Losing My Religion Would you convert to your spouse’s religion? Should you? Two experts share their advice on the rights and wrongs of converting. BY FRANCINE KIZNER
Changing your religion shouldn't be taken lightly.
It’s no question that religion can be a hot topic between couples—it goes down to the very core of how you were raised. And if you and your spouse come from different religious backgrounds, there may be some pressure to convert by your spouse or from the in-laws.
We asked Rabbi Anson Laytner, executive director of the Greater Seattle Chapter of the American Jewish Committee, and Rabbi Yitzchak Goldman, author of The Soul Diet: Ten Steps Towards Metaphysical Health (www.souldiet.com), to weigh in with their thoughts on conversion and how it affects a marriage. And even though both are coming at the topic from a Jewish perspective, their advice crosses all religious bounds.
What are good reasons to convert to a religion? Laytner: Ideally, a person should only convert if and when spiritually inclined to do so. It should be a heartfelt decision. This isn't to say that one factor in this decision may be related to getting married or having children, but it shouldn't be the primary one.
Goldman: Some people have told me they just cannot imagine not converting. It's as if they are currently living a life in limbo waiting to assume the identity that feels most familiar to them. After all is said and done, this is the most ideal motivation to convert. They are not even looking at it as a choice, rather as an inevitability. This usually (not always) denotes a deep sincerity on the part of the convert.
What are poor reasons to convert? Laytner: Simply to please another person.
Goldman: Anytime that conversion is perceived as providing extraneous benefits, it’s not a good sign. For example, the person thinks, Judaism has a wonderful emphasis on family—I like that. Although this may appear on the surface as a commendable thought, in truth, it shows that the person is maintaining a type of score—this part I like and this part I don't like. One's commitment to convert should stem from an innate recognition that no matter what one perceives are the benefits or the detractions [to the religion], all of that is irrelevant since this is the correct path to follow.
How do families tend to react to a sibling or child who is converting? Goodman: It's interesting that in many cases there are friends and colleagues of the convert who know more about that person's path towards observance than his or her own immediate family do. The subject can be so tender and volatile within the immediate family that it's often safer not to talk about it at all. Parents in particular often view their child's decision to convert as a rejection of all their childrearing efforts. Parents naturally expect their children to follow their traditions, and when that is abruptly changed, many feel hurt. There are parents who rise above that and succeed in maintaining good relationships with their children, but again that requires a great deal of maturity and fortitude.
How does it affect a marriage if one spouse is not as devoted to the
religion as the other? Laytner: I've seen lots of mixed marriages. Sometimes the convert is more devout than the spouse, sometimes not. I've also seen marriages where the spouses remain in their respective faiths or with no faith. In my experience, the only issue is when both spouses have strongly held, different faiths. Religion then becomes a battleground for them, their families and any children they might have. I think if one spouse is not as devoted, or has no faith to speak of, then this aspect of life will be easier. Of course, this only depends on the religiously devout spouse not being too zealous in forcing their beliefs and practices on their partner. This too could make religion a battleground. One last point: Even in same-faith couples, you are bound to see divergence in beliefs and practice. These things change over the course of one's life; they ebb and flow. As with anything else, a couple needs to talk about these topics and seek to understand one another.
Goodman: This can cause a great deal of stress in a marriage. If one spouse observes the Sabbath and the other does not, a natural distance can form between them. It’s up to the strength of character of each spouse to overcome that chasm. The more observant spouse has to be extremely careful not to exhibit aloofness, and the less observant spouse has to be just as careful not to appear antagonistic of the other's practices.
What is the most difficult part of transitioning to a new religion? Laytner: Learning how to deal with the loss of traditions associated with one’s birth faith and not (yet) feeling at home in the traditions of one’s adopted faith. For example, the scent of pine at Christmas and the lights on the tree, the feasting and family gatherings, can create a powerful imprint on a Christian child, one that may never leave and can never be matched. The odor of latkes cannot replace it; Hanukkah is a poor substitute no matter how big one tries to make it. At the same time, the convert may take years to get totally comfortable with the traditions of the new faith.
Finally, what advice would you give a person looking to convert to their spouse’s religion? Laytner: Many couples, particularly younger ones, are asked to do a lot of accommodating when they get married: in-laws, clergy and community all make demands. Conversion can become one more of these accommodations, but it really shouldn't. It’s a life-change and should not be undertaken lightly by either the potential convert or their partner. Few clergy I know, of any faith, will convert a person simply to accommodate family pressure; conversion is a matter of heart and soul. It’s worth taking the time to do it right.