BT Wife, Non-Observant Husband

When I sat down to write this – my first article for Beyond BT – I wanted to phrase it in the plural, as “we,” writing for other women as well as myself. But I don’t know any other women in my situation. Perhaps, as a result of this article, some will come forward.

There are some inspirational stories in Jewish literature about religious women whose husbands are not on as high a spiritual level, though such women are, seemingly, nowhere to be found in our present-day world. There’s a classic story from Beresheet Rabbah (17:7) about a pious man and woman who divorced because they were childless; each married a wicked mate. The pious man’s new wife made him wicked, while the pious woman made her new husband righteous. The moral of this story is that “everything depends on the woman.”

Or, there is the story of Devorah, the Judge of Israel. Her husband, according to Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 9), was not learned. So Devorah would make wicks and send her husband to deliver them to the Temple, so he would be exposed to the holy surroundings and perhaps, by osmosis or by interacting with those present, be influenced. She is given the credit for assuring that her husband would thereby have a share in the World to Come.

Through a series of events which would be off-topic to detail, I married my husband 15 years ago. We are an older couple, so some things that would be serious issues for (hypothetical) younger observant/non-observant couples are not relevant to us. But there are still challenges aplenty.

Our kitchen is unique. My husband loves to cook and putter around in the kitchen; I’m probably one of the few women who wishes her husband would leave the kitchen entirely to her. But he has his area of the kitchen (non-kosher), and I have mine (kosher). I don’t know what I’d do without aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and the two self-cleaning ovens I’m fortunate enough to have. My husband likes to joke to people that “we have three sets of dishes: meat, milk, and mine,” or that with our three microwave ovens, anyone with a pacemaker would get zapped if they walked in. Seriously, though, we can’t have any of our observant friends over to eat because I would not want to put them in an awkward position of having to refuse due to doubts. We have been their guests many, many times, but we can’t reciprocate.

Shabbat is unique. I make a point of preparing an elaborate Friday night dinner for just the two of us, and my husband puts on a yarmulke and eats with me at the candlelit Shabbat table – but on his own dishes and with his own placemat. Lately he has even been washing for bread (my homemade challah). I guess for him that’s a giant step; I can’t realistically expect that he will ever sing Zemirot or even Eishet Chayil.

Our house is full of timers. Thank G-d for technology! But, he goes his merry way and puts on lights (and TV and computer and so on) for himself as he wishes. Saturday is his favorite shopping day – did I mention that he likes to shop as well as cook? Meanwhile, every Shabbat morning I am in shul, davening to Hashem. Many of the prayers have extra meaning for me: “Return us to You…” and so on.

It is because of my husband’s love for me that I even have a chance to be in shul at all. For many years, we lived far away from the Jewish community. As I came back to Yiddishkeit, I longed to be near an Orthodox shul. Finally, he moved us to the wonderful community where we now live – even though that meant he would be commuting to and from work a total of 100 miles a day. We are around the corner from my shul of choice, one of five Orthodox shuls within walking distance. To me, that is as great a miracle as Yetziat Mitzrayim, and I often think of my own personal Exodus during that part of the prayers.

But it is only rarely that my husband comes to shul. Most of the time, there is a “black hole” for me as I peer through the Mechitzah and see that he is not there. The husband of one of my dearest friends says a Mi Sheberach for my family whenever he gets an Aliyah; it is usually the only way I will have that blessing. As each of my friends sees her husband get an Aliyah, I embrace her and wish that she will have as much joy from her husband’s Aliyah as I would if it were my husband.

When my husband does come to shul, my prayers really come alive. The words seem like they are leaping off the page in flames of spirituality.

The community has welcomed us with open arms. My husband enjoys the company of many of the men when we are someone’s guests. But, so far, he has not adopted their lifestyle.

He is wonderful to me, thoughtful, considerate, loving and funny. He’s everything a woman would want, but he’s not observant. In fact, one of the “problems” I’ve had was how to stop him from buying me flowers on Shabbat!

