Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Faith and Observance > A Wife’s Wisdom: Handling a Spouse’s Religious Crisis

A Wife’s Wisdom: Handling a Spouse’s Religious Crisis

What should a woman do when her husband suddenly stops keeping mitzvos? Is ‎she to blame herself, or ‎should she tell herself that this isn't her business and "‎each person does as he pleases"? A personal reflection on responsibility in a ‎marital relationship and the degree to which we should be intervening in lives of our ‎loved ones.

Nissan 5782; April 2022

A few years ago, a couple of hours before Yom Tov, my daughter (then 10 years old) approached me ‎holding some candies she had brought from school: “I want to give these to someone ‎who is studying Torah. If he learns better for it, I will have a share in his learning.” ‎

‎”But Ima,” she continued after a moment’s thought, “the teacher said that if a wife ‎truly wants her husband to study Torah—he will. So how come Daddy doesn’t study ‎Torah?” I kissed her and said, “You know that I truly want Daddy to study Torah, don’t ‎you? And there were many years when he did. But sometimes even if a mother really wants it, a father can choose not to study.”‎

My husband’s radical change propelled me through a long, painful, and ‎torturous process, replete with uncertainty and rife with a sense of personal failure. It was a ‎true mourning process, carried out in terrible loneliness and under a veil of silence

Several years ago my husband decided to drastically change his spiritual direction. After ‎consulting with rabbis and professionals, I reached the conclusion that we should stay ‎together. However, my husband’s radical change propelled me through a long, painful, and ‎torturous process, replete with uncertainty and rife with a sense of personal failure. It was a ‎true mourning process, carried out in terrible loneliness and under a veil of silence. ‎Baruch Hashem, we are still happily married, but my daughter’s question flooded me ‎again with the confusion and guilt that had accompanied me for a long time.‎

In the article below I would like to set down some of my thoughts, forged over long years and with no little agony, about the nature of mutual responsibility in a marital relationship: To ‎what extent are we responsible for the choices of our spouses? And at what point ‎does this responsibility end and become an unwarranted burden of guilt?‎

 

Excessive Guilt

In the beginning, I would blame myself for my husband’s choices. My mindset ‎was molded by the kind of educational messages my daughter was internalizing in ‎elementary school. Every Charedi high-school graduate can quote the sources off the top of her head, such as “The wise woman builds her house, yet with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down” (Mishlei 14:1). Rabbi Akiva’s statement ‎about his Torah achievements is especially popular: “Mine and yours are hers” (Nedarim 50a). The Gemara also stresses that women gain their merits by their sacrifice for the Torah study of their husbands and children (Berachos 17a). The self-worth of women, I had internalized, is contingent on their husband’s spirituality. A ‎corollary of this is their implied responsibility and mission to ensure their husbands ‎attain the highest spiritual level he is capable of.‎

I had always assumed this attitude was limited, more or less, to the Charedi orbit. But when I met secular women whose husbands had made the reverse religious journey, become observant while their wives remained distant from religion, I heard, much to my ‎surprise, the very same self-flagellation. I began to realize that the feeling of personal failure when ‎family members make the wrong choice is more universal than I thought. Our need to feel we have an ‎impact on those around us is a mental attitude rather than a product of religious ‎education. It seems this is especially true for women. They tend to take substantial ‎responsibility for the choices of their husbands and children, both spiritually and ‎materially. In case of failure, they blame themselves.‎

Rabbi Dessler writes that “worry is an illusion of control over reality.” ‎No one likes to feel helpless about the unknown future. Taking extra responsibility ‎gives us a sense of control and provides us with an anchor amid the chaos

Rabbi Dessler writes that “worry is an illusion of control over reality.” ‎No one likes to feel helpless about the unknown future. Taking extra responsibility ‎gives us a sense of control and provides us with an anchor amid the chaos: if you only try a little ‎harder, you can still fix things up, right the wrong, mend the broken. But this anchor comes with a heavy price tag. When a woman faces a scenario that throws her off kilt, she ends up causing even more ‎pain to herself by judgmentalism and self-flagellation.‎ She tells herself, “This didn’t happen to any of my friends; what ‎did I do wrong?” ‎

