Is Observance Fanaticism?

By Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

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 Dear Rabbi,

Although I was raised Jewish, attended Hebrew school and became a Bar Mitzvah, my family was not particularly observant. At some point, my father–the grandson of Orthodox rabbis–became less and less involved in Jewish life, except for holidays and yartzeits, the anniversaries of someone’s death.

As an adult in my mid 30s, my non-Jewish wife became pregnant with our first daughter. Having agreed to raise her Jewish when we married eight years before, we chose to go to a rabbi in our community to find out what that meant. We took classes and studied, and together discovered the richness and beauty of Judaism. As a result, I have become a bal teshuvah (return to the fold, very observant Jew) and my wife converted to Judaism. We now maintain a strictly kosher home, eat out only in kosher restaurants, observe Shabbat and holidays, are raising our daughter with the love and warmth of our faith, and feel a sense of completeness in our lives.

Ironically, while my wife’s Catholic family has come to accept this arrangement, my family has not. They feel we have become “fanatics” and argue that our observance of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) is irrational and outdated. This has become a source of friction and I just don’t know what to do, feel utterly perplexed and in some ways rejected. How do we ease this tension?

Dan

Dear Dan,

Thank you for writing me. Mazel tov, congratulations, on rediscovering your heritage and on returning to God’s path. I do hope that you, your wife, and your children, derive great nachas (joys) throughout your lives from the sacred way of life that is Judaism.

I am not surprised that some of your Jewish relatives would be threatened by your life. You write that you feel perplexed and rejected. My guess is that your father and family would describe their feelings in precisely the same terms. So I have two suggestions:

1. You are the ones who have introduced a change into the family’s life and way of doing things. So the burden is on you to demonstrate to your family that this change doesn’t mean you don’t love and respect your family, and that you will not allow your observance to create a distance between you and your relatives. You can explain that face-to-face or in a letter, but you need to communicate it clearly and soon. Then you need to continue to demonstrate that commitment and connection through your deeds and words until your family comes to trust it as true.

2. That having been said, you and your wife have every right to live an observant Jewish life, and to expect respect and honor from your family as well. They don’t have to share your desire to observe, but they must respect your life choices, just as you respect theirs. Your family was observant for thousands of years. The non-observance was for a mere half-century, at most. So, it is actually true that you are the one returning to the normal ways of your family. And, it should be said, you are doing what you can to assure the continuity of Judaism in your family. How bad can that be, even if it is occasionally excessive?

Above all, be patient. People can adjust to a great deal, but it does take time.

God bless you all,

Rabbi Artson





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About Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson serves as the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and is the author of The Bedside Torah.