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Religiously Stuck Husband

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

This originally appeared as a column in the Five Towns Jewish Times.

Dear Elisheva,

I can’t decide whether my problem is marital or personal- probably both, but here it is. My wife and I both grew up religious. We were on pretty much the same page when we got married. But over the years, my feelings and opinions have slowly been changing. I’m looking at our community, our lifestyles, and the kids’ schools from different angles, more critically. I’m watching the trajectory of my life and my kids and questioning a lot. I’m doubting a lot of what I used to believe to be true.

It’s not like some sudden, dramatic midlife crisis; I always had some questions, but I think most people do. It’s just that over time, I find myself feeling less and less connected- religiously, spiritually, and practically. At first, I thought I was just faltering in my Emunah (faith), so I tried to learn more, and daven (pray) better, volunteer some, but I think it’s beyond that. The concepts and answers that used to satisfy me don’t seem to anymore, and what used to inspire me falls flat now.

This is not the main reason for my disillusionment, but one of the Rabbis we used to speak with a lot has fallen from grace, and he’s the person I would have turned to for help with something like this.

To make things more complicated, my wife seems to be on an opposite journey. She enjoys learning new religious ideas and customs and then sharing and implementing them in our home. Nothing extreme, but I wasn’t looking for more rules and restrictions; I’ve already been struggling with the ones we had.

It’s not that I’m definitely an atheist now, but I’m just not sure what I believe. And I feel stuck. I haven’t shared any of this with anyone aloud yet. But when I go to shul or perform our Shabbos rituals, I’m just not feeling like I believe in it anymore. I feel like I’m living a lie, but the truth would make a big mess and hurt people I love. It scares me, because I don’t know where to go from here. I don’t want to create drama or confuse my kids. But how do I figure out where I belong? What is going on with me? Do I discuss it with my wife? Is it fair to her? Is it hypocritical to keep raising my kids in a way that doesn’t resonate as authentic to me? Do I even want to? Is it healthy for me to stay locked in this system that just doesn’t fit me anymore? I don’t know what to do with all these questions.

-Religiously Stuck

Dear Stuck,

My heart genuinely goes out to you. In our communities, religious beliefs, practice, and affiliation are not just incidental to who are; they impact and determine so much of our core identity, lifestyle, and relationships. Depending on where and how you were raised and landed, encountering a personal crisis of faith can shake your whole foundation. Facing it completely on your own can feel very lonely and even destabilizing. Especially as it sounds like you’ve built a family life that, to some degree, hinges on these values and practices. I wish I had a simple solution for you. I can tell you that your story is less unique than you might think. You probably know individuals who started out religiously observant and then moved away from it, but you also probably don’t know how many others find themselves in a similar predicament to yours: “I’m not sure I really buy into this anymore, but not enough to upend my family, social circle, and stability.”

A client who struggled similarly once taught me a word that has been adapted to describe that position: Orthopraxy. If Orthodoxy is a religious worldview whose observance is predicated on beliefs and values, Orthopraxy is an orientation that focuses on the practice, or behaviors, associated with a moral social system, rather than the theoretical doctrine. Apparently, there are many ostensibly Orthodox Jews who don’t necessarily subscribe to all the tenets and precepts taught in Yeshivas and Shuls, but practice a cultural version of the observant lifestyle, out of respect and commitment to people they love, and/ or the familiarity of it. For some it may feel like a split identity, while others live in a culturally conforming but internally agnostic state.

Another concept you might find relevant to research in analyzing your current state of ambivalence is called Pascal’s Wager. Oversimplified, his is the logic subscribed to by some agnostics who practice religion: “If G-d exists and gave us a moral code, and I follow it, then I lead a purpose-driven life, and invest in a happy afterlife. If G-d doesn’t exist and I followed this code, I still led a purpose-driven life, and then it’s over. If I reject religion and it turns out there is a G-d and an afterlife, then I missed out.” Meaning, they may not believe completely in G-d, a moral code, or an afterlife, but it’s the safer bet. This is all from a theological/ philosophical perspective.

