We have different religious levels, is this a problem?

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Levels of religiosity play a major role in people’s lives and permeate many aspects of their practical reality. When two people in a marriage are living by significantly different codes of observance, this has the makings of frustration and conflict. It is therefore highly reasonable that religious compatibility be a major area of focus during dating. Regardless of how much you like the person you are dating, if you are both planning to maintain meaningfully different levels of frumkeit, you are setting yourselves up for serious issues down the line.

The notion that “love conquers all,” and that if you want to be with someone enough those differences will fade away, is sadly a myth. Constant friction will wear down the affection and replace it with discontent. Does this mean that the only person to consider as a marriage partner is someone who shares your identical set of religious values and practices? It turns out that this depends on what and who.

Considering the “What”

There is a huge difference between major religious differences and minor ones. While major and minor are relative terms, it is still possible for someone to thoughtfully consider whether the specific issue of difference is something that should rightfully be considered “major.” Of course, there are gray areas that are neither major nor minor, and this is where things get more complicated, but most issues can be put into one category or the other.

Major issues are ones that rarely make sense to paper over. Unless one or more party is willing to genuinely change their position to bring it closer to the other’s (to the point where the issue becomes “minor”), it is best not to overlook the difference. If she uses the eruv on Shabbos while he does not accept it, he may be ready to accept that she uses it and he does not. If so, the matter is “minor” and it is just one of the many compromises and adjustments that are inevitable in a marriage. If he views using the eruv as public chillul Shabbos, he is likely going to have a difficult time swallowing his wife engaging in such a practice. This now becomes “major” and should not be overlooked.

Sometimes the religious difference only affects the personal life of the individual, in which case both parties may be content to ignore the matter. For example, he eats certain food products on Pesach that she does not. He may be reluctant to forswear those foods, while in her mind they are not kosher for Pesach. If he is happy to consume his favorite Pesach fare on his own and this does not impinge on her, she may be happy to let the matter go.

Or, as another example, if she reads certain literature that he considers questionable, he may be satisfied that the books will not be around the house and will not interfere in the home environment he hopes to experience. The issue we are addressing here is where it has become a point of contention, either because it is not limited to the strictly personal domain or because one party does not accept the difference between what is personal and what is communal to the marriage.

You are not compromising if you compromise

It is important to remember that any normal marriage will involve compromise. No matter how many topics you cover during dating, real-life will present numerous situations that you have not foreseen and where differences in approach will become apparent. A key aim of dating is to experiment with this kind of “negotiation,” to test how well you are able to work through things and eventually work things out.

The idea that the smallest area of contention should raise questions about compatibility is a fundamental misconception. A degree of give-and-take in a marriage is completely normal and necessary; its absence suggests the relationship is dysfunctional. Minor areas of religious difference are no reason to lessen enthusiasm for the relationship, nor does it reduce the prospect of a happy and successful marriage.

By contrast, not being able to show moderate flexibility will reduce the prospect of a happy and successful marriage. That is the real threat. If, however, the matter is of a significant nature, this should not be glossed over. For example, if you intend to send your children to public school and he insists they would have to go to a religious school, this is a big deal. Unless you can work out some agreement, marriage under these circumstances looks like a disaster waiting to happen.

Considering the “Who”

This brings us to our second point, the “who.” People vary in how flexible they are. Some people are ready and willing to adjust their ideas and behavior, while others find that prospect mildly traumatic. While some people are highly adaptable, others are fixed in their ways. This is not a matter of right or wrong; it is just how it is. Many times, people say they will not compromise because they are taking a moral stand when in reality it is just their personality doing its thing.

For those who find it easy to do, they do not see the big deal in compromise. But many people are not built that way; it is a huge struggle for them. So, know yourself. If you are the kind of person who is comfortable accepting change, we are discussing minor issues that you should be able to agree upon. If you are someone who values consistency above all else, establishing broad common ground with your date should be a priority.

It is vitally important to understand that the way you feel about the other person is not the main factor. If you are able to find sensible compromises that you feel comfortable with, there is no reason for you not to do so even if you are not “crazy” about your date. On the other hand, if you struggle to compromise and cannot find a way to bridge the gap you need to think very carefully whether this is going to work, even if you feel very warmly towards your date.

Again, do not make your decision whether or not to compromise dependent on how you feel about the person you are dating; that is not the main issue. If you cannot agree on major issues, there are serious risks in you marrying each other. On the other hand, even if you are not helplessly in love but have a sensible approach towards resolving differences, you can get married with confidence.

Are you up for a deal?

I know someone who was dating a young woman who was more traditional than himself. There were a bunch of small issues that could get in the way. Understanding this, he decided to lay it out on the table. This is broadly what he said: “Look, I realize that I am a little more radical than you are, and there is a range of things that I do but which you would not do. I can understand that even if you accept me as I am that you may be concerned that we will disagree on how to run the home or raise children. So here is an offer: if you don’t try to change me, I am happy for everything else to be your final decision. I will call it ‘Devorah is always right!’”

They are married for many years. The agreement was never needed, as they learned to figure things out together. If you have the kind of mindset and personality, you can come to an agreement that works for both parties. If you are able to push yourself somewhat towards that direction, that is an eminently good thing, as marriage will ultimately compel you to compromise to some degree at least. Developing a tolerance for differences will serve you well in marriage. With whoever it may be.

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