always written as a broken “vav” in our Sifrei Torah. Cutting out what is not “us” is peace, but it is, in my opinion, a broken peace. Many in the Orthodox community go to great lengths to achieve this kind of peace. If you hear of wanting to shut out the outside world, restrict reading to sifrei kodesh, cut out internet, television, etc. Live in only observant communities and actively discourage “intruders,” This peace can exist in the world. But is it true peace?
I will offer you two alternative examples from our tradition that describe the value of “shalom.”
We are to give to the Jewish and non-Jewish poor, “mipnei darchei shalom, because of the ways of peace.” It is fair to assume that the non-Jewish world was not as friendly or understanding of traditional Judaism as it is today. So perhaps the reason for darchei shalom is simply for our physical protection. It is also true to say that, at times, the value of peace with our non-Jewish neighbors trumped a Jewish value of separation from the non-Jewish world.
Finally, consider one of our sources for Shalom Bayit, peace in the home. “Rava said, it is obvious to me that there is a fixed list of priorities. When a person is poor and must choose between purchasing oil to light a Shabbat lamp for his home or purchasing oil to light a Hanukkah lamp,” the Shabbat lamp for his home takes precedence.” That is due to shalom bayit.” (Shabbat 23b – Steinsaltz translation) Hanukkah is a story of victory over non-Jews and rededicating our most holy space. Shabbat is a time set aside for holiness and for family. I think Rava would suggest that family takes precedence. Shalom Bayit is worth prioritizing.
You describe yourself as “Modern Orthodox.” The “modern” part of that suggests to me that you are able to live in the modern world, and interact with the modern world, without changing your Jewish values. It seems to me that mipnei darkhei shalom and shalom bayit overlap. Not to mention kibbud av v’em (honoring our parents). This may be difficult, but ultimately could be strengthen your Judaism.
I’ll conclude with a lovely Midrash from Tanchuma on Parashat Shelach Lecha. Moses sends scouts to see whether the people of the land are strong or weak, whether their cities are opened or fortified. The midrash suggests that those cities that are open, its people are strong. Those cities that are fortified, its people are weak. Openness to difference is strength, and can bring complete, and not broken shalom.
It’s clear seeing your brother marry a non-Jewish woman is tying you up in knots. It’s hard when our loved ones make choices that aren’t the ones we would make ourselves. Nevertheless, Pirkei Avot reminds us, ”Look not at the flask but at what is therein; There may be a new flask full of old wine, And an old flask wherein is not even new wine.” (Avot 4:20). While you and your wife clearly don’t approve of his choices, that’s not the same as approving of him (or her for that matter).
Clearly, it would have been better had they chosen to make kosher meals available for family and friends, out of sensitivity to your needs. Until time travel becomes available, however, you need to find a way to speak to your brother in a non-judgmental, calm fashion about why the meal at the wedding was uncomfortable, and talk about how that piece can be resolved. It may be that you’ll have to find other ways to be together that’s non-food oriented (ballgames, shows, etc.).
Of course, THAT is only the side issue, not the main one—your discomfort with your new sister-in-law. You don’t say much about her or why, other than her non-Jewishness, you don’t like her. Her existence in the family is a reality. You don’t know what choices they might make moving forward. You don’t live in the same city. It would be easy to minimize your contact—and to let wounds fester, and the relationship sour. Instead, I would encourage contact—on terms you can agree to, that don’t negate your own values. Pirkei Avot further says “better one hour of t’shuvah…in this world than a lifetime in the world to come.” (4:17). T’shuvah means returning—you can’t return to each other if you reduce the relationship to nothing. I would urge you to keep the door open.
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