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Dating Advice #141 - A Convert's Family Ties

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

He wants to avoid meeting with the non-Jewish in-laws. She can't live without it.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

A year ago I converted to Judaism, and four months ago I got married to a wonderful man, whom I do love with all my heart and who loves me. We are convinced that we were destined for each other from Heaven.

Nevertheless, we have had terrible fights and are now learning to get along with each other.

For the past three years I have been living in Israel, where my husband was born. I grew up in Switzerland, where my parents and siblings are living. In the last three years, I visited them a few times for about a week. Before I got married, I agreed to his wish "to minimize contact" with my family, since under Jewish law they are technically no longer my family.

My parents and siblings came to our wedding and spent a wonderful week with us. And since they were here, and left, something happened to me. I "reconnected" and feel incapable of going without seeing them for a few weeks in the year. But my husband is discouraging me from going to visit them and it has placed our marriage in danger. Do I have to choose between either my marriage or being able to see my family?


Dear Sarah,

As you are learning, all newly married couples go through a long period of adjustment. It is a challenge to adjust to another person's rhythms, habits, and way of squeezing the toothpaste. New husbands and wives gradually discover which "buttons" can upset their partners or make them happy, how to improve communication and the many ways to resolve disagreements.

It is only natural to want to maintain a connection to the family members you care about, with whom you shared life experiences, and who had a great deal of impact on who you are today. And in our experience most converts to the Jewish faith have relationships with their families of origin.

We believe that you and your husband need the guidance of a third party to help in this instance. A sensitive rabbi will be able to help you reconcile the considerations of Jewish law with considerations of the heart.

It is our understanding that Jewish law takes two different approaches to a convert's relationship with her parents and family members. In one respect, after conversion a person is considered as if she has a new soul. Practically, this means that those aspects of Jewish law governing such areas as inheritance and mourning for a family member do not apply in her situation.

However, a convert is still required to follow many aspects of the commandment to honor her natural parents. The Code of Jewish Law clearly states that one who converts to Judaism must treat her parents at least as well as she did before she became a Jew, may not embarrass or offend them, and must treat them with respect. (YD 241:9)

Granted, one aspect of honoring parents is that they are a link to our heritage -- an aspect that doesn't apply when one's parents are not Jewish. But the other reason to honor parents is the tremendous debt of gratitude for all they have done for us. That of course applies to any biological parents. Interestingly, the Talmud cites the example of a non-Jew, Dama Ben Netina, to exemplify many of the most important aspects of honoring one's parents.

Your husband may not have been aware of this aspect of Jewish law at the time he asked you to agree to diminish contacts with your family. Similarly, he may not realize that after sharing the joy of your marriage with your parents, your feelings of gratitude, appreciation and love for them were renewed. He may not be able to realize that if you do not see them occasionally, you will also be deeply hurt and will come to resent him.

When someone comes to us with questions about a courtship that may be heading for marriage, we always ask if their dating partner seems flexible and willing to grow. These are very helpful qualities for a husband or wife to possess, because life always seems to toss us curve balls that throw our expectations into disarray. One partner loses a job… develops an illness… realizes that they cannot fulfill a promise.

This agreement to minimize contact may have been an underlying factor in your husband's decision to marry you. Though you now realize this will be virtually impossible for you to live with. The two of you have to be able to work together to adjust to the new situation.

Hopefully, you and your husband will be able to have a heart-to-heart talk. Of course, you will want to explain how you are torn between maintaining a connection to your family and continuing to strengthen your marriage to a man whom you care deeply for, but are actually only beginning to truly know. It is also important for your husband to explain why he wants you to minimize contact with your family.

Perhaps your husband is concerned that your situation (being Jewish and having non-Jewish blood relatives) will be confusing to the children you hope to have someday. It is also possible that he worries that if you continue to be close to your parents and other family members, you might be influenced to return to the non-Jewish religion you grew up with.

There may also be another reason behind your husband's request: He may feel a need to be in control. Sometimes, a partner who wants to have control in a marriage tries to minimize his spouse's contacts with her family and friends. This eventually leaves her with no support system, so that she gradually becomes totally dependent upon him. He then tries to take charge of other aspects of his wife's life -- her wardrobe, career, daily activities, financial decisions.

From how you have described your marriage, it doesn't appear that your situation is at such an extreme. For example, you've told us that you are working very hard at learning to compromise and adjust to each other -- a sign that you are trying to achieve a partnership, not a dictatorship. Nevertheless, if your husband does have controlling tendencies, this is a serious danger sign, and the help of a trained therapist may be needed to deal with this now, so that it does not interfere with your ability to build a happy, mutually supportive life together.

As newlyweds, you are still learning how to resolve minor disagreements, and a big issue such as this will be a challenge. We can see that you are worried that you will not be able to reach a compromise. This is a natural concern for someone who has only been married a few months. Yet look how far the two of you have come in just a few short months! Think of all of the ways you care for each other and are good for each other.

Rather than imagine that your marriage might end because of this disagreement, we encourage you to believe that you and your husband care enough about each other to find a solution that you both can live with, and that your marriage will not only survive this episode, but will become stronger because you learned how to resolve a difficult dilemma together.

Our Sages do offer a general guideline, a "middle road" to balance both of your wishes: A convert should visit his parents occasionally (Maimonides - Mamrim 5:11; "Igrot Moshe" by Rabbi M. Feinstein, Y.D. II 130).

It is important that you give your husband reassurance that occasional visits with your parents are not likely to cause the scenarios he worries about. The reassurances can come from you, from other couples in which one of the partners has converted to Judaism, and from a rabbi who has a fair amount of experience with converts. Your can talk with your husband about your own love of the Jewish faith, about the fact that as the two of you develop a common history he will be able to see your spirituality more clearly and will be able to worry less, and about the fact that your love for your family is part of your character but does not interfere with your Jewishness.

We also suggest that you meet some happily married couples where one of the partners converted to Judaism. They can share their own experiences and describe how they have dealt with some of the concerns that worry your husband.

We believe that the two of you can resolve the dilemma you face., and that your marriage will become stronger in the process.

Rosie & Sherry

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