Most of the stories on the standard Jewish Web sites have happy endings of how this or that person became a BT. We never hear about the ones who don’t. I constantly hope and pray that my husband will become observant – after all, doesn’t it all depend upon the woman? – but, only Hashem knows, and I have to have faith that this is all for the best.

14 comments on “BT Wife, Non-Observant Husband

  1. You are truly truly blessed that your husband has been so accepting of your change. Realize, you probably did a 360 on him since you got married, and the fact that he has come along this far with you, that he has not complained, that he even washes for challah! A miracle! Count your blessings! Most of the stories I hear when one side becomes frum are about marriages that are horrible, and about couples doing anything they can to prevent a divorce. You’re husband loves you and he supports you. Enjoy the times he comes to shul. Perhaps you can very very gently, subltly, ask him once to come to shul with you one every month and a half. Or maybe better yet, sponsor a kiddush in shul for a life cycle event such as an anniversary or birthday, with the real purpose being to invite him to join you in shul that week in honor of the kiddush.

  2. To Phyllis and Fern,
    I wanted also to write a note of support from someone who is in a similar situation. I also have a wonderful husband who moved so that I and the kids could be in a religious area. Faith and observance is not something that can be thrust on another person. While it is wonderful it can also be difficult at times being surrounded by fully observant families. I try to strenthen my self with learning and davening and understanding friends. Hashem gives each of us challenges specifically for us. May Hashem help you with this very special challenge.
    Kol tov!

  3. wow. phyllis you have tremendous strength- from what i can see from this blog. Did you ever hear the idea about keeping Shabbos-that every second a person doesn’t do a lo taaseh (negative mitzvah like turning on a light)he is keeping Shabbos? This very often comes up with people who kinda, maybe, are interested in keeping Shabbos but “my goodness a whole 25 hours is TOO much.” All the time he sleeps, he is keeping Shabbos, etc. if you invite him to sit and eat with you- on your dishes, at the Shabbos meal, with your friends- he would still be keeping Shabbos (and not be turning on the lights or TV).
    And of course, yes, of course, you have no idea the effect you could be having on him whether by your conscious or unconscious actions.
    As we are coming closer and closer to Rosh Hashanah, I wish you a kesiva v’chasima tova- may Hashem help you through this incredible nisayon and may He give you the continued strength to help yourself emotionally and physically, with support from your friends; and may Hashem help you find continued spiritual growth for yourself AND your husband.

  4. Shavua Tov and thanks to all of you who posted such supportive comments. My friends do know about my kitchen situation, and occasionally (not on Shabbat, obviously) we have taken them out to dinner at kosher restaurants and we have also made some Kiddushim in shul so that they could enjoy our hosting them in that way. But what you suggest is certainly possible. One other thing that stops me, though, is that since my husband is not observant, he may do things while guests are there (such as switching lights on/off) that don’t really go with the Shabbat atmosphere. He knows that these things are not allowed on Shabbat, and when he is in someone else’s house he is sensitive and considerate enough not to do them, but in his own house I’m pretty sure he would want to do as he likes. I guess it would need some more discussion between us.

  5. Phyllis–I’ve been thinking about your post all day today and I had an idea. What if you invited people who are BTs-in-progress over to your house for Shabbat? You would be doing a wonderful mitzvah and since they are not yet frum, they probably won’t be worried about your kitchen. And since you know that the food you are cooking is kosher, you know that you can host them with a clear conscience.

    Also, I agree with Mordechai. If you talk to your friends and ask them what you can do to make them comfortable about eating in your home, I am sure there will be a way for you to accommodate them. Do they even know why you have never invited them over for dinner?

  6. Shalom Phyllis!

    This is a brave and excellent post. Thank you.

    One practical point, re: having others over for a meal or Shabbat-have you tried speaking with your intended guest ahead of time to coordinate what they could be comfortable with? I understand how important a thing having guests can be, even if only occasionally.

