WWYD – ex husband and religion

A reader – “Marsha” – asked me if I could post this so my readership could help her with some solutions. I know that if I were in the same shoes as this devoted Jewish mother, I would be so angry too. In fact I found myself livid after reading her letter.

So…I found out that my ex has been bringing our twelve year old son “Max” to CHURCH on the weekends that he has him.  Max has been afraid to say anything to him about not wanting to go because he was afraid his dad would get mad.  The ex let it slip last time he dropped Max off that he had gone to church that morning, with Max.  When I asked our son how many times he has gone to church he said, “A lot!”  He takes his Nintendo DS and plays games the whole time and doesn’t pay any attention to what is going on but it is still the principle of the whole thing.

Thing is, when I was married to him, he didn’t believe in G-d so religion didn’t matter to him but his new wife is religious and goes to church every Sunday – so understandably he wants to be with his new wife.  I just don’t agree that he needs to take Max along. This is a Jewish child, MY JEWISH CHILD!

I tried to talk to him about it, explaining that even though I feel it is important for Max to learn about other religions and to respect what others choose to believe, our beliefs prohibit us from going to church.  I asked that he respect my wishes as Max’s mom and his custodial parent.

I also acknowledged that he would like to be spending that time with his new wife which I totally understand but his response to this all was that if Max is with him he is going to church and that is that.

I AM FURIOUS!  I don’t have a clue what to do.  Our divorce decree is silent on religion since it wasn’t an issue for him since he didn’t believe in G-d back then. I let him have Max for an extra day on the weekends that he has him so he can spend more father-son bonding time – but I can cut that out and insist on picking up Max Saturday night. As per our original agreement.

I just don’t know what to do. I know Max needs to have time with his Dad, and I really don’t want to get in the way of that but there is no way I will stand idly by and allow him to be shlepped to church. Max doesn’t even want to go. He hates it there. But he’s a child who has been taught to respect his parents. This has been so confusing for him.

The above letter is from a Jewish mother, but it could easily be written by any parent of any religion whose ex spouse is deliberately acting against the express wishes of the custodial parent.

How do you suggest that Marsha handles this? What advice could you give her? How would you feel if you were in her shoes? How would you advise her to handle Max so that she doesn’t paint his father as a bad man for taking him to church, but in a way that Max understands that going to church is wrong for him as a Jewish boy?

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  1. R' Daniel says:

    This is a tough situation, and I can only imagine how you must feel being in a situation like this. However, legally, there is little you can do. America is a free country, and a judge cannot forbid a parent from taking their child to a house of wrship, whether or not the other parent likes it. Pretty persuasion would be your best recourse here, although how you look at it can either make you or break you. I don’t necessarily think that your kid has an interest, as it is made obvious in your query, so don’t worry. He is just sitting there and intermittently observing, and I see no harm in exposure to traditions other than one’s own. Our tradition does not forbid that- I am an Orthodox rabbi and I have attended services of all religious denominations and I see the beauty and truth in all religions. Refor, Conservative, and some Orthodox rabbis and communal leaders have attended high masses without compunction. If you are personally frum now, I can see how you would feel that attending a church is repugnant to you, but you make no mention of your son spending Shabbos with you. If you were Shomer Shabbos, I can see the church thing getting to you on a level of religious prohibition rather than emotional uneasiness. While I can see this offending you, I must ask- is your ex Jewish and then embraced another theology? Or is he non-Jewish? This is germane to the discussion, as it speaks to the fuller nature of the situation. Is this about your halakhic beliefs being violated or is this about power dynamics between you and your ex and repressed fears about your son’s religiosity, as it seems he isn’t getting much yiddishkeit at home from you? Ask yourself these questions.

    • Marsha says:

      There is no doubt in my mind that Max has zero interest in what is happening at church. He is a very Jewish child. My fear has been that I was always taught that we were not to go into churches based on the whole G-d is a trinity thing and not “one G-d”. I will have the opportunity to speak with our Rabbi tonight, so I will bring it up.

      To answer your question, my ex-husband is gentile. Until he met and married his wife, he didn’t believe in G-d so religion was never an issue. We’ve been divorced for almost 6 years and until now, there has been nothing but amicable exchanges, so this isn’t about power dynamics. I tried to explain to him that this isn’t about us, it’s about what is in the best interest of our child.

      We have a very Jewish home and we are in Shul several times a week including Shabbat. We have a very wonderful Jewish life and there is no doubt in my mind that Max has a very strong Jewish identity. I was more worried about the fact that Max expressed that he did not want to go to church but he was afraid to tell his father this for fear he would be angry. (Apparently he was right!)

