By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff
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Q: I think of myself as very liberal, but, when my daughter told me that she was pregnant but didn’t plan to marry, I was extremely upset. She and this man are in love, and he treats her well, but they both say they do not believe in marriage. I don’t understand how you can be in love and want to raise a child but eschew marriage. I tried to rejoice in the new child, but I worry. I have heard lots of discussions about whether to have a bris or not but no one talks about what not having a wedding means in terms of the support from the Jewish community. I try not to think that the sky is falling, but sometimes it feels like there’s a breakdown of our sacred traditions.
A: As I wrote in my first book, “Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships With Your Adult Children,” “In ancient traditions weddings were a public union agreed on and planned by the parents…the wedding joined two families and formally granted the couple permission to begin a new generation…How different things are now in the United states. The only thing that American weddings universally continue to mark is the union of two individuals…Today, weddings generally belong to the bride and groom, who no longer ask parental or institutional permission to start a family.
Not having a traditional Jewish wedding, or any for that matter any wedding, is indeed part of the change in Jewish practice (or non-practice) so clearly outlined by Jonathan Sarna. During the 50s, the number of Conservative and Reform synagogues rapidly expanded (oftentimes, as the article points out, at the expense of Orthodox membership). Sarna postulates, though, that this increase did not mirror a growing sense of religiosity among American Jews. In the Suburban Jewish world of the 50s and 60s, synagogue attendance was “fashionable.” People believed that joining synagogues would make them good Jews, not that all good Jews went to synagogue.
When synagogue membership goes up, so does the observance of rituals and traditions that the synagogue facilitates. It follows that if more people belong to a synagogue, more people will get married there. In the same vein, now that synagogue membership is declining, so too is the practice of traditions.
The Pew Research 2020 study on Jews in America backs up your observations about declining community and religious involvement. Twenty-seven percent of the Jewish population are “Jews of No Religion.” These Jew are part of the Western trend away from reliance on religious institutions and a growing hesitancy for a religious body or the state to define relationships. The lack of a wedding ceremony is a manifestation of that. However, as Sarna points out, the “old way” you are referring to is only as old as the Baby Boomers. However, the sanctity of our marriage institutions is much older; it places the couple in the long lineage of our people.
While I understand the hesitancy at seeing such a grave institution challenged, we know from history that marriage has grown and changed over the five thousand year history of our people. After all, one of the most important tenets of marriage today, monogamy, was not a part of the marriage of our Patriarchs. All of this is to say that we know we’re going to survive, but I think your real concern is whether or not we are going to thrive and, perhaps more importantly, to you, whether or not your grandchild will thrive.
There are many historical examples we can look to of Jews persevering through societal changes externally and internally. I think of the Hellenistic Jews in the third century B.C.E., whose adoption of Greek culture drove such a wedge between them and the more traditional Jews that it sparked a Civil War that undoubtedly weakened us. We eventually found ways to ground ourselves in our commonalities when our differences threatened to pull our people apart, regardless of our differing opinions on the way the world was changing.
I do not know whether or not this current bout of societal changes will make us better as a people. I can understand that, when young people see the high divorce rate, some may feel marriage is not worth the trouble. They believe their own convictions and emotions will keep them together, more so than rituals and marriage vows.
To their credit, marriage is a big commitment. In generations past, we may have been too hard on people who were rightfully trying to escape a bad marriage. Everyone knows somebody who fought through a rough patch and came out better, the gravity of the institution encourages perseverance through adversity. But it is time to acknowledge that, while marriage can be a great source of personal and interpersonal satisfaction, it is no longer the only acceptable life choice.
We can’t throw up our hands when confronted with a new way of life. It is easy to call whatever changes we see evil, insurmountable, or unstoppable and simply walk away. All this does is actualize our worst fears about changing times, that they will tear us apart.
Whatever the future may hold, you cannot turn your back on your daughter and your grandchild. You can mention what you prefer that your daughter marry. You can even cite the legal and financial benefits for the child if she does, but you can’t force your child to legally and religiously tie a bond she does not want. At this point, you have to decide whether or not you want to have a part in your daughter and grandchild’s life or not.
I am of the belief that, even when faced with changes to tradition that seem alien to me, Shalom Bayit, or peace in the home, and peace in the community, is the paramount Jewish value to follow. Others may disagree. I might find hope in the prospect that she may change over time, but the most important thing in the world, for me, would be to secure the relationship with my adult child and my grandchild.