    Although not quite the same, we had a friend with some ‘particular’ notions about kashrut. Our friendship was solid, but he would not eat at our house. We finally asked him, what could we serve that you would be comfortable with? Admittedly, our situation overall is different; but the operant principle might work for you (if you haven’t already tried that).

    Today is Rav AY Kook’s yahrzeit. I bless you that his love for all Jews of all kinds should fill your heart (all of our hearts!) and your home.

    Shanah Tovah! Shabbat Shalom.

  7. Phyllis–My first post on Beyond BT was about being a BT wife to a non-observant spouse. Needless to say, I feel your pain. I dread being invited to Shabbat dinner because I will have to beg and/or bribe my husband to go. My other option is to go without him and explain to the hosts that, no my husband is not out of town, he just refused their hospitality. He has agreed to only use paper plates and plastic cutlery when eating treif food, so I’m thankful for small miracles.

    I recently read the part of “Duties of the Heart” by Bahya ibn Paquda about trusting in Hashem. It has helped me let go of some of my anger and pain associated with my husband’s lack of observance. I accept–or rather, I am trying to accept–that my marriage is Hashem’s will and that He knows what is best for me. Who am I to bemoan a situation that Hashem wanted me to be in?

  8. Bob Miller, I may be reading your comment wrong but just wanted to point out that opining with pins can sometimes lead to unecessary pricking due to prickly opinion syndrome.
    And contrary to popular belief,this sort of opining will not necessarily fix questions and or concerns about stuff.And would be not unlike poking at atheism to prop judaism,bashing banalism to promote anesthesia flavored enthusiasm, knocking the care bears to promote pollyanism and or banning the banshee to promote longevity. Sometimes both are needed, other times they cancel each other out and other other times destiny is doin her default dancing thing.
    Just thought I should point that out, in case you were having trouble seeing the jewish forest for the atheist trees. Some trees have a hard time doing the growth thing in denser forests.
    With the neuroscience/judaism lessons from those hardcore jewish forest rulers running scarce if at all.
    And other sciences just being a spiritual drag, knocking all those flimsy like leaves off in one swift logical seasonal wind. It gets kind of difficult being an atheist free tree in a jewish forest.
    Sometimes it just makes more sense to be the wildflowers.
    Other times I would go with sparkly snowflakes.

  9. Keep doing what you are doing, and keep loving your husband. He is obviously a good man to be accepting of your choices and allowing you to pursue your observance. Everyone has to go at their own pace. The way to perhaps “influence” others is to show them how passionate you are about Judaism.

    I kind of understand your situation – when I met my husband, he was a baal she’elah after being a hard core Chabadnik, and I was unobservant but interested in learning. Slowly but surely, my increased observance has not necessarily changed his personal views, but we agree to be observant (i.e. shomer shabbat, kosher, etc.) for the sake of our children IYH and continuing the Jewish tradition to another generation. Because of my love for Judaism, he says he sees everything that he used to do in a new light.

  10. Phyllis, It must be very hard for you, but you seem to be doing all the right things, namely giving unconditional love to your husband. Changing ourselves is difficult, helping someone else change is extremely difficult. We have a friend whose husband become observant many, many years after her.

    As far as happy endings on other sites, you are reading only one chapter. Our lives are books which continue to be written until the day we we die and even afterwards by the legacy we leave. Every growing person, without exception, has their struggles, that’s what life is about.

    Keep showing your husband the beauty of Torah in a non threatening way and we’ll have in mind in our prayers your husband and the millions of Jews out there who have not yet embraced the Torah.

  11. Phyllis,
    Between friends, I have to tell you that you sound like you are feeling way too bad for yourself. You are really not such a martyrdom case. If you were not frum and you were married to your same husband you would be very happy with him, right? So now that you are married to him and ALSO have the great blessing of being frum yourself, certainly you should be happy! Stop looking at the “black whole” and everything will work out in time b’ezras H’.

Comments are closed.