Dear Rabbi Bernath,
My wife has said she wants to become more kosher at home. We are not deeply religious, but she wants our kids to eat kosher. I am conflicted because I want to eat what I want. What should we do?
At first glance, this seems like a bit of an easy question for a rabbi – just eat kosher, right? In reality, this question opens an entire can of worms. Worms, I’m sure you know, are not kosher.
The question here is about spiritual or religious differences between husband and wife. I could write a whole column about how to deal with that when you’re dating. But once you’re married, it’s a different story.
Sometimes it happens that one spouse changes a little bit after marriage – or a lot. I think spiritual growth is a good thing, of course, but it really should not come at the expense of one’s marriage.
My very general observation, and basic rule of thumb, is that these things tend to be much smoother when the wife is the one striving to be more observant, rather than the husband, as in your case. Here’s why: Judaism’s number one value is the home.
Most mitzvot don’t happen at a synagogue. Most Jewish education doesn’t come from Hebrew school. The Jewish bread and butter is Shabbat, kashrut and the mikvah – all of which are home-based rituals.
According to Modern Parenthood, the Pew Research Center’s analysis of marriage and parenthood in America in 2013, while marriage today is more egalitarian than it was in the 1960s, there are still significant gender differences. In most marriages, men still do more paid work outside the home and women do more work at home – whether chores or raising the kids.
So if I stick with the statistics and assume that your wife does most of the cooking and childcare, how much will it inconvenience you if she keeps a kosher home? Unless she’s planning on putting an X-ray machine at the front door, or something like that, all you have to do is not use the fine china if you decide to buy a Big Mac.
Now, imagine that it was the other way around and you were insisting that your wife do things differently. Picture yourself telling her that she needs to buy this kind of meat, cook this way and not that way. Kind of uncomfortable, isn’t it?
Well, aren’t you essentially doing the same thing by telling her she can’t run a kosher kitchen, if she wants it that way?
If a husband becomes more observant than his wife, we run into an issue. While it’s very simple for him to put on tfillin and pray (on his own or at synagogue), he may begin wanting kosher dinners, the cycle of family purity or a Shabbat experience at home. And he may get it into his head that it’s a good idea to coerce his wife into doing these things – if she just does it, he reasons, she will like it.
There is no surer way to make someone hate something than to force them to do it, and resentment isn’t healthy for a marriage either.
So, as a blanket rule, unless you’re really doing half the cooking, shopping and housework (an egalitarian ideal that is uncommon both in my experience and statistically), this is her call.
If a husband out there is wanting to be more observant than his wife, it’s not impossible, but you will need a lot of help to make it work. I’ve counselled a few couples like that successfully, and it takes a lot of careful thought and empathy for the wife’s experience. It’s not something that a typical husband could handle on his own, but with the right help, anything is possible.
Remember, a happy wife means a happy life.
Have a question for Rabbi Bernath? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org