Sharing a Divergent Path

December 1, 2011
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Bruce Weinstock

Finding an ezer k’negdo, a partner who complements and completes you, someone with whom to share and create a life together, is challenging enough. But finding someone who shares your assumptions about how to nurture and guide the spiritual lives of children can be almost unfathomable. How can two people with divergent religious practices find a path to raise their child while maintaining shalom bayit?

The very question is loaded with assumptions that deserve careful scrutiny:

  • Children should hear and see a consistent message from both parents regarding their heritage and faith.
  • Parents have a significant impact on the eventual faith and practices of their children.
  • Permitting children to develop views on religious life that differ from those of their parents implies a lack of strength regarding one’s religious observance, commitment, and convictions.
  • We should raise our children to emulate our values and beliefs.

A careful and honest examination of these assumptions, though, quickly dissolves many of them. Although a consistent early message helps build a secure identity foundation, it is the experience of wrestling with progressively more difficult challenges over time that may have a more lasting role in fortifying and strengthening identity in an unsheltered environment. And although parents maintain an important role in impacting the religious life of children through early adulthood, the role of peers may be more substantial if the point of measurement goes beyond young adulthood. And, how many of us hope to raise children who are merely extensions of ourselves? Rather, we strive to nurture adults who will realize their own unique potentials based on the inherited gifts (genetic, environmental, religious, cultural, emotional, and more) with which they have been blessed.

While I’m not suggesting that we raise children to rebel against our own religious practices, different stages of a child’s life call for different parenting strategies. For example, stressing parental consistency may be important at one stage and stressing diversity at another. The challenge is to be ever mindful of the commonalities between the parents while not losing sight of the value of our differences.

Sharing a life with differing approaches to Shabbat or the calendar presents greater challenges than different observances of kashrut. For example, while my observance of Shabbat is more traditional, my wife, Lisa, would take time to do things for herself and others she would never do on a normal workday. She might take a four-hour bike ride, get her nails done, or shop for pleasures rather than necessities. It is a relatively small sacrifice to ask the non-kashrut observer not to eat shrimp at home even if he finds the avoidance of shellfish pointless. However, the spiritual sacrifice of not taking the four-hour bike ride is significant. Another example: Lisa finds the idea of leaving a light on all of Shabbat antithetical to the idea of conserving and respecting creation. Keeping a light on for 26 hours violates her Shabbat. Shutting off the light makes my Shabbat very dark. Our house has agreed upon zones in which light switches may be used or kept unused. The children note these differences and learn from them.

In our family, we’ve had times when Lisa or I feel “lonely” because our child is sharing an experience with the other parent, leaving the remaining parent outside the experience. Mindfulness of the risk may help create safeguards against that loneliness. Among our safeguards are times when each of us stretches beyond our own observance parameters. We also find other times when family members will go their different ways and seek spiritual camaraderie from outside the family.

Perhaps the most important safeguard for the family is an open admission of that loneliness and an invitation to share an experience. Either parent should be encouraged to say to the other (and sometimes to older children): “Please join me in my practice (or keep me company today in my non-practice rather than engage in your usual practice), not because I want you to permanently do so, but just because at this point in time, I am feeling lonely and want the family support.” And, acting outside of one’s practice should not be understood as a change of heart, but rather as an acknowledgement of flexibility and respect.

A temporary deviation from one’s general approach to halakhah for the sake of shalom bayit and easing the loneliness of a family member can be spiritually enriching. Traditionally, one would consult his or her rabbi before violating halakhah — even for shalom bayit. And for those who choose to observe specific halakhic practices, there is often the concern of being consistent in one’s choices. Consistency is useful but probably overrated. Am I suggesting that we choose our partner over our God? Certainly not. I am simply suggesting that in most cases, we probably believe that God is as invested in our family as we are.

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Bruce Weinstock, M.D., is a pediatric emergency physician at Children’s Hospital Boston and Norwood Hospital. He is a member of several synagogues and minyanim in Brookline, Mass., where he lives in a two-family moshav with his wife, Lisa, and their three daughters upstairs and a family of friends downstairs.

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