I have heard women berating themselves with comments like “Instead of praying ‎for a husband with a good character, I should have prayed for one with yiras shamayim,” or “Maybe it happened ‎because I complained about the putting the children to sleep by myself ‎when he went to daven maariv.” What these and similar statements have in common is that the wife assumes her ‎husband’s choices are somehow related to her. Whatever he did, she must surely be to ‎blame.‎

 

Woman-Blaming

The kind of thinking noted above is further encouraged by the way our society relates to women. Who is ‎not familiar with the accusing look at a mother whose son snatches a toy from another ‎child or otherwise behaves in an unacceptable manner? Our society links the actions of ‎children, and even those of husbands, to their mother and wife, as if they are proof of her success or failure. I ‎remember myself as a child sitting at a table during the wedding of a couple who had ‎recently become religious and overhearing some non-religious women chatting to each other: “If she’s smart, she’ll keep her eye on him!”‎

I was confronted with the same insinuation more than a few times when discussing ‎my husband’s spiritual situation: “Did you make sure to regularly wash and iron his ‎white shirts?” (Yes!) “Maybe he saw that you’re the type that keeps things inside and ‎is unassertive, so he let himself do what he wanted?” (Is there such a thing as a woman ‎who is “too good”?!) “Did you really have a good time together? So why wasn’t he afraid ‎to lose you?” One pointed the blame directly at my high tolerance levels: “Too bad you didn’t establish a red line from the ‎beginning. He would have given in.” ‎

These questions and statements expressed sympathy more than blame; many were said with some innocence and naivete, and they certainly did not intend to inflict pain. The respective women did not even realize that they were placing the responsibility at my own feet, trying to figure out where ‎I went wrong and how I caused him to make such painful choices.‎ Rather, in a certain sense they

When a person hears about a threatening event that happened to somebody else, he ‎subconsciously tries to convince himself that the same somebody brought it upon himself, and ‎therefore, “it won’t happen to me.” He wants to feel that he can protect himself from a ‎similar disaster. It comes from the same need to be in control of a situation, like an automatic control mechanism of the brain. It happens to all of us. When we hear of a ‎disaster, illness, or accident, we feel an immediate urge to clarify everything that ‎happened: Where did it occur? In which direction did he go? What did he feel? Why ‎didn’t he see a doctor? And when we get clear ostensibly clear answers, we feel a sense of relief. We have found ‎the culprit! If it happens to us, God forbid, we will know how to protect ourselves—though ‎we’re pretty certain it won’t happen to us.

But this control mechanism is nothing but ‎an illusion.‎

 

Personal Responsibility

The core principle of free will teaches us that every sentient person, man or woman, is fully ‎and exclusively responsible for his actions. “Fathers shall not die for sons,” says the ‎Torah, “each person shall die for his own sin.” The Torah commands every Jew to “choose life.” It expects each of us to make upright, intelligent choices—our own ‎choices. If a woman attributes the successes or failures of the people around her to ‎herself, she is unwittingly implying that they lack, on some level, independent free will.‎

“Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for fear of Heaven,” our Sages say. If even ‎Hashem is not responsible for a person’s choices, how could the wife be responsible ‎for her husband’s? The idea that a wife is responsible for her husband’s ‎spiritual condition, as though he lacks his own volition, deprives him of the privilege and the goodness of choosing right from wrong. It doesn’t make sense.

The tendency to blame ‎ourselves for another’s choices is nothing but an evil character quality, seeking control at the expense of depriving another of what makes him truly human: free will.‎ Of course, this doesn’t mean that we must respect every free-will decision. A person ‎can choose life or, God forbid, choose the opposite. But his choice exercises his personal ‎free will before Hashem, and the full responsibility for his actions lies solely ‎with him. He will have to give his own reckoning before God; not us.‎

A good illustration of female responsibility and its boundaries is the Rabbnic tale of On ben Peles. At first glance, the story seems ‎to back the “female responsibility” mindset, but a deeper look reveals that this is far from the truth:‎

On ben Peles’s wife saved him. She told him, “What difference is it to you? If ‎Moshe is the teacher, you will be his disciple; and if Korach is the teacher you ‎will be his disciple. He replied, ”So what shall I do? I joined Korach and swore ‎allegiance to him.” She said to him, “You know that the whole community is ‎holy and humble. So remain here and I will save you.” She poured him wine ‎and he became drunk, and she helped him to lay down inside the house. She ‎sat by the door and uncovered her hair, and everyone who came to call him and ‎saw her, turned around. In the interim, Korach’s group was swallowed up in ‎the earth. (Sanhedrin 109a)‎