  2. Mayim says:

    She lays out the solution in her own letter. She’s legally able to pick up her son Saturday night. She should simply do so. The extra time was meant to be for father son, not FATHER-SON, or even father new wife. If he’s not doing something with his kid on Sunday morning, then why subject your kid to something you and he don’t believe in and isn’t fun for your kid?

    • Marsha says:

      The biggest problem is that he lives over 100 miles away. If he lived in my area – this would certainly be the solution!

  3. Tom says:

    How old is the child in question? This is relevant as a younger child may be confused by going to church whilst an older one could benefit from being exposed to a different religious tradition. Kids who are raised in isolation from other faiths are often unprepared for the inevitable challenges to their own faith as they grow older.

    The ex husband in question apparently has the reasonable expectation to have his son participate in the daily life of his household…and going to church is apparently part of what happens in his household.

    This is an opportunity for the mom in question to not only explain the differences between her faith and Christianity but also reinforce the boy’s own faith and identity. I have tried to treat situations such as these as such in my own household. This is a teachable moment, not a threat.

    • Marsha says:

      Max is 5 months from being a Bar Mitzvah. I have never isolated him within our own faith – oddly enough, one of his closest friends is Muslim. Yesterday he said, he wasn’t sure how that happened but maybe it’s because G-d wants him to show that there can be peace between Jews and the Muslims.

  4. Chanief says:

    I have a few questions about the situation. A) Is the boy’s father Jewish? B) Were you, the mother, religiously observant in any way when you were married to him? C) Do you have any verbal agreement that your son is to be raised Jewish? D) Would your son rather be with you than get that extra day with his father?

    • Marsha says:

      My ex is gentile and was an athiest when we were married. The fact that I was Jewish was no issue to him back then. However, once we divorced it gave me a lot more freedom to become more observant and I am certainly way more observant now than I was when I was married to him. There was no agreement that Max be raised anything since it didn’t matter to my ex back when he still didn’t believe in G-d. And Max is wholeheartedly a Jewish child – everyone that meets him sees this. If he never had to go visit his Dad, he would be very happy. His father is focused on his new wife and her daughter now – not on Max. It’s sad really.

      • Chanief says:

        It sounds like you have given him a solid Jewish base to build on. He is also not a five year old who would be far more easily confused by the religious differences.

        The same way you are far more observant than you were when you were married, his father appears to be more observant now too (even if his primary reason is to please his new wife.) Whether he wanted Max or not, and whether other people see Max as a wholly Jewish child or not is irrelevant, as his your ex’s lack of belief when you were married to him. His father has just as much right to take him to church as you do to take him to a synagogue.

        If, however, Max is completely uncomfortable with going to church, that is something that should be addressed with a third party (therapist, counselor, mediator) because it is impossible for him not to want to please you when you talk to him about it.

        If it is worth the fight to you, perhaps you should consider trying to amend your custody agreement to reflect your wish that he be raised Jewish only, but honestly, if I were your ex, I would fight you tooth and nail on it since you are not his only parent.

  5. ui, ui says:

    In this situation, I would avoid to convey that “it is wrong for him to go to church as a jewish boy”…

    Why don’t you suggest to spend the morning together with max, rather than going to church. Along the lines of “Max is bored in church, this would be the perfect occasion to have some alone-time with him while your wife goes to church”…

  6. Blog Fan says:

    First of all, you can pick the child up on Saturday night – DO IT. Secondly, if you feel it is detrimental to the child, then you can always have the court appoint a psychologist to evaluate the effect of the father and step-mother has on the child.

  7. R' Daniel says:

    I agree with Tom and Chani.

    I do not think you can even remotely prove in a court of law or other forensic setting that going to church is psychologically detrimental.

    You are skating on thin ice here.

  8. I am with Mayim. If you can pick him up on Saturday then do so. If his father asks why, tell him the truth. My MIL insists that Evan attends church when he’s with her. Well, guess what? He is never with her anymore. I’d stay home before I allowed him to have to go through that. It was distressing to him plus I didn’t like the “my way or the highway” attitude she threw on me. In my view, it makes kids confused or downright angry. Plus they may see what they conceive to be “perks” and don’t understand enough NOT to choose them. I am so totally against this.

  9. Ruth says:

    This is the hard thing about interfaith divorce. You have to keep negotiating about religious issues, even though you aren’t married anymore. I’ve had to think about this one a lot, because even though I’m married to a Jewish man, I work for a website that provides Jewish resources to interfaith couples. We know that people change after divorce, sometimes a lot.

