Sample text for The Ten commandments of character : essential advice for living an honorable, ethical, honest life / Joseph Telushkin.
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My boyfriend is a Catholic, and I am a Buddhist. To me, this is absolutely no problem. Recently, however, he told me that we cannot get married unless I get baptized. I am more than willing to do so, but isn't that hypocritical? The more I think about this, the more I wonder: What sort of religion is it that decrees that two people who love each other so much should not be allowed to marry based on their feelings? I could really use some guidance.
There are many considerations that people make in deciding whether they want to marry someone. For example, a man might think that a woman is the best friend he's ever had, a wonderful person, and potentially a great mother, but conclude that he's not sufficiently attracted to her to marry her. Is such a decision immoral or hypocritical? I don't think so, even thought the woman might be a lovely person.
For your boyfriend, to share a religious faith with his wife seems to be as critical as being sexually attracted to her, and I therefore don't see his demand as necessarily hypocritical. But I find it disturbing that he focuses purely on the act of baptism, the implication being that you should go through a mechanical act in which you don't believe. It would make more sense if he asked you to study Catholicism, then decide whether or not you want to convert.
If you choose not to, then it's a good thing he made you aware now of how much this issue matters to him. And if you choose to end the relationship, it probably would be wise for your boyfriend to date only Catholic women in the future rather than to go out with women to whom he is attracted and then spring this demand on them. (To be fair to him, it is possible that he might not have realized, until your relationship had progressed this far, how important his Catholic faith was to him.)
I'm a Jewish woman married to a Christian man. When we met eight years ago, it became clear that I was not going to convert to Christianity, and he had no intention of becoming a Jew. His religion matters to him a great deal, as mine does to me. He did agree, however, that our children would be raised as Jews. With that understanding in mind, I happily agreed to marry him. Now, we have three children. The oldest, a girl, turned six, and I brought her to register at the Hebrew school of a local synagogue. My husband became very upset and told me that what I was doing was destroying him; he feels, he said, like an outsider in his own home. In other words, he wants to go back on our agreement and not have us favor either religion. "When they grow up, they'll choose" is his new attitude. Now I'm the one who's very upset. Shouldn't he be bound by what he told me before we married? I feel cheated and . . .
I suspect that intermarriages are most apt to succeed when a noncommitted Christian marries a noncommitted Jew. In such a case, because religion is not particularly important to either parent, it is unlikely to become a source of conflict and distress; whatever religion or nonreligion their children choose won't usually be emotionally disturbing to the couple.
A second type of intermarriage that has a better-than-average chance of succeeding is when one of the partners is committed to his/her religion, and the other is not religious. Thus, a noncommitted Jew or Christian might not be upset to see his or her child raised in another religion, since that person has little, if any, connection to the religion in which he or she was reared.
But your situation presents a built-in difficulty. Each of your religious commitments matter to you, and so you're going to care that your children share in a tradition that you find meaningful. That your husband agreed, prior to your marriage, to raise your children as Jews only suggests to me that he probably didn't think through how important having children would be to him, and how vital it would be for them to share holidays, faith, and church with him. When he made the agreement, he loved you and wanted to satisfy your need. Now, eight years later, he finds that the agreement is too painful, and that it runs the risk of making him feel alienated from his children.
Do you have the right to insist that he abide by what he said? I suppose so, but if you do, your marriage may be fraught with increasing tension. As I'm sure you are aware, your children are Jewish (according to Jewish law) since, in Judaism, the religious identity of the mother determines that of the children. But if having your children strongly identify as Jews is important to you, then following your husband's suggestion will be upsetting for you, since it is likely to lead to your children becoming Christian. It has been repeatedly noted that if there is no preference expressed in the household for one religion, when children mature, they tend to follow the religion more dominant in their society. If you and your children lived in Israel, your children would most probably opt to identify as Jews; in the United States, as Christians. Except, perhaps, if they have a stronger sense of identification with the parent who belongs to the minority religion. But do you really want to try and create a situation where your children love and identify with you more than with your husband, and therefore choose Judaism?
In short, I know of no good solution to your dilemma other than to note that when people with different and strongly held religious commitments marry and have a family, they often add an unresolvable tension to their marriage.
I'm a twenty-two-year-old woman dating a man who is five years older than me. He works in money management and is very successful. He's generous and showers me with gifts. He also listens carefully and seems to take me seriously. But he has one trait that annoys me: He's not nice to service people, such as waiters, taxi drivers, or doormen. For example, when he orders in a restaurant, his tone is very demanding, and he doesn't say "please" or "thank you." I challenged him on it once, and he said that you don't have to say "please" and "thank you" when a person's just doing his job. My mother and a few of my friends think I'm exaggerating the significance of this, but this behavior concerns me.
Worried in Brooklyn
Dear Worried in Brooklyn,
It should concern you. There's a good chance that if you marry this man--three years from now; five, if you're lucky--you'll find out that when you do what he expects his wife to do, like beautifully decorating your home or preparing an excellent dinner, you won't be entitled to a thank-you, either. Years ago, my friend Dennis Prager started advising listeners to his talk show thus: "When you go out on a date, it's more important to see how your date treats the waitress than how he [or she] treats you. Since it's important at a relationship's beginning for your date to make a good impression on you, he will treat you well. But how he treats the waitress will reflect how he's going to treat you once he can take your love for granted."