Another idea to consider is that while many treat Halacha as a monolith, the empirical reality is that Orthodoxy is not all or nothing, black and white. There is a spectrum of belief and observance which often vacillates, waxes, and/ or wanes over the lifecycle, so it doesn’t necessarily need to be binary or fixed.

From a pragmatic standpoint, I think we can divide your concerns into three categories:

Processing and clarifying your religious questions, beliefs, and values.

Figuring out what you’d like to do about them personally.

How that will play into your marriage and family relationships.

Let’s go through your options, practically speaking:

1. You could continue as you are, secretly struggling with and doubting what you do, but playing the part outwardly because you don’t want to rock the boat. This may work ok for the short term, or keep your family comfortable, but it sounds like it’s taking a toll on you. It’s painful to feel fragmented and inauthentic.

2. You could make a public announcement that you’re done with this lifestyle and you’re leaving it all. Not the recommended immediate move either, but an option nonetheless.

3. You could reach out for religious support, and see if you can find a compatible, compassionate Rabbi or religious mentor who might be able to address some of your questions and frustrations with a level of sophistication and empathy that’s more advanced than you’ve had before. This would be appropriate if you were still open to and interested in trying to reconnect and being reinspired. I recognize this might be more difficult given what happened with your former Rabbinic guide (which shouldn’t be underestimated as a factor in your story). It can be really hard to trust after betrayal. That’s a matter of personal choice.

4. You could open up to your wife and/ or a close friend or relative, sensitively and gently, and see whether they have ideas for how to integrate this development within the parameters of those closest to you. You probably wouldn’t find immediate solutions but getting love and support from your nearest and dearest might make the load feel less heavy on you, and open up possibilities you hadn’t considered.

5. You could find an appropriate therapist to help you on your journey. Specifically, one who can understand where you’re coming from, has no agenda to either do religious outreach on you or to secularize you, but who is willing to respectfully and empathetically meet you where you are, help you analyze and process how you feel, what your own experience is, and what you believe. Then you can go on to strategize, in a customized way, what you’d like to do next. You could do this individually and/ or with your wife.

6. You could pursue a combination of some of the above choices. (Again- 1 and 2 are not recommended, but just included for the sake of going through all options.)

I would be remiss not to ask you to look at your mental health too. While I strongly disagree with those who automatically conflate religious disillusionment with mental illness, the tone of detachment and level of isolation you describe sound concerning. Are there any areas of your life where you do find inspiration, pleasure, or purpose? What are your close relationships like besides for the issue of religion? Do you have good friends? Recreational or creative outlets? Do you have professional fulfillment or at least some work satisfaction? How is your physical health? Do you have any respite from ruminating on this subject?

Even if you were having a depressive or anxious episode, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate your religious disenchantment, nor do your religious doubts indicate depression per se. But one can certainly precipitate or affect the other, so it’s worth attending to your overall well being as part of your process.

With regard to your concerns about your marriage:

While I can’t guarantee a neat, smooth, easy, happy ending, I can try to offer some hope. You sound like a sincere, intelligent, and moral person. People naturally change over the course of a lifetime. It’s not unusual for religious beliefs and behaviors to change too. And when we’re dealing with kind, compassionate, intellectually honest people in healthy relationships, sometimes with astute guidance, it’s possible to collaborate for an arrangement where there’s room for multiple opinions, ideologies, and even practices. Sometimes it’s not. There are people in committed relationships where religious views have shifted, even dramatically, who are able to navigate this and maintain beautiful, happy unions and families despite their differences. There are other couples who ostensibly share very similar religious values and beliefs, but fight bitterly over other matters, or grow apart because of other incompatibilities or issues that arise.

People are complex. Relationships are complex. Spirituality is complex. The interpersonal, the intrapersonal, and the theological intersect. At the moment you’re stuck because you’re going it alone, probably worrying repeatedly in painful circles in your head. It sounds like you have people in your life who care about you. Confiding in them or in an outside professional about this may be incredibly difficult, but might also offer you the empathy and support you need to get unstuck, and figure out what to do next.

Wishing you clarity, inner peace, connection, and relational fulfillment as you take your next step.

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