    It’s important for the mom to say what you implied, Hadassah, which was that going to church is fine for Daddy and doesn’t make him a bad person, but that mom thinks it’s too confusing for a Jewish boy to go to church. (At least, not as a regular thing–he may need to be there to celebrate simchas with the other side of the family, and I think it’s fine to be there as a guest, as long as that is clear.) It seems to me important not to make the little boy feel bad for trying to please his father, and to be clear with everyone what the issues are.

    There is a case in the civil courts in Chicago at this very moment in which parents in a contentious divorce are fighting over the father’s right to bring the daughter to church. The mother did get a restraining order against the father. It’s a very ugly situation. When you have a baby together, you have to keep being able to talk and communicate, even when you’re no longer married. You don’t want your child to feel divided loyalties to his parents, or like he has to dilute being Jewish to love his dad. My heart goes out to people in this situation and I hope you can find a lot of emotional support as you work this out.

  10. shorty says:

    i think if you have legal recourse to pick him on saturday, i think its time to deal with the lawyers.

    there is a book “if i’m jewish and you’re christian, what are the kids”. the authors explain quite a bit that a “mixed” religious setting can be very confusing for the children.

    can your child talk to a therapist – maybe see how he feels about the whole thing – right now he might not see it as a big deal – especially if there are presents involved (e.g. Xmas, Easter). where the damage lies which may worsen over time is his trying to please both parents. he may grow resentful and not bother with any religion. I don’t mean to alarm you, just presenting some ideas.

    and when someone talks about letting a child pick their religion when they are older…my Rbtzn said we always guide our children. it isn’t like we tell them, “you know i know you dont like taking a bath, well, you do what you want, you only bathe if you really want to”. Religion in some respect (if not all) is meant to instill values in our children. So it isn’t a “minor” issue that should be ignored.

    finally, there is such a thing as “spiritual custody” that is starting to surface since there are so many mixed marriages where parents must abide by agreed religion.

    a bit random, just more food for thought…

    • I personally would not trust any “facts” in a book called ““if i’m jewish and you’re christian, what are the kids” just because when I was getting married to my non-jewish husband my dad sent me a ton of books like that. Also in my other real life I’m a family sociologist. The books my dad sent me quotes a whole bunch of family sociology- and almost every single thing they quoted was taken out of context or twisted in some way (which I knew because I had read the original articles since they were talking about divorce and that’s one of the things I specialize in).

      Or they were flat out wrong, like one book that was like “interfaith marriage is the leading cause of divorce.” O rly? of the 50% of marriages that end in divorce, the #1 reason for divorce is having an interfaith marriage?

      One thing you suggest that I think is a GREAT idea is having a third neutral party like a therapist or mediator for the kid to talk to (so there is no pressure to please one parent over the other like there is when talking to those parents) and for the parents to take the advice of that therapist.

      • yeah looked up that book on amazon and here is the first review , so I’m not the only one who thinks it’s biased:

        “My husband (Jewish) and I (Christian) were given this book as a gift. We both read it indiviually and both had the same reaction: It is written in a very biased way. The authors portray the Christian religion as superficial. Case studies are used throughout to make their point- you must choose Judaism if your children are to grow up with a firm sense of self and belonging. (Christianity as the chosen religion does not seem to be an option with the authors). I do not recommend this book and neither would my husband. We threw it out.”

    • Marsha says:

      I think having him talk to a therapist is a great idea. I was thinking about that this morning.

  11. I have no idea what I would do, but some initial thoughts:

    1) If the boy lied to his mom about going to church in the first place, I would not at all trust him saying that “he hates it there” cause that sounds like the exact kind of lie that people tell their parents to make them happy in situations like this

    2) How old is the boy? Old enough to be left at home to himself while his dad/step mom go to church? Or too young to be left at home by himself? Are they close enough that the mom could take him out for brunch on sunday while his dad goes to church and then drop him off with the dad after church?