I believe that the best guideline on what character trait to look for first in a spouse was set down more than three thousand years ago in the Book of Genesis. In chapter 24, Eliezer, Abraham's trusted servant, is dispatched to the town of Nahor to find a wife for Abraham's son, Isaac. When Eliezer arrives, he stops at the town's well just as the local women are coming out to draw water. Eliezer prays for a divine sign by which he can choose the right bride for Isaac: "Let the maiden to whom I say, 'Please, lower your jar that I may drink,' and who replies, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac" (Genesis 24:14). Shortly thereafter, Rebecca arrives at the well, and not only offers Eliezer water, but also brings water for the thirsty camels (no small task, given that a camel can drink up to twenty gallons).
The trait that clearly distinguishes Rebecca is kindness. Seeing a thirsty man and thirsty animals, her immediate desire is to relieve their plight. And while our contemporary urban society hardly lends itself to precisely this sort of test, what remains relevant is Eliezer's awareness of kindness as the supreme virtue in a spouse.
If you truly believe that, except for this trait, this relationship has potential, then you must communicate to your boyfriend that kindness to others, including those he regards as his social inferiors, is very important to you; indeed, as far as you're concerned, lack of such kindness will be a deal breaker. Tell him that you don't want to raise children with a man who will teach them, both by word and example, that there are classes of people to whom one does not owe courteous behavior.
If this man's bad manners are deeply embedded in his personality and not susceptible to change, then you will be better off without him. I know you mention that he is very successful. In current American parlance, the word successful has but one meaning: "money." For example, if someone makes a lot of money—even if he or she has few friends and a dysfunctional family life—we call that person successful. Conversely, if someone makes little money, but has a beautiful family life, we call that person unsuccessful. What a narrow view of success. If you want to have a truly successful life, by which I mean a life imbued with goodness, love, and respect, marry a person who expresses those feelings toward all people.
Postscript: A reader wrote to tell me that the central point I was making to Worried in Brooklyn was set down in a song, "Rule Number One," by singer/songwriter David Wilcox. As Wilcox tells listeners at the song's beginning, "One day, you are the waiter."
I have a moral dilemma. I have been close friends for six years with a married man whose wife was diagnosed one year ago with terminal brain cancer. For the past year she has been aphasic, unable to communicate. She's now deteriorating and doesn't have much time left. In a sense, he lost her a year ago. The man and I have always had a strong mutual attraction as well as a deep, immediate friendship, but we never crossed the line into an affair. In the past few months he has told me he'd like to start a relationship with me, including being physical (I am single). He doesn't see any reason to wait--he is lonely, grieving, and has no close relationship now that his wife is no longer available to him. I have strong feelings for him, and even sense that we may be destined to be together. I am very torn about this because while I care for him deeply, another part of me feels that to act on these feelings now would be somehow morally obscene. I believe that we both genuinely care for one another, and he is in great emotional need while his life is falling apart. They have three fairly young children. I would be grateful for your comments.
In a Dilemma
Dear In a Dilemma,
As they say in Yiddish, "Oy vey." The situation you describe is so sad, and if you decide to allow your relationship with this man to turn at this time into an affair, I would not condemn you as acting in a "morally obscene" manner. But, having said that, I strongly feel that you should wait. You write that the sick woman "does not have much time left." Then why rush matters, and commit what is still an act of adultery? You also note that the couple has three young children. Since it seems distinctly possible that you and this man will eventually wed, I believe you will make possible a far better relationship with your future stepchildren if it's clear that you and their father did not carry on a romantic relationship while their mother was dying. If they come to know that the two of you had done so, I suspect that you will find your relationship with them will be damaged, perhaps permanently.
You write in your letter that "I have strong feelings for him, and even sense that we may be destined to be together." If this is true, then that's all the more reason not to rush matters, since the two of you will probably have many years together.
To start a physical relationship now is wrong for yet another reason. This man is still the one in charge of making medical decisions about his wife. There is something very unseemly, to say the least, about the one making such decisions already involved in an intimate relationship with another woman.
You write that you have been close friends with this man for six years, during five of which his wife was in good health. From the tone of your letter, it sounds like the strong mutual attraction existed even before the woman became ill. You exercised restraint then, and I believe you should exercise it now. Be there for your friend emotionally, but not physically.
Postscript: My answer to In a Dilemma prompted more responses than anything else I've written. With few exceptions, the many respondents opposed the writer's entering into a sexual relationship with her friend.
One writer's reasoning came in the form of a warning that was as pragmatic as it was ethical: "Ultimately, should you proceed with your intended affair, you may find yourself out in the cold. For you will certainly be a source of guilt for this man sooner or later."
Several writers focused more than I had on the potential hurt to the children: "Of course they will find out or figure it out. If they don't, someone else will, and will eventually tell them. Count on it. If she wants them to love and trust her, she'll hold on a little longer."
One reader shared a painful recollection "from the trenches": "My father cheated on my mother while she was dying of breast cancer. I was in my mid-thirties at the time. My father's relationship with my soon-to-be stepmother (whom he married within a year of my mother's death) completely eliminated his ability to be a comfort to my mother, as well as my sisters and me, not only up to the point where she died, but for a long while afterward. It also affected my mother's will to live. Our family's entire stability and harmony (including my father's) were sacrificed for many years because of this. This was one of the most painful things I have ever experienced, all at the hands of someone who professed to love me, my dad. It has taken me many years to rebuild a relationship with him. I hope this helps guide your decision."
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Ethics, Jewish, Conduct of life, Jewish way of life