Ask Richard: My Potential Jewish In-Laws Refuse to Meet My Agnostic Daughter January 6, 2020

Ask Richard: My Potential Jewish In-Laws Refuse to Meet My Agnostic Daughter

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I am the mother of a young adult woman (30) who has been dating a young adult man (also 30) for nearly 2 years. They are very connected and are planning to make a life together, although there is no immediate talk of engagement or marriage.

What I am seeking to learn is to differentiate “bad behavior” that seems to be quite immoral with religiously dictated behaviors.

The young man was raised in a conservative Jewish family. He has been independently living away from his family for more than a decade. He does not practice judaism or any religion, he considers himself agnostic. My daughter is also agnostic.

His parents are not disowning him, but are (in my opinion) being extremely disrespectful to both their son and my daughter. When he finally told them about his relationship, they threw a fit and said and did the following things:

– They researched her on the internet and found info about a past health issue from 15 years ago, from which she has been in full remission for 13 years. They encouraged him to break up with her due to future potential health issues (i.e. genetics).

– They refuse to meet her, will not allow him to bring her to their home, and will not meet her outside of the home.

– His siblings also refuse to meet her and stated that their children cannot be exposed to this relationship because the children may believe that “it’s okay.”

– When that did not work to dissuade him, they told him, if you want to, just live together, do not marry, and don’t ever have children. (so basically they are telling him to treat her like his mistress/whore). I am very much not OK with this because they both have marriage and family as a major goal.

So, is this behavior consistent with the teachings and expectations of the conservative jewish religion, or are these people just hiding behind their religion to get away with abhorrent behavior?

Before this, I was tolerant of the religious beliefs of others, now I only see religion (all) as fantasy fairytales used to coerce and control people.

Warm Regards,

Arlene

Dear Arlene,

From my limited knowledge, the four branches of modern Judaism, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, seem to be distinct from each other mostly in their different emphases on preserving traditions versus adapting to customs and practices of the countries into which they have immigrated, and into which they have assimilated to greater or lesser degrees.

Each of those branches may have their reputations for being inclusive and accepting or exclusive and intolerant, and those reputations may or may not be entirely accurate or fair. From my limited exposure to individuals from these branches, individuals’ attitudes can vary widely within each group.

Since none of the young man’s parents or siblings have actually met your daughter, it seems the only likely reason for their being intolerant and unwelcoming to her is simply that she is not Jewish. Their citing of a long-past health issue seems absurd, and looks like a poor attempt to reinforce their disapproval with an additional non-religious rationale.

So you are trying to understand if his family objects to your daughter because of some well-established religious injunction about not marrying out of the faith, or because they’re just being bigots. Given the individual variations on this issue, they might claim that it’s the former, while others might dismiss it as the latter.

But for what you should do in this situation, that distinction, piety or prejudice, doesn’t really matter.

The young man has made decisions for at least the last ten years that have increased his independence and decreased his family’s influence in several ways: He left home, he is not apparently financially dependent on them, he has ceased to practice Judaism and become an agnostic, and he has started a serious relationship with a non-Jewish young woman who is also agnostic. He is the person in this scene closest to being an expert on how his family operates, what their motives are, what works, and what doesn’t.

All of that points to him being the main person who will have to make the next decision about how he is going to respond to his family’s rejection of his girlfriend and likely future fiancée. He will need to consult her, take her thoughts and feelings into account, and together they will form a plan, but in the end, the reply to his family’s demands will have to come from him.

I can’t be sure from your letter, so please forgive me if any of the following advice is not necessary:

What you should do is to avoid becoming the counterpart to his angry, disapproving family by being openly angry and disapproving of his family. I don’t know if you’re going in that direction, but don’t. They don’t need to be in the middle of two feuding families. They’re dealing with enough anger and disapproval as it is. I expect it is very painful for both of them.

Your desire to protect your daughter’s happiness and your indignation at the insults she has received from his family are both understandable and admirable. Take the energy of that protectiveness and indignation, and channel it into simply loving both of them, and supporting them in whatever is their decision about how to apply their response to his family. If they are going to build a life and a family of their own, it must be theirs from the start, and how they meet this early challenge must be entirely up to them.

Love them, encourage them, sympathize with them, be the warm and welcoming mom and mother-in-law for both of them that they need right now, and try to keep your own resentment and tension about his family to a minimum.

If after a while you’re still curious if his family’s motives really are, to use a badly misused term, “sincerely-held religious beliefs,” consider asking him. He, as I said before, would be the expert on his family who would probably know. But pick a time and circumstance to ask in a casual way that won’t make tensions worse while he and your daughter are still trying to deal with them.

I hope that you, your daughter, her beau, and yes, even his family can find ways to reduce the friction and let go of the disapproval. That could happen in time, although it might be slower for some than others. It’s a common and sad story when religion interferes with love, but once in a rare while, with time and patience, our inborn humanity can overcome our learned divisions.

Richard

You may send your questions to Richard right here. Please keep your letters concise, but include pertinent information such as age, the part of the world where you live, relevant financial issues, and significant people in the situation. They may be edited.

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