    3) If he is already spending saturday with his father who goes to church, then it’s very unlikely he’s keeping shabbas. So why put your foot down when it comes to stuff about entering a church and not about being shomer shabbas? Being shomer shabbas (or not) would probably have a much larger impact on the kid’s religious upbringing then sitting through a bunch of boring church services (and they are pretty boring)

    4) while it’s YOUR (the author, not hadassa’s) jewish child it’s also HIS child too

    5) If he only gets 2 days a week with his dad, how upset would he be if that gets cut down to one day a week? I don’t think it’s as easy as just enforcing the legal agreement, cause if you take away 50% of the time he spends with his dad that could breed large resentments down the line

    • Marsha says:

      Max is a very honest child – he never lies – not even little white lies. He never said anything to me because he was ashamed that this made him a bad Jew. He’s old enough to be left at home – his father lives over 100 miles away so it would be hard to run up and take him out for brunch. We do keep Shabbos and when he is at his Dad’s, Max is close enough to the Chabad to keep Shabbos. You’re completely correct – this is his child too. But it’s complicated – he never wanted this child. When we were married he had nothing to do with him. When we divorced and Max had to go with him – he would cry the entire time. It was so heartwrenching while I watched him suffer but I kept making him go because despite my divorce and my feelings for my ex, I still felt it important that they have a realtionship (still do too!) And even now, Max would prefer to stay at home so spending less time with him wouldn’t bother Max.

  12. shorty says:

    Eden-
    perhaps you thought it was biased. i personally thought it was a good book. you haven’t actually read the book, so don’t be judging it by its title. the book is easy to read, and very straightforward. People might think its biased, maybe, because they don’t want to believe that it is impossible or so difficult to raise a child in a mixed setting. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible. but it takes work and compromise – and that is if the couple is MARRIED. Once the parents are separated it is even harder.

    A good point made in the book is this – it is very confusing to raise a child to be Jewish and be work in Jesus. The book doesn’t refer to stats, in fact it does say that every situation is different and only presents two cases. Granted it takes the “jewish side” but does basically say to pick a side whether Jewish or christian to avoid confusing the children.

    as an aside ppl are talking about Shomer Shabbos – there is more to judaism than Shabbat. The big thing as mentioned above – the whole Jesus thing. How healthy is it to tell a child a few days a week about One G-d and we’re waiting for Mashiach and the one day to show him this guy on the cross? Wouldn’t that be confusing?

  13. R' Daniel says:

    When the child becomes of age, he should be able to choose which religion he wants to follow, Christianity, Judaism, or otherwise.

    Outcomes in situations like this usually end up no good, resulting in one form of trauma or hurt feelings, whether on the part of the child or his parents.

    What a situation to be in.

  14. RubyV says:

    Honestly, reading through Marsha’s replies starts to make me wonder if going to church is the real problem, or if it’s just leftover anger from the divorce.

    I’m not trying to be harsh, but when I read statements on how his father didn’t want him, her son never lies (all children lie, sorry), etc, it makes me wonder.

    To shorty:

    I am a convert, so most of my family is Christian. We explain to our daughter that they have a different view of G-d than we do, and what the differences are. She is six and not at all confused by the issue. I used to get those books as a gift from hubby’s step mom before I converted – they are horribly insulting at best, and had zero bearing on my decision to convert.

    • Marsha says:

      Do my comments really sound like I have leftover anger? That’s a interesting statement because there really hasn’t been any anger since the divorce. We have actually been friends – and everyone who knows me (even my current husband) has always been surprised at how amicable our relationship has been post divorce. We’ve even had him and his new wife over at extended family dinners. I was just trying to give the facts – it’s complicated at the very least.

      At the heart of the matter is Max – what is in his best interest is most important to me.

  15. shorty says:

    Ruby – does your daughter go to church?

    I am not going to turn this into an argument about whether the book I LIKE is good/bad or suitable. I liked it. End of story.

    • RubyV says:

      She goes for simchas on my side of the family, so maybe 3x a year or so. We have also visited them during Christmas, etc.

      Santa is also a non issue in our world – he only visits christian children.

      I’m a religion major, so I’m comfortable explaining religion without baggage or value judgements.

  16. IMA2FOUR7 says:

    Back to Marsha.
    1) Give your son the power. I know you are are uncomfortable with what takes place when your son is with his dad (what divorced mom isn’t at one time or another), but like you said he is his son, too (irrespective of his desire).
    It is your desire that they have a relationship so enable it to be better.
    Empower you almost Bar Mitzvah aged son in anyway you can. Have him talk to that neutral party and figure out how he can be with and get what he needs from his dad.
    Sadly, (I speak for myself as a divorced mom of 4 children) I can want a lot of things to happen but they are out of my control. Since these things effect my children I have to give my children the words to control their lives –even if it is earlier than any of wants.
    I am right in your corner with you. Just let’s make sure we put on the right boxing gloves!!

  17. shorty says:

    Ruby, is it safe to say then, your daughter is being raised Jewish only?