On’s wife did not supplant his personal responsibility with her’s. She didn’t get her husband to go to sleep by manipulating him and by relieving him of his free will, but rather by ‎convincing him with rational arguments that he shouldn’t join the controversy. ‎‎(Imagine! A woman who does not think like her husband?!) After thinking it through On ‎agreed with her and accepted her opinion. He asked for her help, and she acted wisely ‎and deftly and extracted him from his precarious position. At no point did she act behind his back, ‎against his will, or in a way that relieved him of personal responsibility.‎

Now suppose On would not have agreed and wouldn’t have asked for her help—what then? Should she be blamed for her husband’s choices? There are many “wives ‎of On” in terms of their wisdom and intelligence, who offer their husbands an idea and ‎explain convincingly why it is right, yet he decides to not ‎accept their counsel. Does that say anything negative about them? Why would we think ‎that? Why should we deprive men of their ability to choose and place the responsibility ‎for their choices squarely on their wives?‎

I used to feel guilty every time I did something that created a situation leading to ‎my husband transgressing a halachic detail. If I baked a dairy cake before ‎six hours had passed from his meaty meal, I felt that I had placed a stumbling block before him.‎ When I commented that I felt hot on Shabbos, I was concerned lest I might prompt him to turn on ‎the air conditioner. But when I consulted a halachic authority—I did this several times, with different rabbis—I was told that my responsibility extends only as far as my ‎own actions. If a person chooses of his own accord to sin, that has nothing to do ‎with me. The prinicple whereby “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind” applies only ‎in cases where one actively assists the other’s sin; if I just go about my ordinary business, and somebody utilizes it for something sinful, am I to be held culpable?

 

Between Care and Responsibility

Can we conclude from this that we should be indifferent to the actions of people ‎around us? Should we adopt a “live and let live” approach, and “let each one do as he pleases”? That would be a misguided takeaway. I don’t think a person should be blamed ‎for another’s choices, including those closest to him. At the same ‎time, when someone is important to us and we care about his wellbeing, we should ‎make every effort to help him choose good and stay away from the converse.‎

When a mother reminds her adolescent to do homework, get up on time, make his bed, ‎behave nicely to those around him, brush his teeth in the evening, and so on, she is ‎simply guiding him to what she believes will make him a better and more content person. ‎She wants the best for him. There is nothing wrong with that, and it in no way contravenes ‎her awareness that he is a person with an independent and free will. His choices remain his alone. ‎

We should try to show them what we are convinced is the right path. Refraining to do this would demonstrate a lack of care for them and their wellbeing. But we must also ‎know where to stop

We should tell our friends to stop if we think they are going down a path that will harm ‎them. We should try to show them what we are convinced is the right path. Refraining to do this would demonstrate a lack of care for them and their wellbeing. But we must also ‎know where to stop. We must respect the principle that every person is autonomous and responsible for ‎his actions. We must know when we are crossing the line between good intentions ‎and bullying, between genuine concern and manipulation that usurps the other’s free ‎will.‎

From the Torah’s point of view, a person is required to do what he can to help those ‎around him walk the Torah path. But what happens if ‎the wife did her part, stated her opinion, and the husband ignored it? That’s where it ‎ends. If you tried to convince your husband as persuasively as you can that smoking is ‎harmful to him, then you have done your part. He is aware of your opinion and is free to adopt it—but also to reject it. Attempts at further ‎manipulation are not only potentially harmful, but are also morally wrong. It is not up to a wife to ‎choose for her husband. If he chooses to harm himself, that is his choice alone.‎

 

Differentiation in Couplehood

The concept of “differentiation in couplehoo” suggests, among other things, that in a good relationship each ‎spouse should maintain a distinct role. A healthy relationship requires a separate definition for each partner’s role, and a commitment by each to focus on his or her role and not on the other’s. One can certainly bring one’s wants and needs to a spouse’s attention, but one cannot control what the other person will decide to do with this ‎information. Even within the closeness and intimacy of a marital relationship, each spouse ‎stands alone in terms of free will. An attempt to obscure this reality will not improve ‎the marital relationship but rather damage it.‎

