Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson serves as the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and is the author of The Bedside Torah.
Dear Rabbi: Jewish Woman Married to Muslim Man, Raising His Christian Children
I have a very entangled situation in my family. I am a Jew. My husband is a Muslim. His children have a Christian mother. We married five years ago and I have been rearing his children. They are now twelve and eight. When we married, Jacob, the twelve year old, had some sense of Christianity, but Yasmeen was a clean slate. Their father insisted that the children not be raised as Christians. I told him then that I could not teach them to be Muslims, but he said that I should teach them to be good children. I have raised these children as Jews; they read and write Hebrew and attend religious school. Jacob was named student of the year at Hebrew school. We pray together every morning and once in a while we recite Ma'ariv.
In August my father-in-law came to visit for four months. He discovered that he did not have Muslim grandchildren. He has destroyed what used to be a good marriage.
My husband has become abusive, and has taken Jacob out of Hebrew school. He won't let him go near the synagogue. The children and I are miserable.
My husband had given permission for the conversion of the children to Judaism, but his father showed up before we could convene a beit din--a rabbinic court--to finalize it.
What should I do? They are not my children, although I am the only mother that Yasmeen has ever known.
A Woman in Misery
My heart goes out to you and to your entire family. Raising children is complicated enough in the best of circumstances, but yours does stretch the limits.
Without knowing the details of your family arrangements, there are limits to what counsel I can offer. Legally, I presume that your husband has sole custody. If so, then he is the one authorized to make all decisions about the children's upbringing. I don't know whether or not you have legally adopted the children as well. If you have, then you also have a legal say in their religion and their life.
But the law is just the parameter and the beginning. In any marriage, there can't simply be the imposition of one party's will. Instead, a commitment to discussion, to consensus, and to shared decision-making and responsibility are essential. It does sound like the issues raised around the children are bigger than the children and are really issues about how you both communicate and work out complex areas of disagreement. At the very least, your husband's choice to take his father's position so completely is problematic. Is he possibly using his father to cover for his own ambivalence? Can he stand up to his father?
For your husband to expect that you could raise children as Muslim is wrong. For you to raise his children as Jewish may be equally misguided. If he wants his children to be Muslim, he will have to be the primary provider of their religious identity (taking them to the mosque, to religious school, and to youth groups). If you can persuade him to agree to raise them as Jews, then I would encourage you to take the next step of a formal conversion for the children.
Above all, you must all work to make sure that the children feel loved and nurtured by all adults in your family, and that they not become the victims of the religious/turf struggles between your husband and you.
It sounds like your disagreement has reached such an impasse that it is hard to hear each other and to communicate openly. You two would be well advised to seek professional therapy to provide a neutral place to work this (and other issues) out constructively.
Falling in love with a person from another religious tradition can bring many unanticipated consequences. I wish you strength and wisdom in your difficult situation.
God bless you. God bless the children.
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Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Also known as ma'ariv, the evening prayer service.