    There isn’t any problem with a child going to a church as long as the child knows/understand who they are. (except in that technically from what i have read, a Jew isn’t supposed to be going to church, but that is a discussion/debate for another time)

    There is a potential for confusion for a child when they are being raised in a blended religious way – Santa and the Easter bunny is but a small piece of the non-Jewish pie. The child would need to understand – do they believe Jesus died for their sins or not. (assuming Jew-non-Jew combination here). then what is best for the child? Is it best to let them decide? They will decide anyway…over time, will they be resentful or frustrated because they don’t want anger parents or grandparents. Maybe they want to have a bar/bat mitzvah or communion but don’t want to upset the other parent? Will they just give up on G-d because of parents not giving their children clear direction?

    The right answer to these questions is whatever makes a happy peaceful home for the child. If parents aren’t in constant conflict – child will be happy. If parents are battling church vs shul every weekend – the child will be unappy.

    What boils down is the values you want the child to have – it is possible to create a happy blended version of Jew-non-Jew – but will both parents be satisfied with that? If the parents feel squashed themselves (religiously), that will also come out in marital and child relationships, no?

    Lots of questions, lots of possible answers. The right one as I said is the one that creates peace in the home for everyone.

  18. Don’t know if someone else has commented this already but it sounds like this mother has a lot in common with Rebecca Reyes, Jewish mom, who got a court order to keep her future ex-husband (converted to Judaism) from taking their daughter to church.

  19. Keith Brooks says:

    If Max is near bar mitzva he is old enough to decide what he wants to do, where he wants go.
    If he doesn’t want to go see his father, no court will force him to do so.
    Don’t make him see his father because you think that is what he needs. The reality is he may not care right now, though that may change in time as well.
    There is no truth to the idea that children NEED either parent to survive in life. Yes the child may have various social/personality issues along the way but most times will be perfectly fine…if someone would listen to them and what they want instead of what parents think is the right thing to do.

  20. ariela says:

    Since you have done such a wonderful job in giving him a Jewish Identity – you don’t have to worry. This is an opportunity to teach him to respect his father. Kivud horim (respecting parents) is an integral part of Judaism. You can explain to him that he might not like church, but it is important to his dad and he should respect that. Good luck Marsha – Ireally admire you!

  21. tikunolam says:

    The kid has two parents. I don’t see the the problem here. Kids handle lots of information everyday, lots of differing opinions. They can be exposed to many cultures and religions and benefit actually when developing a sense of self. A child shouldn’t be kept from his father’s world. Unless he himself has a problem w/ church, its a no brainer to me.

    It would never occur to me that celebrating chanukah w/ my Christian foster children, or take them to shul, would harm them. And my kids do fine spending holidays w/ OJ Jews while also having an atheist mom.

    Kids benefit from having multicultural experiences. And he is his own person. He should be allowed to take in all sorts of experiences and decide who he wants to be. Children are not extensions of ourselves.

    • Chanief says:

      I agree with you as well.

    • Mark says:

      Unless he himself has a problem w/ church, its a no brainer to me.

      I think it also depends on which church. Some churches are very aggressive with regards to “saving” people, and it isn’t fair to subject a kid to that kind of strong interference. Mature adults who can make their own decisions are a different case, but kids need to be treated differently.

      • tikunolam says:

        As @recoveryrabbi said on twitter, she had a child with a nonJew. Now he is acting like a nonJew. Ummm. . .

        • Marsha says:

          You’re right – I had a child with a non-Jew – he was an atheist who agreed that we would raise our child Jewish. That was my mistake and I have paid plenty for that mistake. But now he has decided he is a Christian — should Max convert to Christianity now?

      • Marsha says:

        Exactly – how frightening is it for a child to be told they are going to rot in hell unless they accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior?

  22. Offthederech says:

    How about this? Lots of Jewish kids are forced to go to synagogue against their will. Should their parents be charged with child abuse?

  23. R' Daniel says:

    If the kid decides he wants to be a Christian, than his mother should accept his decision if he so chooses and ove him as her son. And even though he may not believe in Judaism, he is still a child of Abraham and a Jew and should be encouraged to embrace Jewish cultural practices.

  24. stephanie says:

    whats the big deal? is it going to hurt him…i am jewish but a church is the house of god..leave it alone and don’t make an issue. The boy is jewish afterall…thats my opinion.

  25. brenderan says:

    Just found this update in the “mainstream” new: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2010/03/25/judge-rules-illinois-father-daughter-easter-mass/?test=latestnews
    Didn’t realize that this was such a hot topic.
    I hope for the sake of the small child and all involved that they can come to some sort of resolution that doesn’t pit everyone against each other so negatively.

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