I’m in a long-term relationship with a man raised in a modern Orthodox Jewish family. He and I are atheists happy to participate in Jewish culture, but lacking any interest in the spiritual side of things. His parents are both very observant. His mom converted before marrying his dad, and now runs a strict Jewish household.
My boyfriend and I started living together last year. His parents were initially very upset with this arrangement, since it signified that our interfaith (in their eyes) relationship was serious. Because I respect his parents and didn’t want to cause a rift in the family, I expressed to them a sincere willingness to convert someday. However, my boyfriend made it clear that the conversion would be for their sake, not mine or his. They seemed fine with this, and have since given us no trouble for living together.
After looking into conversion a little more deeply, I’ve learned that most rabbis will not allow someone to convert just for marriage. The expectation is that the convert holds a sincere faith in God and intends to live a Jewish life both spiritually and practically. Rabbis are expected to strongly discourage potential converts from converting (the tradition is to turn them away at least three times) to test their sincerity.
Problem is, I’m not sure I’m that good a liar.
There are aspects of the conversion process that appeal to me: I’d love to learn Hebrew, and I find Jewish culture and history interesting. Still, I’m very uncomfortable with the notion of lying about belief in God for the lengthy conversion process. Of course, I’m also uncomfortable with the notion of causing a lifelong rift between my boyfriend and his family.
I wish I could turn to a Jewish person about this, but I’m worried it would be disrespectful. Any ideas on how to best approach the situation?
Firstly, you need to sort out what belongs to you, what belongs to your boyfriend, and what belongs to his family.
Twice in your letter you say you don’t want to “cause a rift between my boyfriend and his family.” Any rift between them is his and their responsibility, not yours. By his own volition he has discarded the beliefs of his family, and that would be the essential cause of any rift. You did not cause him to be an atheist. His relationship with you, another atheist, is simply another choice that he has made. It only makes his earlier choice more obvious.
Your boyfriend’s parents also have choices. They can choose to accept him as he is, or reject him in ways that can be appallingly cruel. Either way that goes, they can choose to acknowledge that it is his choice to go “off the derech,” or they can try to blame a convenient scapegoat, such as you.
By thinking it is your responsibility to prevent a rift in his family, you are buying into the blame. Don’t.
I do not understand what exactly you meant by “However, my boyfriend made it clear that the conversion would be for their sake, not mine or his.” It does not sound like he made it clear that you don’t believe in God. It wouldn’t make much sense for them to approve if they knew the conversion would be a fraud, so I’m going to assume that they still think you believe what you would be affirming.
If you want to show respect for his family and satisfy your own intellectual interest by studying Hebrew, Jewish culture and history, that’s great, go ahead, but you don’t have to go through a phony conversion with an elaborate charade of feigned belief in their religious claims. Lying and faking a deep, sincere conversion would be a very disrespectful thing to do to the rabbi, to your boyfriend’s parents, and to yourself.
And the truth will out.
Your having to lie and pretend true devotion would not be over at the end of the conversion process. You would probably have to keep the façade up for decades. His mother converted to Judaism and now runs a strict Jewish household. It seems likely that after your “conversion” you would be expected to do the same thing. Are you prepared to fake and fake and fake doing as the rabbis expect, “living a Jewish life both spiritually and practically” for the rest of his parents lives? Even if families relax their religious demands on a young couple, the pressure starts all over again when children arrive. As parents, will you have control over your kids’ education and any religious indoctrination, or will you have to draft them into the farce as well?
All this to prevent a “rift,” but a hidden rift of deceitful ingratiation will have already happened, and the two of you will be the ones doing it, rather than his parents.
Your boyfriend needs to step in and take an assertive and unambiguous stand toward his parents about how he expects them to show you respect just as you are. He does not have to fully “out” you or himself as atheists, (but in the long run that seems inevitable.) If anywhere along the way they reject you or the two of you, then that is their choice, their creation, their failing. It is their immaturity, lack of compassion, and lack of love. If that’s the choice they make, then you’re both better off without them.
If you want to show them respect, do it honestly, not by pretending something. If they are capable of showing you respect, it should be for the person you really are.
I wish a happy life for you and your boyfriend, and harmony with both of your families.