A sense of responsibility for a spouse’s life can actually eliminate the spouse’s own sense of responsibility. We are all familiar with the woman who chases after her husband at some event, reminding him of his cholesterol issues and instructing him on what to eat and what not to. Aside from the humiliation inherent in this ‎behavior for both parties, it also encourages a childish response from ‎the spouse. When his wife isn’t looking, the husband is likely to sneak some of the ”forbidden ‎food” into his mouth, while gesturing to the little children around him not to tell his ‎wife.‎

This demeaning and disrespectful approach appoints a woman to be her “husband’s ‎boss”, with full authority to lead him in any direction she pleases

This demeaning and disrespectful approach appoints a woman to be her “husband’s ‎boss”, with full authority to lead him in any direction she pleases. Even if she fails in getting him to do something, she takes away his ability to choose, in the ‎process humiliating him and turning him into a child who lacks responsibility for his ‎actions. By contrast, when a woman views her husband as an adult who is responsible ‎for himself, she invites him to assume that role.‎

The temptation to be a controlling spouse is present everywhere, but, as noted at the outset, the Charedi education system reinforces it by the iron-cast framing of a woman’s responsibility for her husband’s Torah. After all, it was only because of Rachel, who “sent” her newlywed Akiva to study Torah, that he ultimately became Rabbi Akiva. Though it begins with responsibility for Torah study, the control can quickly extend to other areas of everyday life. A friend once told me, entirely naturally, that “the kids are sick, so today I’m leaving my husband home.” She usually “sends” her husband to Kollel, but sometimes she doesn’t.

It can take many years of marriage until the simple insight of differentiation sinks in: a woman can help and assist, she can support and be patient, but she is not responsible—not for her husband’s Torah, and not for her husband’s choices. She is not responsible, and neither can she be held accountable. Both are his. In the past, I would struggle with the question, “Why does your husband act the way he does?” Today, I find comfort in a simple answer: ”I don’t ‎know. Feel free to ask him.” I am not my husband’s spokesperson, and I’m not taking responsibility ‎for his choices.‎

Although the trigger for this change in me was my husband’s attitude towards religious issues, ‎over the years I’ve noticed how my general view of the nature of a couplehood has changed. Some time ago I met a friend whose husband had studied for years, but never received his graduation diploma because he failed to complete his English courses. With typical female curiosity, my friend asked me the innocent question: “How ‎did you manage to get your husband to finish all his courses?” Of course, my instant reply was that it had nothing to do with me; he is in charge of his own ‎studies. I remembered how at the beginning of my husband’s academic studies I offered unsolicited help, explaining how to study for tests, how to submit papers, and so on, and I was surprised to find that he resented it. Ultimately, I realized that I taking responsibility for him. I needed to step back and allow him to fend for himself.

Every woman has a responsibility for those roles that are hers—spiritual, ‎mental, and physical. It is her job to be attentive to her own feelings and desires and to ‎know that she has a choice in every situation. Let us go back to On’s wife for a ‎moment: her husband returns from a meeting of learned men who persuaded him with ‎scholarly arguments to join Korach and his congregation. When he shares his decision with his wife, she does not remain silent and quietly acquiesce as a “good wife” does, but only the contrary—she listens respectfully, considers, understands what he ‎is doing wrong, and makes a counter-argument. She did this not as an appropriate of her husband’s responsibility, but because it was part of her own role.

‎***‎

Following the personal crisis I experienced, and after having met women in ‎similar situations, I have set up a support group for women whose husbands have religiously ‎changed during their life together. If you are in the same situation, please contact us ‎at the following email address: [email protected]

2 thoughts on “A Wife’s Wisdom: Handling a Spouse’s Religious Crisis

  • It’s interesting that there seems to be a general human need to identify “A” reason for events (e.g. the stock market went down today because……), whereas in the real world events have an infinite number of factors that drove them. Kahnemann and Tversky were working on this as their last project (the undoing project) which dealt with the question of why people who have had a negative outcome pick one thing that they could’ve changed when considering the event (e.g. blaming the guy who missed the last shot in a basketball game that ended 103 to 102)

    I’d really be interested in a follow-on piece which discussed the decision-making process employed by both parties including the weights they gave to various priorities and who else they consulted and what weight they gave their consultants before deciding to stay together.

    Chag Kasher Vsameach

  • Thank you, Elisheva, for this important article. I wonder if there is more research concerning children of couples with significant religious discrepancies. Your assumption is that they’ll generally be better off, but it seems that this has not been the assumption of the frum establishment over the years.

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